HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?
By Jessica Seaton, D. C.
While talking with one of my older friends at Long Course Regionals last year, the topic of how much training is too much came up. We both agreed that as we age things change. As our bodies change, so must our expectations of what we can and should do. Changing one’s expectations is a lot easier for some than for others. I decided I’d express some of my thoughts on this topic; I would appreciate any feedback.
· Athletes show certain patterns as they age. I’ve observed that athletes in their early twenties can get away with a lot: they can train irregularly, train hard, injure themselves and bounce back pretty quickly. By the late twenties or early thirties a swimmer may experience a more or less serious injury which serves as the first “wake-up”call. If he or she gets good treatment, including rehabilitation exercises, future injuries to that area may be avoided. By the time athletes are in their late thirties they are beginning to understand that they are mortal. Irregular training, training too hard, training too little, all start making a bigger difference than they did ten years before. Poor training habits will lead to poor performance or to injuries (or both). By the time athletes are over forty they know they’re not spring chickens anymore. Irregular training has more dire consequences, often leading more quickly to injury, and often of a more serious nature. This in turn leads to poor performance. It takes noticeably longer to heal and to get back up to one’s former training level. As the years go on, all of this gets more pronounced.
· With all those nice generalizations mentioned above, there is one caveat: we are all on our own physiological schedule. We have only to look at Karlin Pipes-Nielson, who in her thirties is swimming faster than in her twenties. As most of us have noticed we’re not Karlin! We all age on slightly different schedules. Some of the factors that affect how quickly one ages are: genetics, quantity and quality of exercise, nutrition, illness, habits such as drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes, outlook and attitude, and stress. Although “stress” is a kind of catch-word now, it is very significant. Most of us have seen friends practically age right before our eyes when they are under a lot of stress, either from work, family, friends, or relationships.
· By far the most studies on swimmers have been done on college swimmers in their late teens and early twenties. While they each have their own genetic make-up with their own biochemical and physiological individuality, they are still a rather homogenous group. Their lives are all rather similar with similar stress levels. Also, they are also all within a five year age group (18 to 23). A good training program for a twenty year- old college student might only lead to fatigue and poor performance in a forty-five year-old swimmer. A good program when life is easy and stress is minimal might cause one to fall apart when life is filled with stress. So each person may have different optimal workouts for different times of their life.
· Metabolism is the sum of catabolism (the process by which living tissue is changed into energy and waste products of a simpler chemical composition) and anabolism (the process by which food or any simple substance is changed into more complex compounds living tissue). Metabolism is a process that is constantly going on, whether we’re active or inactive. The rate at which substances are being broken down and rebuilt is known as metabolic rate. Basal metabolic rate is the rate of metabolism when the body is at rest. We know that as we age this rate slows down. Something that I’ve noticed is that there appears to be a drop when one reaches the early forties. It seems that at that point, in order to maintain one’s weight, one needs to eat less and/or exercise more. People in their sixties generally eat a lot less than people in their thirties. Often by then they’ve adapted to a slower metabolism.
· This same slowing of the basal metabolic rate affects tissue healing. Training is a process of overusing a tissue (muscle), causing it to break down, and then a rebuilding of the muscle as a reaction. As we get older, this process is slower. If you’re training hard every day of the week, or several days in a row, you’re really not giving your body time to rebuild. The result is that you simply end up being broken down. This may show up as being constantly tired, easily injured, or just plain crabby. Some people do well swimming four consecutive days before they rest. Others can only swim two days in a row. Some can swim five days in a row if they alternate easy and hard workouts.
· A well-meaning, but uninformed coach may be encouraging you to do more than your body is able to do well. As masters swimmers, we really need to listen to our own bodies. If you are feeling worn out or tired, that is your body telling you to take it easy. If you are under a lot of stress, your body’s ability to repair itself may be impaired. Training hard during such times does not make sense and may very well lead to injury. If you know that five years ago you were able to train a certain way, it doesn’t mean that you can train that way now. If you are constantly fatigued, your form will suffer and you’ll be practicing sloppy and not perfect strokes.
· If you need to be in the water five or six days per week for your mental health, then focus on kicking for a couple of those workouts. Most of us could use more kicking, and our shoulders could probably use the rest.
Dr. Seaton is a chiropractic orthopedist in private practice in West Los Angeles. She swims with West Hollywood Aquatics and is a member of the USMS Sports Medicine Committee. She can be reached at (310) 470-0282 or JSeaton@aol.com.