Monday, 23 January 2017 10:07

The Master Athlete

By Ross Hamilton (first published in the 2016 Finn Masters Magazine)

You are only as old as you feel; sometimes that’s the problem. The years take their toll on the body. As we age there is natural wear and tear on the muscles, ligaments and joints. Just like a car, a high mileage or accumulation of daily strain will come with consequences. The good thing is we can manage ourselves in order to continue to get the best out of our body. As we age we accumulate injuries and imbalances which give us the perception of losing athletic ability. While we do lose some plasticity in the muscle we can maintain a certain level of conditioning and strength. The phrase “use it or lose it” is quite relevant to aging.

The general perception is that the older you get the weaker you become. This is not the case. Studies looking at the response to training in an untrained elderly population vs. untrained young adults showed the elderly to have a greater positive response to training. The reason being that they are more sedentary than young adults. They have a greater response because they have more to gain. Generally younger people are more active and have better strength and cardiovascular conditioning as a result. Training has less of an effect as they maintain a higher level through lifestyle. What this tells us is that more sedentary lifestyles in older populations are the cause of losses in general fitness. It’s no mystery as to why we become more sedentary as we get older. People work longer hours and have family commitments which prevent them from getting exercise. What we learn here is that age is not as big a factor as lifestyle.

The beauty of Finn sailing comes with its variety. We can leave the dock for either a gentle cruise or a battle with the elements. We should be prepared for both. I have always believed that the more prepared you are the more enjoyment you can get. Hobbling around the boat after an hour, out of breath, is no fun for anyone. There are several things that should be considered as the sailing season draws close if you want to get the most enjoyment out of it.

1. Movement
Most of us spend the majority of our day sitting, whether it be at a desk or in the car. We spend large durations in various limited body positions. Over time our body adapts to these positions. We develop tightness and muscular imbalances which drastically impact our ability to move. Maintenance of mobility is essential to be able to move around the boat efficiently. Often good master sailors really suffer because they are slow around the boat. This slowness comes from diminished mobility rather than any loss in muscular function. In order to prevent losses in mobility we must move regularly. Yoga and stretching are fantastic ways to maintain mobility. Playing any sort of sport or even staying active also have great benefits. If you find that you suffer from tightness or reduced mobility then spend time restoring it and maintaining it. Performing daily exercises can go a long way in maintaining and improving performance in the boat.

2. Fitness
I often hear the complaint “I’m not as fit as I used to be”. The truth is neither is anyone else you sail against. It is not an excuse to give up on your fitness. Sailing is a sport and in a class like the Finn, fitness is essential. As we age we do lose cardiovascular fitness, but again most of the reduction is due to a sedentary lifestyle. Regular exercise is the only way to maintain fitness. While there are health implications that come with age we still need to promote our ability to work at higher intensities; this maintains function of the cardiovascular system. If you are concerned about conditioning speak to your doctor about what is safe for you. Then get out and exercise as regularly as possible following his or her advice. Cardiovascular fitness can be maintained relatively well and improved if there is adequate and consistent exercise.

3. Strength
As we age, general wear and tear on the body, as well as past injuries, can make us reluctant to undertake strength training. It is essential for us to maintain our strength. When we refer to strength we are not talking about lifting heavy weights like a powerlifter. We are referring to the strength that allows us to maintain balance walking down a stairs or carrying a shopping bag. Strength ties in with movement. In order to maintain strength we must move our bodies on a regular basis. We must maintain a level of functional strength that allows us to maintain a straight back when pulling our boat up a slipway or when hiking out. In order to do this we should regularly undertake some form of resistance training. The trick is to focus on movement and range of motion. While resistance machines may seem less daunting and safer, they will kill our range of motion and eliminate the stabilizing muscles that are essential to functional movement. Speak to trainers at your local gym and learn proper technique with free weights. You don’t need to become a gym junkie throwing around lumps of iron. You simply need to reinforce your movement patterns such as walking, squatting, pulling and pushing so that you can move well and in control. This is perhaps your biggest weapon for preventing injury.

Some of you may have been looking for the magical fountain of youth while reading this. The honest answer is exercising regularly in any shape, way or form is your biggest asset to keeping fit and healthy. It is too easy to use age as an excuse. We must make a big effort to stay active and use our bodies. If you do not use it you lose it. If you want to enjoy sailing and continue to sail to your potential then you must make exercise a regular thing. You must address your weaknesses and maintain your strengths. Staying active will keep you healthy but also prevent you from losing your ability in the boat, come the sailing season.

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