Masters athletes: How to take up a new sport as an adult without injuring yourself
The morning after her first footy training session, Catherine Haslock knew she was in strife.
"I pulled up lame, basically," she said.
"My quads couldn't handle running and kicking at the same time."
The Melburnian had just joined the Darebin Falcons AFLW over-35s team. And because she'd cycled every day for years and was no stranger to kicking a football around, she assumed she'd be fine.
"I thought of myself as a reasonably fit person, but I then realised as soon as I started playing football that my body just wasn't up to it," Catherine says.
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Her quads were so tight and sore, she couldn't finish a full training session for weeks.
"I got really frustrated those first few sessions because I really wanted to participate.
"It made me feel really old and unfit, and that's not how I perceived myself before I started."
It was slow going, but Catherine's legs eventually got used to kicking, sprinting and quickly stopping.
Now that lockdowns appear to be behind us, various leagues and tournaments are back up and running, and Masters competitions — usually involving people 35 years and older — are no exception.
These days, there seems to be more demand for Masters sports, says Mandy Hagstrom, an exercise scientist at UNSW.
"People will often want to return for the social connection, maybe they've got to the point where their kids are self-sufficient enough that they can re-engage in sport, or perhaps they don't want to just go to the gym.
"We also now have increased knowledge of what happens with our body [as we age], but maybe our approach to that hasn't quite caught up yet."
Australia doesn't collect data on injuries sustained in community sport, but ask around any Masters team and you'll find plenty who suffered sprains, strains and niggles at the start of their playing career.
So if you're interested in starting a new sport as an over-35er, how can you play without getting sidelined early?
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There's not much you can do about injuries from, say, getting knocked to the ground or enthusiastically tackled. But you can lower your risk of non-contact soft tissue injuries such as pulled muscles.
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This preparation is less about general fitness and more about getting your body used to doing the movements your new sport requires, according to Alan Hayes, a muscle and exercise physiologist at Victoria University.
"If you take an elite AFL footballer and have them play a professional tennis match, there's a good chance that they will injure themselves," he says.
"They might be fit enough, but they're not used to using their arms in that same way, or the sideways movements that tennis players do all the time."
Ultimately, it boils down to conditioning your body in the pre-season, so your muscles are used to the activities they'll actually do once you start training and playing properly.
It's helpful to speak to trainers, coaches and players at the club to find out what targets you should hit before the season begins, then work backwards from there to sketch out a training plan.
So if you're thinking of picking up a new sport early next year, now is the time to start planning your pre-season, Professor Hayes says.
"The later you leave it, the more difficult it becomes."
It might be tempting to hit the gym with a high-weight, low-repetition regime, but that doesn't mirror the reality of playing sport, where you're likely to do a kicking or throwing or leaping action over and over — not just once or twice.
"So rather than lifting really big, heavy weights, which is more for building size, you can lift lower weights at 15 to 20 repetitions," Professor Hayes says.
"If using free weights, you can adjust your grip and lift in different orientations, because with a lot of sports, you don't know exactly what your body's angle and position will be when you apply forces.
"You're not always running in a completely straight line, for instance."
Of course, there's no machine at the gym that can fully recreate the experience of kicking a football or thwacking a tennis ball.
It's a cliche, but practice can make perfect.
The more comfortable you are in performing an action and the more naturally it comes to you, the less likely you'll injure yourself, Professor Hayes says.
"Lots of people can run, but if you then put a football in front of them and they have to suddenly kick while running, then they become less coordinated and this increases the risk of injury."
It's normal to feel a bit of pain when you start moving your body in new ways.
When you exercise, the muscles doing the work and the connective tissue around them get damaged, hence post-workout soreness.
As your muscles repair that damage, they grow back stronger.
The trick is to know when that pain tips over into a warning that you're pushing it too far.
It's normal to feel a bit sore after starting exercise from scratch. Here are a few signs that you might be doing lasting harm.
On a pain scale of one to 10, a two or three — more a feeling of discomfort — is usually fine, and a sign that the muscle is adapting to training, Professor Hayes says.
"But as soon as you start to hit fives and sixes, you might be taxing the muscle beyond what might necessarily be safe.
"If you're getting eight to nine, obviously you stop."
Don't forget you need time to recover, and give your muscles a chance to rebuild too.
Overtraining is as bad as undertraining, and, Professor Hayes says, two to three sessions a week is enough for novices.
And if your team goes to the pub after training, resist rewarding yourself with a couple of pints. Alcohol can stimulate inflammation, increase swelling and slow your healing time.
Importantly, if you aren't ready for the first game of the tournament or league, don't play.
"The temptation is always that people want to be able to play in round one, and as soon as you're playing at sub-100 per cent, that's when things can go wrong."
Even professional athletes fall into the trap of playing before their body is ready.
"Often AFL players who have an interrupted preseason continually have little soft tissue injuries throughout the season, even when they've got professionals looking after them, because they tried to push to play in round one," Professor Hayes says.
Even before you stride out onto the pitch, court or field, it's worth getting checked out by your GP, says Dr Hagstrom, particularly if you're a bit older or taking up a high-impact, high-intensity sport.
"I'd go to my GP and say, 'I haven't been doing an exercise program but I want to do a sport which involves high-intensity running. Am I safe to exercise?'" she says.
A 2018 Canadian study screened about 800 Masters athletes and found almost 8 per cent had underlying coronary heart disease.
And while sudden cardiac death is rare, a handful of studies have shown coronary artery disease is the major cause of sudden cardiac death in people aged 35 and over participating in recreational sport, especially novices.
As well as higher cardiovascular disease risk, the reality is older athletes' muscles just aren't what they used to be.
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When we reach our 30s and 40s, muscle mass, strength and power begin to decline. The muscle fibres that let us do sudden, powerful movements, such as sprinting and jumping, start shrinking.
Menopause exacerbates this, Dr Hagstrom says. As oestrogen levels drop, so does muscle mass.
So if you don't find yourself improving as quickly as you might've done when you were younger, don't beat yourself up about it.
With the benefit of hindsight, Catherine already has plans to prepare her body for the 2023 season.
"I plan on meeting up with teammates and kicking the footy and having a bit of a run-around, and keeping that going until training starts properly."
Joining the Falcons, she says, is "the best thing I've done for a very long time".
"So despite having all the frustrations of my body not being quite up to it to start with, I've absolutely loved it all."
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