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By Susan J. White
It’s fall, it’s marathon season and it’s prime time for “weekend warrior” syndrome — athletes not as young as they once were hitting it hard on the weekends and ending up injured.
Whether it’s trying a new sport you’ve never done before — hello pickleball — or running twice as far as you have in recent months, these behaviors can land athletes, particularly those over 35 in a doctor’s office.
“As we age, we’re more likely to face tendon issues. The small blood vessels, or micro-capillaries, that nourish our tendons and help them repair themselves aren’t as efficient as we age, making recovery from exercise a bit tougher,” said Shaheen Jadidi, DO, sports medicine specialist at Edward Elmhurst Health.
“It’s important for aging weekend warriors to be aware of these changes and know that your body won’t bounce back as easily as it used to.”
A majority of the new patients Dr. Jadidi sees are older athletes who tried a new sport or activity for the first time and went all out immediately. Similarly, runners or cyclists who dramatically up their mileage or pace often end up with overuse injuries, explained Dr. Jadidi.
The treatment for overuse injuries is often rest, but it’s important to see an orthopaedic or sports medicine specialist to understand the nature of the injury and the best path forward. Shin splints are a prime example, and a common injury as runners ramp up mileage while training for fall races, said Dr. Jadidi.
In high-impact exercises like running, you put stress on your bones, muscles and joints and micro fractures can occur. The body needs time to rest and repair or bigger breakdowns and more serious injuries happen.
“Runners often think they can run through the pain or don’t really need to rest, but sometimes you have to dial it back or the breakdown will outweigh any buildup of fitness,” said Dr. Jadidi. “If you let it smolder too long it can become a bigger issue.”
For the middle-aged athlete who has played sports or exercised regularly, they may not think twice about trying a new activity as they believe their fitness level will keep them safe, but new activities may recruit completely new muscles or actions.
“They might not realize it in the moment, but the next day can be a different story,” explained Dr. Jadidi.
“There’s a bit of a false narrative around how easy pickleball is for older people. I see a lot of injuries, especially things like ankle sprains and strains.” He cautions those new to the sport to make sure they have proper footwear — like court shoes rather than running shoes — and to, of course, start slowly and take it easy.
“Exercise should be a way to feel good and stay healthy, it doesn’t have to be about setting PRs [personal records] in perpetuity,” said Dr. Jadidi, who has seen athletes like power lifters become obsessed with hitting higher weights for one-rep max exercises.
Going for a one-rep max in high-intensity exercises doesn’t offer any notable advantages in terms of strength, health or longevity compared to lower-weight, high-repetition exercises that still tire out your muscles, explained Dr. Jadidi. Additionally, these all-out efforts come with a higher risk of injury.
Striking a balance between cardio, strength and flexibility training is important, with weight-bearing exercise especially important for post-menopausal women. While patients may ask what the “best” activity is, Dr. Jadidi stresses that everyone is different and it is impossible to suggest one specific exercise that works for all.
“I encourage people looking for new ways to stay active to try a class at a local fitness center. I think people are often surprised about how supportive the environment can be.”
And when injury happens, he encourages people to seek help. “We have a lot of tools in our toolbox to keep athletes moving, to keep people of all ages in the game,” he said.
Need help for an orthopedic or spine issue? The team of experts at NorthShore Orthopaedic & Spine Institute offers world-class options close by to help you feel like yourself again. We use innovative, minimally invasive techniques for joint replacement, complex spine surgeries, sports medicine and more, so you can get back to the activities you enjoy sooner. Learn more.