perspectives - AUGUST 2018
overcoming obstacles as a masters' athlete
CONTRIBUTOR: STEPHEN GOULD - CEO, ADVERSITY MANAGEMENT LLC
Stephen Gould is a 61-year-old masters’ sprinter, who is has been set back by numerous injuries in his athletic career but has come back each and every time. He is currently the CEO of Adversity Management LLC, and was formerly Specialist Master at Deloitte and a Vice President at Morgan Stanley. Check out his article below as he shares his experiences and advice for making a comeback.
I took up masters athletics in 2008, having been a very fast, but not very good, soccer left-winger in my youth. I run the 100 metres and 200 metres*, as well as the 60 metres during the indoor season, and the 400 metres when I can’t avoid it. As time passed, I competed at a higher and higher level, from local meets to, now, world championships (where I will narrowly miss out on making the finals). I’m not one of the top sprinters in my age group in the world – but I’ll beat almost anyone else who isn’t.
If you’re a sprinter, you will get injured. That is part of the game. The analogy I use is motor racing– if a driver never crashes, he’s not pushing hard enough. But if he crashes all the time, there’s something wrong.
In the ten years since I’ve been competing, I’ve pulled hamstrings four times, and torn calves once. At an international meet in Toronto last year, I pulled a quad with four separate and distinct muscle tears. I’ve had patellar tendinitis and Achilles tendinosis. And I have barely slowed down in 10 years of competing.
That last sentence is a puzzle. With all those injuries, and with 10 years’ worth of aging from 51 to 61, shouldn’t I be getting significantly slower?
The answer to the puzzle is really the point of this article.
First, why am I getting injured at all? Some injuries are just “it happens”. Perhaps there was an undetected minor strain from a prior training session that blew under racing conditions. You may not be able to do much about that, because anyone in training alwayshas minor niggles and twinges, most of which mean little. (And there is what I’ve called “sprinter’s hypochondria” - just before a race you get incredibly sensitive to the slightest, and possibly non-existent, twinge anywhere.) Perhaps in training you’ve created a muscular imbalance, so one of a pair of muscles is much stronger than the other, and the weaker one – which may by itself be strong – may give way. Notoriously this happens with hamstrings, because, in the gym, it’s easier to strengthen quads than hamstrings. And most people really don’t like hamstring exercises. I have generally had the discipline to work on my muscle pairs, tedious though this has been. (It’s not just muscle pairs – an upper body that’s weak compared to the lower body can lead to back and other injuries, for example.)
Other injuries are due to technical weaknesses, where your actual technique renders you more prone to injury. In principle, this is easily addressed. Identify the technical weakness, and train to avoid it. In practice it is not quite so straightforward. Can you find a coach who will point out the issue and help you remedy this? You may have to do research yourself. Then, you may be unwilling to accept that this is the problem. After all, if you’ve been successful up until now using what is apparently deficient technique, how deficient was it? I had the advantage of not having any great success when I was younger because I didn’t compete when I was younger. It was easy for me to admit to poor technique and get a coach or experienced track buddies to help me correct it.
Second, once I am injured, what do I do during recovery? It’s better to come back a week late than a day early, by which I mean, I err on the side of caution. Even though modern modalities for injury recovery suggest that you get back to very light training much sooner than traditional thinking, that does not mean that you can go back to where you were the moment you kinda/sorta feel okay. I accept that it takes time. If I have to miss all of a track season to recover, that’s better than missing competition forever because I came back too soon.
I don’t take painkillers except for the first couple of days after an injury. The pain from injury is one of the prices one pays. There is modern research suggesting that painkillers interfere with recovery – either slowing it, or resulting in worse outcomes even after healing. (There are exceptions – for tendonitis, the anti-inflammatory effect of strong pain killers may be a necessary part of the treatment.)
Third, and this is the greatest issue, how did I get over the psychological barrier? Part of my brain is telling me, “The last time you did this, you got badly injured”. I know that in each race there is the possibility of serious injury – which is something distance runners never have to think about. How do you overcome this? Some athletes never do. There are sprinters and soccer players who are never the same after their first major injury, because always in the back of their minds is the fear of re-injury, so they hold back their effort just that vital percent that makes the difference. I had the advantage (with hindsight) of being accident- prone as a child, when I learned the valuable lesson that you heal. It’s possible that some adults, never having been badly injured – or indeed, never having been injured at all – as children are incapable of handling injury as adults.
This is where our normally untrustworthy powers of rationalization come in handy. I deny to myself that everything I’m doing now is the same as what I was doing when I got injured: “I was trying too hard to accelerate at the 40m point” or “I was running too fast on too hard a surface” or “I didn’t warm up properly that time” – so this time will be different.
Getting annoyed at my own performance first time back was key as well. I didn’t accept internal excuses like, “well, I’ve not been training as hard” or “I was just seeing how it felt”. When I ran a competitive 60 metres for the first time after I’d pulled the quad and then a hamstring (in training), my time was terrible – slower than I’d run in practice the previous year. And I had sympathetic murmurs from track buddies (who’d all had injuries at some point, inevitably).
No! These were all temptations to get me to accept my performance as legitimate. I sucked because I didn’t go out hard, and I don’t like sucking! Next race, pissed off and motivated, I ran much faster. The rest of the season, faster still, and my injuries were but a distant memory. And nothing gets you past the psychological barriers of post-injury performance than good performances!
We’re all different – what got me over the injury hump won’t necessarily work for everyone. But getting annoyed worked for me.
*Pretty much every sprinter, at some point, will have the following conversation:
Q: So you’re a runner?
Q: Do you run marathons?
This is commonly, though not invariably, followed up by:
Q: Why don’t you run marathons?
My standard response is, “I don’t run marathons for the same reason that you don’t take Ferarris off-roading”.