Professional athletes train hard; this is no secret of course. But what happens when this stops? What are the implications for an athlete when they not only stop competing, but also stop training and they no longer have the support they once had? What considerations need to be made?
It is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain the same habits of a professional athlete in retirement, from training loads to the level of medical and specialist support.
This is the first in a series of articles, which will explore the physiological aspects of athlete transition, each looking at a different aspect which can impact an athlete in retirement. Athlete Physical Transition can, in simple terms, be broken down into 4 separate components: Strength and conditioning, medical support, nutrition, and hormonal considerations.
1. Strength and Conditioning
During the modern athletic career, the S&C coach is now ever-present and is not far behind in significance to the head and assistant coaches. They are charged with the responsibility of ensuring athletes are physically ready for the demands of training and competition, as well as planning training schedules and loads to maximise performance and minimise injury risk.
They are also hugely important in injury rehabilitation, particularly when an athlete is nearing a return to competition, in ensuring that the athlete is not just physically ready to return, but has mitigated the risk, as much as possible, for re-injury. For an athlete, when they retire, they no longer have this guidance. There will no doubt be lingering injuries and niggles in retirement, but an athlete must now fend for themselves, or at least fund their own support.
As muscle strength decreases, with joints no longer supported as effectively, as well as a decrease in mobility, an athlete must now consider how to best manage their own body.
Every athlete is different too. Some will still want to show a high level of commitment to training, whilst others may not ever want to see the inside of a gym again. Even those that do aim to maintain a certain level of fitness, whilst they do not need to be in the same physical shape, their bodies have been so highly tuned and adapted, that there will inevitably be a period of re-adaption, as the body’s metabolic rate slows down.
Loss in exercise performance can start as soon as 2-4 weeks post-stopping training. The idea of detraining is an important one, as it can help the body adapt more effectively, to the less-intense lifestyle and help to avoid potential health issues down the track. It is a similar principle to people who want to lose weight. There is no quick fix. Long-lasting, metabolic changes are required.
2. Medical support
Medical support is another huge area where there will be adjustments. Physios, sports doctors, surgeons, psychologists, and any other medical professionals who are ever-present during an athlete’s career will unlikely not be on-call and may now only be accessed infrequently, often at great cost to the retired athlete.
As alluded to above, many athletes will carry injuries into retirement, with help in managing those a now more difficult task. Whilst some clubs and sporting organisations may still provide support to athletes previously under their care, it will not be anywhere near to the same level; being first in line to get scans and operations is simply no longer the case.
And last but not least, an athlete’s medical and injury history is incredibly well-known by the medical specialists that they dealt with on a daily basis. Indeed, they probably know more about the athlete’s body than the athlete does! The likelihood is that upon retiring, they would have to find a new practitioner if those people that they had access to at their sporting organisation aren’t able to consult privately.
It can be a difficult time for an athlete to manage these issues, let alone having to worry about the additional financial burden. But with a little initiative, there are of course steps that athletes can take to ensure that their bodies are continued to be looked after and they receive the treatment they require.
Nutrition is an extremely important area that will need to be given extra special attention in athletic retirement. Many athletes, particularly those in high-intensity or endurance sports, are burning more than 5,000 calories a day. That is a lot of energy being fuelled by food. When an athlete retires, their calorie output may drop to 3,000 calories and below. That is a significant drop in food consumption required.
Of course, as mentioned, every athlete is different and will maintain differing levels of activity and training; understanding the effect of what food they eat, and how much, in relation to their long-term health, is going to be of vital importance. There should at least be a base understanding in non-athletic energy requirements and perhaps more importantly, how to avoid lifestyle illnesses – such as weight gain, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes – that arise from overeating.
Additionally, food can play a major role in helping athletes manage their bodies into retirement. Coming back to injuries, especially chronic ones, long-term and chronic pain can eventuate, which can be increasingly uncomfortable and debilitating. Athletes could be educated to understand those foods that have anti-inflammatory effects, foods that can promote joint health, muscular health or help alleviate hormonal imbalances, as well as the many other positive long-term health effects certain foods can have.
How often do we hear of an athlete saying they are in constant pain when they retire? Understanding ways to help manage this, particularly with food, will only help to improve outcomes in retirement. This, of course, has cross-over with the other three areas mentioned here.
Hormonal impact on retirement is an often neglected area, but of no less importance.
During an elite athletic career, hormonal responses are constantly being pushed to their limits to help the body both manage and react to all the stimuli around them. Testosterone, estrogen, dopamine, cortisol, adrenaline, insulin and human growth hormone, to name a few, are all hormones associated with high levels of activity, all with very different, but no less important, impacts on the human body.
There are physical and neurological implications, which again, are going to be different for each athlete. Athletes heading into retirement, who have a greater understanding of the hormonal impacts that their body may experience, are only going to be better equipped to deal with changes.
Consider female athletes who are now looking to have children after retirement – they might need a greater understanding of how their fertility may have been impacted during their preceding athletic years. Athletes also should have an appreciation of the addictive effects of dopamine and adrenaline or the effects of cortisol and stress management and how that may affect them in retirement.