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How elite athleticism impacts the body

How elite athleticism impacts the body
Photo: How elite athleticism impacts the body
Like many physiotherapists, Andrew Wynd played a lot of sport as a youngster, frequently ending up on the physio table himself.

He found the process intriguing, viewing the role as a sort of ‘doctor for sports injuries’, making an early decision to pursue a career in the field.

“I love all sports and have participated in everything from tennis, to hockey, running, surf life-saving, cycling and even had a go at Karate,” says Mr Wynd, managing director of Balwyn Sports and Physiotherapy Centre.

“Cross Country skiing however was where I ended up directing all my focus for a 10-year period and spent most of this time as a member of the Australian Ski Team,” he says.

“I spent every summer overseas racing in Europe and North America and represented Australia at the 2007 and 2009 World Championships with my best finish being 72nd.
“Oh yeah, I also won the Rialto Stair Climb, back in the early 2000s.”

Unfortunately though, elite athleticism has its downsides, with excessive sports and exercise often taking a toll on the body.

“I have had injuries in most parts of my body and plenty of wear and tear on the joints and ligaments,” Mr Wynd says.

“Somewhat interestingly, the traditional endurance athlete diet has also had an impact on my metabolic health, negatively impacting things like blood sugars regulation.”

While Mr Wynd now understands the importance of preventative treatment, while he was at the height of his athletic career, he found there was little time and few resources available.

“Winter sports in Australia are typically under-resourced and funded, so the expectation is to seek treatment on your own, which was not always possible.

“I wish has regular massage and other resources like sports psychology for example. I feel strongly these would have had a positive impact on both injuries and longevity in the sport.”

He’s not alone. Mr Wynd says things like aches and pains, muscle strains and overuse injuries, such as stress fractures of the bones are commonly seen in athletes pushing the limits.

There can be long term complications too.

“Degenerative changes to both joints and tendons can be long term consequences of excessive sport.

“Other than overuse issues, there are also things like cognitive changes with repeated concussions from impact sport, and even cardiac changes from excessive training, such as arrythmias.”

Mr Wynd says education is key, particularly those supporting young athletes, such as coaches and parents.

“Early education of the athlete, the parents and coaches/sporting teams is the crucial first step in preventing long term issues.

“That way we can empower the team to understand fundamental concepts, such as load management (how much you are training and when), recovery (nutrition, cold immersion etc), psychology of performance and other things like burnout and resilience with injuries and lastly – movement patterns.

“Regular session with health professional who understand sport is crucial. A Sports Physio, Sports Doctor and good massage therapists go a long way in maintain optimal health and preventing injury, both short term and long term.

Adam Monteith is the founder of Evoker Premium Physiotherapy Services, and has been working with elite athletes since finishing university.

“I wrote to the head physio (old school pen and paper) of the Bronocs, and asked to come and spend some time.

“They agreed, and I realised that I was on a four week job interview. Thankfully, I did well in this period and they asked me to come back and start work asap. 

“I absolutely loved it. High pressure, no room for error.

“The very first patient of my working career was the Broncos first grade winger, who had just torn his calf in the weekend game.

“He was anxious and wanted to return to the field asap and was asking question like ‘when can I run again?’. I had to learn fast, and I did.”

After this role, Mr Monteith spent some time working for the British Army

“Quite like a sports role as these guys are pushed to train hard, I just had 1400 soldiers to service rather than a few footy teams. Lots of overuse running injuries here.

“We now regularly meet and liaise with a franchise in the NFL, for that elite sporting fix.”

Needless to say, Mr Monteith knows a thing or two about sports injuries, and the long term repercussions of excessive exercise.

He’s seen players left on the ‘scrap heap’, no longer considered useful to a team, despite being young, fit, and motivated.

But Mr Monteith says there are things athletic people can do to manage injuries, both short and long term, and remain active.

One of the most important steps is acceptance.

“First task is to understand your new parameters,” he says.

“A lot of elite athletes have the mindset of train hard and give everything 110 per cent.

“Under the proper care of a nutritionist, strength and conditioning staff and recovery facilities, this mindset and physicality can be maintained long-term.

“However, as professional athletes retire and enter the working force, their properties naturally change and important aspects like nutrition and recovery are the first two that drop off.

“Understanding that your age, your ability to recover and the food you fuel your body with will change. Therefore, so will your new parameters.

“If you train or work within these parameters with appropriate progressive overload and periodisation in your training, then your body will continually adapt without the risk of injury or aggravation to previous injuries.” 

According to Mr Monteith the horse has never bolted when it comes to managing pain and injuries caused by sport.

“It’s just done more work and had a slightly harder life,” he says.

“There’s always room for improvement. Physios are great at identifying which areas are lagging and which joints or muscles need improvement.

“The human body is fascinating.

“Not only is physio good for manual therapy but physios are great at reinforcing good habits: hinge well, retract and externally rotate well, and continually improve on lumbopelvic stability.

“All of these will reduce the risk of further injuries.”

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Nicole Madigan

Nicole Madigan is a widely published journalist with more than 15 years experience in the media and communications industries.

Specialising in health, business, property and finance, Nicole writes regularly for numerous high-profile newspapers, magazines and online publications.

Before moving into freelance writing almost a decade ago, Nicole was an on-air reporter with Channel Nine and a newspaper journalist with News Limited.

Nicole is also the Director of content and communications agency Stella Communications (www.stellacomms.com) and a children's author.