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Performing at your best into your 30’s

‘It’s a young man’s game’… is a phrase that is rolled out every so often amongst pundits and players alike. The 30 year old plus player is generally seen as an endangered species on most county teams and the notion prevails that once you hit the big 30, your powers are going to be on the wain. The majority of teams are populated by 20 year olds and anecdotally the average age of teams seems to have fallen from late 20’s to mid 20’s in recent years.

I think we can all appreciate that playing county football is extremely challenging in many ways which can eventually lead to a fall off of players continuing into their thirties. Playing county football is an aspiration for most GAA players but the ever increasing demands of training 5/6 nights of the week, being away from the family for weekends and missing social events has meant the county game will be more accessible to the younger player.

But what about the average club player who is training a few days a week and happy to play as long as possible. Surely they can keep going as they were?

We all appreciate that you cannot play forever and that he body starts to slow down after time. General wear and tear, injuries, loss of mobility and speed are some reasons why many players decide to hang up the boots. Some will join the junior ranks and tip away for the fun of it while others will just pack it in watch the younger fit lads do their stuff. Others are just happy to sail away into the sun set after a good innings and take life easy. We all share different outlooks.

But what if we wanted to keep going a bit longer but also maintain a high level of physical capacity to perform?

Can we slow down the aging process and maintain our performance as we enter the twilight stage of our careers?

What nutritional strategies and physical preparation methods can players employ to maintain top body condition?

I think the main problem players face is their own limiting beliefs. As we get into our thirties, many players assume that their performance will decline for the simple reason that they expect it to. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. With the assumption that performance is going to go down, the player maybe decides to put less effort into training and nutrition and as a result, performance and body condition deteriorates.

There is no doubt that components of fitness such as body composition, muscular strength and endurance, speed, power, agility, flexibility and aerobic fitness etc naturally decline as we age. But the good news is that these areas of fitness are all trainable and that with a specific training and nutrition plan, players can slow down these processes and improve them in some cases.

Unless we are at the limit of our physical capacity, then there is possibility to improve. So what areas can we focus on that can specifically help to maintain or improve performance at this stage of our career?

  1. Maintain a healthy body composition – This is the ratio of fat to muscle in our bodies. Having a low body fat level can help a player to maintain performance. When a person gains excess body fat, all the components of fitness mentioned above are going to be compromised. Through a combination of a healthy diet and an exercise plan that includes weight training, muscle can be maintained and fat gain can be minimised.

  2. Lift weights - Studies show that we lose ½ to 1 percent of our lean muscle mass each year, starting as early as our thirties. Muscle is fundamentally important in terms of maintaining speed and power. Doing weight training can retain muscle mass and strength and help with that burst of speed on the pitch. Weight training should be a consistent part of training throughout the year and not just something that lads do for a couple of months in the Winter when it is cold out!

  3. Eat sufficient protein – Eating a diet rich in protein can maintain muscle mass and can encourage muscle growth after resistance training. Protein will also greatly help with the recovery processes in the body when we break down tissue and need to rebuild them back up. We should be looking to eat around 30 g of protein at regular intervals throughout the day. 30 grams of protein can be found in 600 ml of milk, a fillet of chicken/steak/fish, 4 eggs or a scoop of protein powder. This will give the body the building blocks to keep the muscles strong and functioning.

  4. Recovery – We all know a few lads in each club who ‘look after themselves very well’! These are generally the lads who are playing at a high level into their late 30’s. What does ‘looking after themselves’ look like? We are usually talking about how a player prepares their body pre and post exercise to limit the damage caused by the session and to promote positive adaptations before the next bout (get fitter). Many GAA players train hard but fail to recover properly. This can increase the likelihood of injury, stress, burnout and fatigue. How can we improve recovery between sessions?

  • Hydration: drinking 1 litre post training/ match can help replace lost fluids.

  • Nutrition: eating foods rich in carbohydrate and protein post exercise can regenerate muscle tissue and replenish glycogen stores so that the body is being prepared for the next session.

  • Eating foods rich in omega 3 such as oily fish can possibly reduce inflammation and eating a diet rich in colourful fruit and vegetables can provide a wide variety of antioxidants that can reduce stress and promote recovery.

  • General ideas: cool down, ice baths, compression garments, stretching, post-match day pool session, massage.

  • Tailoring training to allow more rest and recovery.

5. Sleep – aim to get 7-8 hours per night. Sleep is absolutely crucial and plays a huge role in the regeneration process. A sleep shortage has shown to reduce

  • Decline cognitive and problem solving ability

  • Reduce physical capabilities

  • Lower immune function making you more likely to get sick

  • Increase appetite and the desire for fatty and sugary foods

Maintaining a high level of performance is possible well into your 30’s. Don’t assume just because you have hit the big 30 that it is time to hang up the boots. Get a positive mind-set, get training, eat well, recover well and keep moving.

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