July 23, 2022 5 min read 10 Comments
Photo: Ken Stone. Colleen Barney shows the form that helped her claim a World Championship and eight gold medals in successive National Senior Games.
By Ray Glier
We should all know by now that “suck it up buttercup” is the fiction that turns an athlete’s overuse injury into a crisis. It’s cousin on the make-believe shelf “no pain, no gain” can be just as reckless. I’m not talking about your quads burning from taking the treadmill from 5.0 mph to 8 mph. That’s discomfort.
I’m talking about playing injured. It is the doom of athletes everywhere and perhaps why we see so many world-class athletes sidelined. Major League Baseball, a non-contact sport, has experienced a spike in hamstring injuries, up 193% in 2021, because athletes ignore “twinges.”
This issue of Geezer Jock is about self-awareness and pain threshold/tolerance and managing injuries that can derail our fitness quest.
I talked to the right and wrong Geezer Jock.
Masters sprinter Colleen Barney, 55, doesn’t feel twinges, to say the least. She doesn’t so much as whimper with something just a little more serious than a twinge…
…like a broken back.
“I didn't even know my back was broken for two months so my ability to discern appropriate levels of pain might be a little bit messed up,” Barney said in a whiff of understatement.
She was 17 and on the track team at Arizona State when she fell with a bar of weights across her shoulders. She was carried off on a stretcher, took a week off, and clueless adults allowed an ambitious kid to resume training. The pain, though, finally reared up and drove her out of track & field for 16 years.
Doctors will tell you, “Let pain be your guide” as a road map when to resume full workouts. Barney has a serious hamstring injury, but her physical therapist said about pain being her guide, “That’s clearly not going to work for you.”
But pain as a guide will work for most of us. So do not mix up perseverance with proving your durability and ruggedness. Geezer Jocks should know by now they are not unbreakable.
Barney learned the hard way in January, which is why she is worth paying attention to right now about managing injury and getting back in the game.
First, a word on her bona fides in track & field.
In 2003 Barney won the World Masters championship in the 100 meters in Puerto Rico. She won North America races in her 40s, and in 2017 and 2019 swept the golds in the extremely competitive 50,100, and 200 in the 50-54 age cohort at the National Senior Games in Albuquerque and Birmingham, respectively.
Barney did not compete in the 2022 National Senior Games because of the hamstring. She also missed the World Masters meet in Finland earlier this month, though she attended as an athlete representative.
Barney will miss next weekend’s USA Track & Field Masters Championships in Lexington, Ky., with the hamstring injury.
Now, about that injury and why you should care.
Barney competed with the torn hamstring in maybe three meets in 2021, she's not sure. Her pain threshold being what it is Barney simply kept telling herself, “Something was a little off.”
Still, she pushed herself. Barney, who retired at the end of 2021 as a tax attorney in southern California, was going to “crush it” with 2-a-day workouts last January because she had more time to devote to her hobby. She was at the lower end of the 55-59 age cohort and wanted to be on par again with the best sprinters in the U.S.
That something that “was a little off” was actually a tendon in the right hammy that was torn halfway off the bone. She had to drop the two-a-day workouts, needless to say. Everything had to gear down. An overuse injury got worse. While the lack of serious pain (for her) didn’t reveal it, a doctor’s pictures did.
“That's my lesson learned here,” she said. “Stop trying to minimize if you have a pain. If you have a tweak, go let someone look at it. How hard is that?”
What you MUST do next, Barney said, is find another way to get your work in and understand how it will help when you get back to competition, or just walking and running in the neighborhood.
The Atlanta Braves relief pitcher A.J. Minter, a star of the team's 2021 postseason run to a title, told me when he tore his ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow and required Tommy John surgery, he poured himself into lower body workouts. Just look at Minter now with those thunder thighs and his drive off the mound to the plate as he delivers a pitch 98 miles per hour.
“Think about with a sprinter, you always focus on their legs, but so much of that race is your arm swing and core power,” Barney said. “The stronger you can get the core and your lower core, the better you're going to be able to have a leg lift for the race.”
So Pickleball players who sprain an ankle or tweak a knee, find something, anything, for the upper body. The same for throwers who ding a rotator cuff. Work on the legs. Maybe you all know that, but there are many athletes who decelerate when their primary body part fails.
For her hamstring, Barney started getting PRP therapy, which is platelet-rich plasma injections to promote the healing of tendons. She goes to the gym three days a week and does mostly Eccentric weight workouts, which is slower movements trying to strengthen up that muscle.
“You're breathing heavy at the end,” Barney said, “but it's not the same as a traditional weight workout.”
Then, three days a week, she is goes to the track.
That was my reaction, too. What!
Focus on this next paragraph Geezer Jocks:
When Barney goes to the track and, under doctors orders, does 80%, it really is 80%. She does the math to figure out what 80% of her time should be in a particular race. She doesn’t go any faster. That is how granular we need to be in bringing ourselves back to full strength.
The balancing act with Barney, and some other Geezer Jocks out there, is that you have to know when to back off when you kick up the pain. Barney’s pain barometer is absurd.
“If I go from zero to a point five on the pain scale, that's a change,” she said. “So we back down.”
That gives you a sense of how dutiful you need to be. The idea is to just manage the injury because you have more time than you think. Ageism makes you think you are short-timer. You’re not.
“I love being a Masters athlete because there's another year, there's another decade, and I'll be back,” Barney said. “It's not like an elite athlete where you might have one shot at the Olympics or two shots at the Olympics. I have time.
“There are times when I will talk with the physical therapist and ask ‘Do you think I can do more?’ I've been really good when the answer is ‘No’.”
Barney’s husband, Jonathan, an entrepreneur and inventor, wraps it up in a neat bow for Geezer Jocks.
He told his wife, “You’ve got plenty of medals and you've got plenty of races to run, but you've only got a couple of hamstrings so we want to make sure we keep those so we can get more of the rest.”
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