Diversify Your (Athletic) Portfolio

Peter Loescher, MD
Posted December 31st, 2009

How many times have you heard financial experts talk about the importance of asset diversification? They preach of the dangers of “putting all your eggs in one basket” and advocate spreading your investment portfolio across a variety of different asset classes to protect against a sharp decline in any one area. Anyone who was fully vested in the stock market at the time of the recent economic downturn understands painfully well the dangers of non-diversification. I believe that these same principles of diversification hold true for our athletic lives, the only difference being that athletic diversification is even more important that financial. Failure to diversify financially only puts your retirement, your home, and your kids’ education at risk, while failure to diversify athletically will jeopardize your physical and emotional health, your fitness, and your self-esteem and self-image as an athlete.
Let’s say that you are a runner. You love to run, you train year round, and you take it seriously. You played other sports in your youth, but with few exceptions, running is your primary outlet to maintain fitness, relieve stress, and feel good. Over a period of weeks, you notice that your knee is starting to ache during and after running. You start to ice it after runs and you find yourself taking Advil once, then twice, then three times a day. You knee starts to swell and feel warmer than the other one. Finally, it becomes so uncomfortable that you cut back on your running and make an appointment to see your doctor.
After three weeks, you finally get in to see her. She examines your knee and is not sure what is wrong. She orders X-rays and sends you to an orthopedic surgeon. You wait four more weeks to see him. By now your knee is so sore that you can’t run, and the ibuprofen is starting to bother your stomach. Your pants are getting tight, and you weigh yourself and find that you have gained seven pounds.
Finally, the surgeon examines you and is concerned about a torn meniscus, so he orders an MRI. Two more weeks go by while you get the MRI and wait for results. The MRI shows a degenerative meniscus and some moderate arthritis in your knee. Your orthopedic surgeon is not confident that surgery will improve your condition. He recommends glucosamine, Tylenol, ice and avoiding “offending activities.” You ask him what that means, and he says, “Well, your running days are over.” He suggests swimming or an elliptical trainer, gives you a referral for physical therapy, and leaves you to see a freshly torn ACL in the next room.
You stumble out of his office in a hazy fog, not sure what to do next. You feel lost, adrift, rudderless. In a desperate attempt to stave off the growing sense of hopelessness and depression that you feel growing in your soul, you do the one thing that you know has kept these demons at bay in the past—you go to your car, and right there in the parking lot, you change into your emergency running shorts and shoes that you always keep in your trunk, and you head out for a run. The hot, knife-like pain that you feel each time your right foot strikes the ground almost feels good, and the tears sting your eyes and start to track down your cheeks as the miles roll by…
This patient, in various forms, walks into our office at the Sharon Sports Medicine Center every day. While our team in Sharon sees it as our mission to do everything possible to get our athletes back to the sports that they love as quickly as possible, we often must counsel our patients to find another activity to augment or replace their current one. Making this transition can be difficult, especially when it is forced upon the athlete due to injury or medical illness. Some athletes never recover from such a transition—weight gain, muscle atrophy, and general inertia set in, and another former athlete is born.
A far healthier model, in my opinion, is to cultivate skills and affection for a variety of athletic activities before injury, illness, or life circumstances take away your first love. Here in Vermont, we live in an incredible environment with four distinct seasons. Take advantage of winter and learn to love Nordic skiing or ice skating or snowshoeing.
If the cold is really intolerable to you, then join a master’s swimming team and get into the smoothest, gentlest, and best workout going. Cut back on your running or cycling miles during the winter and work your body in a new way. You will maintain cardiovascular fitness while letting your body heal from the nagging areas provoked by any single endurance activity. I believe that any athlete should have at least three aerobic activities that he or she can easily transition between during each season. This does not mean that you can’t focus or train to excel in one area, but cross training will make you stronger, decrease your injury risk, and protect you for the day when something goes wrong. This is especially true for the over-40 athlete. Develop a love for the smooth and gentle sports—ones that don’t pound or traumatize your joints and tendons—swimming, rowing, Nordic skiing, and cycling are great options in this area.
Just as the time to invest in precious metals is not after the stock market has tanked and gold has topped $1,000/oz., the time to invest in a new athletic endeavor is not after you have lost your primary athletic asset, but before, while you are healthy, happy, and athletically strong. This strategy will protect you for the hard times, and keep you moving, healthy, and fit for a lifetime.
Peter Loescher is a board-certified family practitioner and sports medicine physician at the Sharon Health Center in Sharon, VT, an affiliate of Gifford Medical Center. He completed a residency in family practice at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and a fellowship in sports medicine at the University of Oklahoma and Eastern Oklahoma Orthopedic Center, Tulsa. He is the sports medicine director at The Cardigan Mountain School and provides medical coverage at many local athletic events. When not at the office, he can be found running, biking, and skiing the byways and trails of northern New England. You can reach him at PLoescher@giffordmed.org