Tuesday Tips: Disc Golf for the Older Athlete

Know your limits to maximize your abilities.

JohnE McCray. Photo: Latitude 64

While it beats the alternative, getting old sucks.

Many younger athletes never pay much attention to warming up or recovery. For a long time, warming up for a round of golf for me was ordering two Bloody Marys and taking the headcover off my driver; warmup for softball was shaking my arm walking out to the mound. In my 50s, on the other side of elbow surgery and entering my third decade without an ACL in my right leg, injuries are teaching me the lessons I was too stubborn to learn in my 20s.

Older athletes need to bring a sense of intention to every aspect of the game. Unlike our younger cardmates, we need to think about warming up, the shots we throw, and how we navigate the course. We need to plan our practice and recovery so we can keep playing. It is natural to just want to pretend that we can effortlessly and immediately snap back from any careless thing we force our bodies to do. Most of us can’t. Playing for the long term requires being attentive to what our bodies need.

This advice is especially important for those who are starting the game as older athletes, but thinking about preparation and recovery is important for athletes at every age. If you are in your 20s, paying attention to these issues will help you play your best for decades. Basically, the things older athletes need to do to stay on the course are the same things that will maximize sports performance for every player.

It’s important to note this is not medical advice. If you are starting any new sport or exercise, you should talk to your doctor.

Training for Disc Golf

One of the realities for athletes in skill sports is that you do not do your sport to get fit. To play your best, you need to bring some level of fitness to your game. This will help you resist injury and manage the stresses that playing (especially throwing) puts on the body.

Playing disc golf is very good for you. Walking is great exercise; if you are carrying your bag, you are essentially “Rucking” every time you play. The greater risk is throwing, which is a full body, multi-joint dynamic move that can put strain on joints and muscles. If you have previous injuries or are new to the game, it is important to control the number of throws you make in a short period. This is much less of an issue in a regular round since you only throw around 20 full power shots over the course of ninety minutes. The bigger problem is practice.

There is a natural tension between the need for practice to improve and the need to limit the volume of throwing. The reality is that throwing cannot be your exercise. You need to get fit to be able to throw, but trying to throw to get fit can easily lead to overuse injuries. I have made this mistake many times. I always want to get 10,000 steps a day and, for a while, thought that I could get them through field work. But to get that many steps meant being out in the field a long time and making hundreds of throws. My reward was lots of steps – and elbow surgery.

The reality is, as we get older, the option of getting better by just pouring in thousands of reps diminishes in a cloud of injuries, work demands, and family commitments. We need to shift from working more to working smarter. Reps are important, but practice needs to be strategic. Make sure to warm up and start your practice with putters and midranges. Start with smooth standstills and work your way towards full throws. Don’t throw lots of drivers without a break, and don’t throw a heavy load of max power shots multiple days in a row.

Listen to your body. If you are sore or hurting after throwing, then make sure to give yourself time to recover. Be careful to distinguish the difference between muscle soreness, which is a natural part of exercise, and overuse. Achy muscles after a long day on the course are expected, but pain or swelling in joints needs rest and attention. If you are feeling sore but still want to practice, then spend your time on upshots and putting, which will put less strain on your body. If you are dealing with conditioning issues or injuries, always err on the side of doing less and focusing on shots within 100 feet of the basket. The advantage is that this is the kind of practice that leads directly to lower scores.

But playing disc golf and practicing won’t really move the needle on fitness; you may have to get your exercise elsewhere. There are lots of ways to get stronger and fitter. Group classes like CrossFit or Orange Theory are great ways to get in shape, but there is no need to add whole new hobbies to support your disc golf game. You can just do simple calisthenics or basic weight training to get more fit. The same is true for flexibility. While yoga and pilates are great, you don’t need to add a specialized method to get the benefits of flexibility. There are a hundred simple stretching routines on YouTube that you can do while watching TV at night.

Building your cardiovascular base, adding flexibility, and getting stronger all help you play better and keep you on the course. All of these are parts of “prehab” – doing prehabiliation to get your body prepared for the stresses of playing so you don’t suffer injuries. Seth Munsey runs an excellent program called the Disc Golf Strong Performance Academy that offers a six-week program designed for disc golf that addresses issues of flexibility, strength, and recovery. I have done it twice.

The goal is not to get ripped; it is to build enough strength and flexibility to endure the repetitive motion of hundreds of throws and be able to withstand the stress of twisting and throwing in awkward positions. If Kevin Jones was 53 years old or in worse shape, his slip on the teepad on hole 16 at Maple Hill might have ended in a helicopter ride to the hospital rather than a 450-foot ace. The payoff for stretching and strengthening might not be measured in longer drives but in not being sidelined for weeks from slips or twists.


Pay Attention on the Course

Many players do not respect disc golf as a sport. Like softball, lots of players see it as an easy activity that can be approached casually. But, as any orthopedic surgeon can tell you, softball generates a lot of injuries. Quick acceleration and deceleration, particularly with older athletes who have not warmed up sufficiently, sends lots of weekend warriors to the clinic. The demands of disc golf are different, but we need to respect throwing as an athletic move.

Among lots of amateur players, there is not the dedication to warming up that you see in other sports. But that is not the case for the pros, who are making warming up an essential part of their round. You are probably not throwing as hard as Ricky or Paige, and may be the only one in your group doing it, but take the time to warm up. That means you need to get to the course early enough to give yourself time to get ready to play. And yes, you may look uncool to the 19-year-olds who jump out of their car and rip a Destroyer off the first tee without even tying their shoes.

Any kind of dynamic stretching routine can work; Munsey has developed a good one:


During the round, you also need to make good choices. For example, be careful if you are considering throwing a thumber or a tomahawk if they are not a regular part of your practice. Even if you don’t have shoulder issues, overhand throws can be risky if your shoulder is not warmed up.

If you have bad knees, hips, or ankles, be careful about how you navigate the course. Many of our courses are rugged and can require going up and down steep slopes. This can be even riskier if the course is dark or wet and we are carrying a bag of discs over one shoulder. Don’t simply follow the 20-something mountain goats in your group, find a path that works for you. Take a minute to locate the best place to leave your bag if carrying it will present a risk. Be very careful getting into dangerous throwing positions when your disc is on a slope or near a creek. Finally, always be careful when the course or teepads are wet or icy. It is better to have a conversation about possible relief rather than hurting yourself.

Hydrate. Our bodies need more hydration as we get older and water is crucial to the health of our muscles and joints. Medication or health conditions can also make us more susceptible to dehydration and, if you are far from the parking lot on a hot and humid afternoon, dehydration can be dangerous. This means also paying attention to alcohol intake. Plan ahead to make sure you can stay hydrated throughout the round.

Play Your Game

There are golfers in their 50s or 60s who still crush long drives and can throw every shot. Some are even throwing longer than ever with advances in disc technology or dedication to improving their fitness or technique. But for most of us dealing with age or injuries, we may have to accept that we are playing a different game than our younger cardmates. We need to play smarter and, if we have hit a ceiling on distance, embrace that distance is not essential to scoring on most of the courses we play. If your short game is solid, you can often spot your competition 70 feet and 30 years and still win (and nothing is more fun).

Despite this, some older players (me among them) still chase distance. For many of us, distance feels like a measure of youth – if I can get it out to 375, then I can’t be that old! Wanting to throw farther is natural; but trying to throw harder than your body can handle can bring extra risk for injury. It is better to try to improve your technique to gain efficiency and make up for any shortfall in distance. Throwing slower — but better — can generate all the distance you need.

Many players have found that “orthodox” teachings that emphasize a pull put a lot of strain on the shoulder and elbow joints. Many of the fans of techniques that focus on body rotation, like Spin and Throw, claim they allow them to throw just as far with less effort. Exploring this “rotation revolution” is great, but always be careful whenever you change your mechanics. Your body may be very adapted to your usual swing but be very sensitive to changes of angle or technique. Yes, your body can handle two hundred driver shots thrown the way you have been doing it since 1999, but if you change your technique you need to change your expectations. Even when you are improving your mechanics, build slow and watch for soreness or signs of overuse.

Also, be open to changing your bag. Even if you have been throwing a Destroyer for years, try dialing down the speed and stability of your discs and throwing hyzerflips. The Leopard3 and Roadrunner have become essential discs for me and often go as far as my high-speed drivers with much less effort. There is no shame in moving to discs that better match your armspeed and maximize your distance.

Focus on Recovery

This is crucial and one of the most difficult things for many athletes to do. Recovery needs to start when the last putt goes in the basket. Stretch after your round: don’t just go from walking and playing to sitting in a car for an hour-long drive home. At home after your round, take time to work with a foam roller or a lacrosse ball to loosen up tight muscles. Take hot baths or sit in the sauna, whatever helps you relax and reduces soreness. See a massage therapist to deal with stiffness or pain. What happens after a round determines what will happen during the next one. This is especially true during multi-round or multi-day tournaments. The time between rounds is not dead time, it is crucial. You need to get off your feet, recover from the round, and get yourself ready to play.

Recovery is taking enough time off. That means not throwing at all if you are drifting into overuse or switching your practice to your putting or short game if you are sore. Recovery is sleep, healthy food, and taking care of your body away from the course. It is addressing the stresses of throwing, staying ahead of injuries, and getting ready to handle the challenges of tomorrow’s round. These things are important for every player, but for older athletes they can make the difference between playing or being stuck on the couch with an injury.

Facing all of this is hard. Older athletes are still athletes, and being reminded that our bodies don’t always do what they used to (or what we want them to do) can be a bitter pill to swallow. The fun of sports is in seeing what you can do, not thinking about what you can’t. Part of the attraction of playing a sport is being able to deny, at least for a few minutes, the reality of age. Seeing that you still got it and can still compete. But accepting that the athlete you are at 55 is different than the athlete you were at 22 is not conceding you are old, it is recognizing how to play your best now. If you take care of your prehab, play smart, and pay attention to your recovery you may feel better, and play better, than you did when you were younger.

  1. Steve Andrews
    Steve Andrews

    Steve Andrews is a college professor and disc golfer in Bloomington, Indiana. He came to disc golf from traditional golf and, even though he is 50 and playing on bad knees, managed to reach 950 rated through course management and playing smart. He is sponsored by Skybreed Discs.


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