Father’s Day Blog : Like Fine Wine – The Aging Athlete
Part 2 of 3:
Training as we age must change from how we trained when we were younger. Remember (or not?) when you were a kid and you could go go go every day day in day out, non-stop, without missing a beat, other than the fact that hopefully mom and dad put you to bed at 7:30 pm? Well, suddenly somewhere in our adulthood, that was no longer possible, and it wasn’t just about how much we abused our bodies on Friday and Saturday nights. The hard part is that once again, like nutrition, we need to make more of our training count, because “fluff” just takes away our energy from valuable training, but the good news is that for most of us, whether it’s because our kids are out the door or we are approaching or have retired, or for whatever reason, we may have a few more hours or more flexibility to dedicate to the cause.
Disclaimer- as we get older, our list of personal health concerns grows. Please be sure to see a physician first before starting any training program to be sure you are aware of any health limits you may face.
Why both strength and endurance training are both important, along with a host of supporting activities:
First the not so good news-
“Our daily energy needs also tend to decrease gradually as we age. This is primarily an effect of a simultaneous decrease in the resting metabolic rate (RMR), which in turn is partly due to muscle loss. One reason most adults gain weight steadily throughout adulthood is that they continue to eat the same amount despite the fact that their RMR is going down. This phenomenon does not occur in runners and other endurance athletes, however. In a study at the University of Colorado, female runners and swimmers aged 50-72 had the same RMR as women aged 21-35, whereas the RMR of sedentary women aged 50-72 was 10 percent lower on average.”
And from Kimberly Brown, Sports Nutritionist:
“…commonly observed effect of aging is diminished musculo-skeletal function, which includes decreased muscle strength, mass, and flexibility. Muscle strength, which seems to parallel muscle mass, tends to peak in most individuals at about age 25, plateaus through 35-40 years, and then progressively declines with approximately 25% of peak strength lost by age 65 years. 1,5 In 1994, it was estimated that 40% of women between the ages of 55 and 64 years, 45% between the ages of 65 and 74 years, and 65% between the ages of 75 and 84 years couldn’t lift 10-pounds… and furthermore “With aging, there is a progressive decline in calcium content within the bones that begins around age 30, increasing risk for stress fractures and development of osteoporosis. Other risk factors that exacerbate the aging effect on bone include smoking, excessive caffeine or alcohol intake, inactivity, and poor nutrition.” Not just women, but men as well.
Now for the good news- she also asserts:
“Fortunately, unfavorable alterations in body and fiber type composition can be stopped with a training program that includes such high intensity workouts as intervals, tempo runs, and hill running as well as some weight training. High-intensity training increases the recruitment of fast twitch fibers, helping to prevent progressively slower running times. A 12-week weight training program can increase a cross sectional area of muscle tissue by as much as 17%, even in the elderly.”
So what are we to do as we get older but still want to aspire to physical (and mental) greatness? As we get older, it becomes far more crucial to undertake a highly varied training program, incorporating supporting activity towards whatever our personal goals might be, instead of just that one thing that we like to do. Your list of training activities ought to include (drum roll please for the magic formula):
- Dedicated strength training
- Dedicated aerobic endurance training
- High Intensity Interval Training sessions (HIITS)
- Dedicated flexibility and foam roller sessions
- “Randomized” play activities requiring agility
- Core physical fitness training in order to support all of the above
Strength training can be achieved at the gym but with a quick internet search and some creativity you can find that there are a great many personal body weight exercises as well as household items that can be incorporated into your program. Spending time with a personal trainer is certainly the best and safest way to get started on a strength training program and there is great merit to the social element of the gym, but it’s important to understand that strength training can be done anywhere anytime. When I travelled a great deal with my work for example, I’d purchase a few gallon jugs of water to do squats, lunges and so on in my hotel room, and most of the furniture got incorporated as benches etc. While I enjoy running personally, not everyone can or ought to be doing a great deal of running, but there are plenty of other ways to achieve aerobic endurance fitness. Cycling, swimming, rollerblading, cross country skiing, hiking, snowshoeing… the list is endless. Find the ones that work for you and do several if you are able and can afford. If impact is an issue due to injury there are often work-arounds. By way of example, due to a back injury I have suffered, my running coach had me doing water running first with a buoyancy belt and then as I progressed, without the belt, in order to mitigate the joint impact on my back. Try doing a running session in the pool, including keeping yourself afloat with only your running stride, in the deep end. What a workout!
HIIT is a great way to pack a ton of fitness benefit into a small chunk of time. High Intensity Interval Training is exactly as it sounds – Big efforts in short intervals of time. This approach to training can be incorporated into both strength and endurance training activities. In running, a session of “telephone pole” sprints with minimal recovery time can be done, and similarly on the bike, short max effort sprint intervals can be done. The same thing can be done in strength training, incorporating high efforts and short recovery towards any activity. Adding a plyometric (rapid yet controlled, explosive movements under load) element to these will further contribute positively.
Flexibility can be achieved in a variety of ways and it’s important for you to know yourself, experiment and find what works for you. A great instructor is especially key here. I like yoga for example, but much of the practice in yoga doesn’t like me: hip opening exercises are contra-indicated for someone with SI joint issues. My great instructor however, innovates and we work around my limitations. Yoga need not be the answer here however- dedicated stretching and flexibility routines; foam roller, stick and ball sessions, Tai Chi, etc are all great ways of achieving the same aim. Let me re-iterate finding what works for you. There is a lot of debate as to how much, what kind, and when to stretch are beneficial and potentially harmful. As with nutrition it’s important to keep up with the latest findings and be sure to scrutinize the source and not accept blindly the new flavour of the day.
Play. Leisure is one measure of what defines us as a higher order creature on the planet. “Randomized?” Have you ever noticed that as we get older, many of us tend towards activities that I describe as being in straight lines? Skating, rollerblading, Walking, hiking, Swimming, running, biking for example, are straight line activities I’ll say. In the relative sense, they are usually very controlled, single plane, predictable activities. Do something else. This past winter I joined a fitness group and we were playing Red Rover Come Over on snowshoes in a deep-snow covered gully, in the dark, runners with headlamps, taggers headlamps off (and then we tried it the other way around for lighting)… at age 49. I haven’t had that much fun in years. Trail running commands so much more agility, dexterity, mental agility, stabilizer and core strength than running, as another example. Play commands so much more in the way of dynamics, agility, dexterity both mental and physical. Often, it also includes a social element, which is also satisfies another important need. Want a laugh? My parents, now in their late 70s, took up square dancing when they retired. Really? Square dancing? In fact, they have aspired to attaining a very high level of dancing (tougher combinations of moves from the caller). Stop for a moment and think- social, dynamic, agility, need to use their noggins and react quickly, aerobic, even sometimes a bit of “plyo” on direction changes. Still laughing? Personally I think it’s great! Bottom line here – go do something that scares and exhilarates and challenges you. Oh sure, your body may express some grief in the form of “I didn’t even know I had muscles “there”” soreness the next day, but I’ll bet you can’t wait to go again next time!
Core fitness keeps the whole machine upright and pointed in the right direction. Ironically, just doing our chosen activity, whatever your chosen favourite activity might be, is often NOT the best way to achieve core fitness. A dedicated core fitness program with a large variety of exercises will go a long way to achieving this aim. Don’t go thinking core is abs. Abs are a small part of the total of what is core. Think “everything that keeps me stable, in any posture” – that is core. At the same time, I scoff at those people who say they can plank for 5 minutes but can’t support themselves for ten seconds during their activity of choice (standing out of the saddle climbing a hill on a bike for example). I call that gym core. It’s like being book smart. Get life core along with the gym core. Life core will come by way of enjoying your chosen activities, supported by that dedicated core training program.
Sounds like a lot to do right? What it boils down to is having a plan. You can make the plan, you can look for plans made by others in publication, you can engage a coach or personal trainer, but bottom line, for most of us, given our other constraints, we need a plan. Without a plan, achieving this balance identified above will prove challenging at best, and at worst, we run the risk of injury or illness. Injury and illness take time out of the time available to achieve our goals, and have a detrimental psychological effect as well, which can often derail even the best intentions. Finally, the plan must recognize the essential need for rest and recovery. Daunting? My buddy Ed, who recently turned 52 (his wife says he’s 17), just posted the following quote on Facebook: “If it is important to you, you will find a way. If not, you will find an excuse” What’s Ed been up to lately? A little over ten years ago he weighed “two of him” or put another way, he’s now half as big as he was. The “before and after” photos will leave your jaw on the floor, guaranteed. He inspires me! He’s recently run a marathon, and will be racing his first 70.3 (Half Ironman) triathlon tomorrow. For Ed, and for all of us, it comes down to having awareness of these challenges, and adapting and training accordingly.
Next up in Part 3: Rest and recovery