Averting the inevitable  – Beating the age process

It has long been held that as we grow older our ability to maintain our previous level of performance drops off. All those long training hours cannot combat the inevitable slump in times. This seems to be substantiated by the fact that most top-level sportsmen and women retire in their late 20’ or early 30’s. By 40 it is time to have more respect for our ‘fragile’ body and take a more gentle approach to exercise. At best this tends towards a sedate training pace, at worst it’s regression towards the status of ‘professional advisor’ a role undertaken by the mass of ‘TV experts’ on couches throughout the world!

Research has confirmed this belief, and shown that even with the adoption of a ‘long slow distance’ approach to training we can expect a drop off of around  9% in aerobic capacity for each passing decade.  A study that included 14 Olympic competitors ratified, that even at this level, a 10-15% reduction of aerobic capacity should be the expectation for a decade of no training.  Reduction in VO2 max, and Maximum Heart Rate  are two symptoms which are accompanied by an increase in mass.  As they say, it would appear that “the writing is on the wall”.  So why continue your training regime?  After all a mere 1% benefit in aerobic capacity is hardly reasonable return for a continuous 10 years of training. Could all these hours not be used in a better way?

Thankfully the research that confirmed our worst fears, also provided  an insight into how many of these seemingly amazing  veteran athletes maintain their level of performances into their autumn years.  What sort of genes, miracle mixture, or elixir have these ‘demi-gods’ discovered that allows them to run times that many 20 or 30 years their junior are still striving to achieve.

Two Comrades winners who have shown that it is still possible to put good performances together even as a veteranLeft Vladimir Kotuv, Right Arthur Newton

Consider 68- year-old Canadian Earl Fee who entered the 1997 World Veteran Championships in South Africa with 13 World age group records on his CV.  300 & 400 metre high hurdles, 400, 800, 1500 metres and Mile distances are his specialty. He puts his success down to exercise of some form every day.  Even more amazing is that Fee stopped running for 33 years due to injury, but successfully returned to the track in 1982.  A daily press up regime, combined with tennis, skiing on water or snow provided his base during his 33-year racing sabbatical.  Fee is by no means a freak of nature, a trio of octarians from Japan competed in the same games, with Kizo Kimura, the oldest at 87, entered in 13 events, mixing Pole vault, Javelin, and Hammer with runs ranging from 400m to 80m hurdles.  His span of events requiring, speed, strength, and flexibility. One of his disappointments was leaving his 91 year old training partner, Kumazo Kashiwada, at home in Japan.

Athletics aficionados will remember the exploits of New Zealand’s Derek Turnbull.  Now in his 70’s he can still turn out competitive times with a 2:28.37   800m and 18:34.61 for 5000m gaining him World Age Group bests.

It’s not only the men that produce outstanding performances. Which 50 year old, (or should that be young!), wouldn’t be pleased to cover 100m’s in 12.65 seconds, 200m in 25.72, 80m hurdles in 12.86, and catapult 5.27m in the long jump?  These are the 4 new World Age Group Records American Phil Raschker added to her haul in her 50 – 54  category.  The youthful looking dynamo bagged seven golds, including the heptathlon. These examples are just a few of the thousands of veteran sportspeople who have seemingly found and drunk from the fountain of youth.  So where is this Holy Grail?

The benefits of moderate exercise which include an increase in HDL Cholesterol and a reduced risk of coronary heart disease were highlighted in a Harvard Alumni Study of 17,000 men over a 20-26 year period.  This landmark research found that each hour of moderate exercise can add roughly two hours to your life! There are limits however, which prevent us from buying back to ‘eternity’. The 2-year addition comes in with around 15 miles of weekly jogging, and the upper limit would appear to be around 30 miles per week.  In calorie terms this converts to about 2,000 and 4,000 per week. This need not be ‘vigorous’ exercise as the research relates to an intensity of about 75% maximum heart rate, (about 65% VO2 Max – 10-11minutes per mile jogging)

Given the added known benefits of reduced blood pressure, reduced risk of insulin dependant diabetes, reduced risk of osteoporosis, (particularly in women), it would appear that we have the essence of our goal in basic exercise. However there is the question of ‘quality’ in addition to ‘quantity’

Finnish research takes us a bit further down the road.  There a comparison between endurance sports, (running cycling, swimming), team sports, (football, rugby, hockey) and thirdly power sports, (weightlifting, sprinting etc) determined that endurance athletes could add 6 years to their life in comparison to a couch potato, where as teamsport players only added 4 years, and ‘power’ people a relatively miserly 2 years.  As a rider to the outcome, the researchers noted that the power and teamplayers enjoyed a higher social status, which probably accounted for their particular increase in life expectancy.  (Better nutrition and health care, etc).

All of the above will probably ensure that those who undergo a relatively minimal amount of aerobic exercise will live through to be septarians.  However, to most Ultrafit readers this extension of years is a mere formality, as their life-long commitment to such miserly amounts of low intensity work is already grafted in stone! The quest is to maintain a level of excellence.

The Harvard research did indicate a link between the low intensity jogging, and swimming with longer life, but found that working in the garden, housework, and walking, (all often promoted by fitness guru’s) did not provide the same results. So the initial link to intensity is evident.

More recently, research was undertaken at Ball State University in USA, that include such notable athletes as Frank Shorter, Jeff Galloway and  Derek Clayton amongst the 37 elite athletes first tested in 1970. Repeat tests were taken in 1992.  In the intervening years 8 had taken to the couch, 18 had continued casual training at a low intensity and 11 had kept to a routine of regular vigorous training.

As expected the 8 had experienced a drop of 12 beats per minute in Maximum Heart Rate and the 10-15% aerobic capacity fall off. – the 18 casual trainers had a marginal advantage with 9% drop.  However the 11 who had maintained an aggressive approach to their training with higher intensity work, had manage to maintain their VO 2 Max, and Max Heart Rate. Further the fall off in aerobic capacity was a mere 2% per decade! For one miler his time of 4:05 at the tender age of 25, had merely dropped by 8 seconds to 4:13 at 45!

Swedish research can perhaps account for part of this. They proved that from the age of 40 the nerves that control the fast twitch muscles begin to deteriorate from about the age of 40. The basic premise of intense exercise being the prerequisite for maintaining performance is confirmed by testing of 26 elite athletes, (including 14 Olympians), by American coach Jack Daniels. Using less elite, but motivated ‘average’ runners, researchers in Milwaukee, USA, were able to show that regular intense exercise allowed 52 year olds to maintain their VO2 Max for a 10 year period, (i.e. until they were 62).

So in practical terms where is the fountain of youthful performance? The secret appears not to lie, as many have hinted, with regular endurance exercise, but rather with regular intense exercise. The endurance work will certainly provide an extension to life and reduction in health risks, but performance will be guided by the rule of “Use it or lose it”!

Considering your heart as a ‘rev counter’, your youthful range may be from a resting rate of below 50 to a maximum of above 200. The theoreticians tell us our maximum can be calculated from 220- age.   Thus a 50 year old has a theoretical maximum of 170 and many use this to guide all their training. This is merely a rule of thumb, however, as many training athletes find that they are capable of going well beyond this.  In our early years of training we grind out high intensity work with little care for how high our heart rates go. Our intensity is limited more by pride and an ‘eye-balls out’ creed than a heart rate monitor. As we age we tend towards the conservatism of a watchful eye on the upper limit, and give more credibility to those promoting restrictions on intensity. The problem is that we then fail to use part of the ‘heart rate capacity’ that we have developed.  Like the weightlifter, if we only ever lift 100lbs in training, how are we ever going to lift 140 in competition?

This is not to say that we have to make use of maximum revs at every outing, but rather that the limiting factor to our performance may to some extent be self-imposed. This should not be too surprising.

A study to determine the most beneficial way of training for a 10km was undertaken at the University of Texas by Peter Snell, (a sub 4 minute miler in his own right) with 10 club level runners.  After an initial base training of 6 weeks, they were split into two groups. One group had two 29-minute sessions of Lactate Threshold training, whereas the other group used two weekly interval sessions over 200metres and 400 metres.  Each of these interval sessions was run at a pace between 10km and 5km race pace or slightly faster, and the total distance per session was around 3 miles.  By comparison the threshold group would be covering around 5 miles of continuous running at 12-15 seconds per mile slower than 10km race pace.  The remaining training sessions of both groups were identical. After the completion of the study, the ‘interval’ group improved not only their 800 metre race time, (by over 11 seconds on average!), but also reduced their 10km times by an average of over 2 minutes! In comparison the threshold runners, who were effectively only training below their race pace, (and heart rate), improved their 800m times by only 6.6 seconds, and their 10km by 1 minute. There are many reasons for this, but most can be encapsulated in the concept of ‘using it or losing it’. This is not only restricted to heart rate, but also running efficiency, co-ordination, the ability of the nerves to ‘fire’ the muscles at the required rate for leg speed.

Even during injury it has been shown that simply undertaking one session of 5 x 400 metres, (or 5 by 1-1.5 minutes effort in other endurance sports), per week is sufficient to maintain basic fitness for around 10 weeks. This is primarily related to the fall-off in total body blood volume that occurs when exercise is suddenly stopped.

To maintain your performance then, it seems you need only incorporate one, or two, sessions per week which will tax you to the higher end of your capacity. These should be slightly faster, but significantly shorter than the event you are training for.  This ties in with the prime training of those World Veteran athletes we identified at the beginning of the article.

These same principles can be adapted for any endurance sport. Given the intensity required, the interval work would need to last in excess of a minute and probably no longer than 6-10minutes.  Recovery between efforts will obviously vary depending on the speed of the effort, but as a general guide start with the following:-            Length of effort                          Recovery          30 seconds                                    40 – 60 seconds            60 seconds                                    2 minutes reducing to 60 seconds            3 minutes                         3 minutes reducing to 90 seconds            6 minutes                         5 minutes reducing to 3 minutes 10 minutes                         around 3 minutes

Going back to those ‘Power and Team-players’ of the Finnish study, it could be that in order to maintain their peak performance they need to do some ‘over distance work’. By their very nature, football, rugby and other team games tend to involve only short high intensity runs down the wing, or midfield, with fairly long periods of low intensity ‘recovery’.  This is probably of insufficient duration to elicit the benefits of interval training. (a 30-second run would take the player over the full length of a rugby pitch!).  A bi-weekly ‘quality’ session could provide the added boost the older player needs to keep ahead of his younger rivals.

An aspect common to all aging sportspeople is the natural decline in muscle strength. Muscle density and elasticity both drop-off with age, and minimizing this requires the move towards a cross training programme. The older runner or cyclist will spend more time on upper-body strength and a regime of basic plyometric jumps, (hops, skips down a stair etc), where as an older swimmer needs to give more focus to the lower body.

The final ingredient to continued performance relates to motivation. For the elite athlete, this is perhaps the most difficult. Having spent 8-12 years focussing on an Olympic or World Medal, how do you maintain the drive?  Where do you go to from the top? – You can only move sideways in the same sport by defending your title. Given the dedication and sacrifices required by the cream of sportspeople, and the lack of reward for those who just fail to make the grade, it is no surprise that they retire ‘early’.  Thus their decision may be more to do with lack of desire, or burn out, as it is to do with a fall-off in performance, (although the two are inter-linked). Perhaps the future will see more elite sportspeople adopt Andy Ripley’s approach. The England and British Lions backrow rugby player of the 1970’s is now in the final squad for selection to the Oxford – Cambridge boat race — at the age of 50!

Here the average sportsperson has an advantage. Unfamiliar with the ‘role of winning’ their move into veteran categories will often promote them closer to victory platform. In some sports there are points added for each year of age, or other method of handicapping, to equate performances. Understandably there is limited incentive for a previous Olympic athlete to win an age group veteran title, but for the less talented, or late starter, the desire of a World or National ranking in veteran competitions can provide the drive necessary to put in those vigorous training sessions.

With athletes such as Merlene Ottey, and Linford Christie competing at Olympic level in their mid thirties, Steve Redgrave going for his 4th Olympic Gold rowing medal, 40 year olds breaking the 4 minute mile barrier, and Carlos Lopes not only running a 10km in 27 plus minutes, but winning the Olympic marathon 1 year later, at the age of 38. it is time to stop thinking of such career extensions as those of freaks.  Although we may not reach the same level of performance, adopting the same passion for high intensity work will assist us to maintain our own peak levels longer.

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