When I was in college around 50 years ago (wow, am I really that old?) I was a runner on the track team. The coach used to have us do what I now call "Anaerobic Endurance" intervals 3 to 5 times each week. Back then I called them "intervals 'til you puke." Because that's basically what we did.
We'd warm-up on our own and then the coach would blow his whistle. That meant we were to jog over to where he was sitting in the stands next to the start-finish line on the track. He looked a bit like Buddha with a whistle, stopwatch and can of Coke. We knew what was next: 440-yard intervals (we didn't have metric tracks back then) with short recoveries. We never knew how many we were going to do, how fast we should run them (other than "as fast as possible"), how to pace them or how long the recoveries were going to be. We may wind up doing a dozen or 15 or 7. Nobody knew, not even the coach. When people started throwing up he'd give us a longer recovery and only a couple more intervals. We always hoped that someone would toss their cookies so we could get it over with as soon as possible. That's sports science 50 years ago.
Interesting thing was, in my youth I could do that workout night after night for days and even weeks with only 2 days of recovery in a week (no one trained on the weekends back then). And I would be ready to go hard again the next day. Today if I tried to do 3 to 5 AE interval workouts ('til I puked!) in a single week I'd soon be totally wasted and by the third back-to-back interval day my performance would be going rapidly south. The fourth or fifth such session (if I managed to even start them) would be a joke. There's simply no way I could do that workout day after day now.
In fact, this is what I hear from nearly every aging athlete I talk with about getting old. There is little in the way of research on this, especially with truly “old” athletes, by which I mean over age 55. But one study from a few years ago compared the perceptions of 9 older (45 +/-6 years) and 9 younger (24 +/-5 years) well-trained athletes (1). All of the subjects did 3 consecutive days of 30 minute time trials. Each reported their subjective measures of soreness, fatigue and recovery daily. While there were no significant changes in performance over the 3 days for the subjects in either group, the older athletes reported significantly higher levels of soreness and fatigue and lower levels of recovery.
One study isn’t much in the way of evidence, but based on what I’ve experienced and what older athletes tell me, it seems to be the case. We simply don't recover as quickly as we did when younger. And it seems getting everything dialed in just right is increasingly critical to our recovery. The two most critical are sleep and nutrition--as they are for all athletes. It's just that when you are young you can mess these up and still get away with it. In college I'd stay up most of the night studying, eat crappy food, and still manage to do "puke intervals" several times a week with little degradation in performance.
The few studies I can find on the topic of nutrition, recovery and aging, indicate that older athletes may need more protein in recovery than do younger ones (2,3). This implies that there may be a reduced need for carbohydrate during recovery. In fact another study found that healthy, elderly men (non-athletes) had a reduced capacity to oxidize carbs and an increased capacity to use fat for fuel (4). Whether or not this also applies to athletes is currently open for conjecture.
I've been doing some tinkering with my nutrition in the last 8 months and the results have been really interesting. I'm going to devote an entire post to that soon, so won't touch on it now. Whatever you've found works well for you when it comes to diet simply can't be compromised as you get older. Only a few aging athletes who are truly unique can continue eating lots of junk food and still perform at a high level well into their 50s, 60s and 70s. I've certainly found that I can't.
Sleep is an interesting phenomenon. In college I could sleep 10 to 12 hours straight on a weekend regardless of whether I was in-season and training hard or not. Now it seems I only need 6 to 7 hours a night regardless of training. It's rare that I sleep more than 7. I don't know what's going on here, but I've had a few other senior athletes also tell me this. But it's got to be every night. I can’t miss a few hours of sleep like I used to and still perform well.
I know of some older athletes who swear napping is successful for them. I don't doubt them at all, but it seems there is no way to fit that into my lifestyle. Something would have to change. Maybe you can do. It's probably a good thing.
So that's the Big Two for recovery--sleep and nutrition.
I've also tried lots of stuff beyond those two to speed recovery. Some have helped a little (compression socks, elevating legs, massage, cold water immersion, and some new recovery products such as Firefly and Barefooter shoes). Of course, when the change is barely perceptible I always wonder if it's a placebo effect or "real." The only thing I've found that seems to have a significant impact on speeding up my recovery from hard workouts is “Recovery Boots.” (That’s my granddaughter, Keara, demo’ing the Boots in this picture.)
I got these two years ago and, as always, was somewhat skeptical at first (it’s a good idea to be skeptical of everything as we motivated athletes tend to buy any snake oil that comes along if we think it may give us a slight edge). But that never stops me from trying something. (I like to use myself as a lab rat, as you’ll see in my next blog post.) I was soon convinced. I use them after all hard workouts and races now. Typically, I spend an hour in them in the evening after a high workload day. They are a bit like the combination of massage and compression garments. They slowly inflate starting at the foot and ankle, next apply pressure up the lower leg, then the knee and lower thigh, and finish with the upper thigh. The pressure is released and it starts over again. By the next day my legs are noticeably more recovered than when I don't use them (which happens when I travel). Again, is it placebo? I don't know but I'm unwilling to go without them for several days to find out.
I'd be interested in hearing what other older (50+) athletes have found works for them when it comes to recovery. Please feel free to post a comment here. I've been thinking about writing a book on this subject, so any ideas and leads I can get from you would be much appreciated. Thanks.
1. Fell J, Reaburn P, Harrison GJ. 2008. Altered perception and report of fatigue and recovery in veteran athletes. J Sports Med Phy Fitness, 48(2):272-7.
2. Thompson LV. 2002. Skeletal muscle adaptations with age in activity and therapeutic exercise. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther, 32(2):44-57.
3. Dorrens J, Rennie MJ. 2003. Effects of ageing and human whole body and muscle protein turnover. Scand J Med Sci Sports, 13(1):26-33.
4. Krishnan RK, Evans WJ, Kirwan JP. 2003. Impaired substrate oxidation in healthy elderly men after eccentric exercise. J Appl Physiol, 94(2):716-23.
Next: Aging and my nutrition.