What we thought we knew about “normal” aging isn’t really normal for humans at all. Master and senior athletes provide proof of that every time there’s a race. Many older athletes continue to perform better than most young athletes. They can do it because they have the right genes and they continue to push both their physical and mental limits. They’re unwilling to accept a number as a reason that they can’t do it. While aging does inevitably take a toll on performance, it’s small compared with the loss of functional performance that “normal,” inactive people experience due to disuse. Most people “rust out” rather than “wear out.”
Strenuous exercise is a key to not only the quality of life, but also to its quantity – how long we live. This is difficult for science to “prove” as university ethics committees charged with approving study protocols aren’t too big on manipulating human subjects’ lifestyles to see who lives longer. That leaves us with animal studies on the affects of exercise on health and longevity.
One such aging and exercise study using mice was done at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada and reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2011 (Safdar). Mice that were bred to age rapidly were divided into two groups. One group was sedentary. The other group ran on treadmills three times per week for 45 minutes each time at a brisk pace – the equivalent of a 50- to 55-minute 10km run for humans. By 8 months, which is roughly age 60 for humans, the sedentary mice were frail, grey and dying. In the picture you see two of the subject mice. On the left is an exerciser. A sedentary mouse, of the same age (30 months) is on the right. There’s an obvious difference in their physiological ages.
All of the sedentary mice were dead by 12 months of age. But by that age the exercisers were still young looking and behaving – and none had died. It’s much the same for humans, I suspect. Exercise regularly and strenuously and you’ve greatly extended both the quantity and quality of your life.
Exercise is perhaps the most powerful medicine there is when it comes to health and longevity. Your chronic diet ranks right up there, also. I’ll get to that in another post.
I suspect you already know this. If you’ve been an athlete for several years it’s undoubtedly obvious that your age-mates look older than you. By the time you are in your 70s you will be much more active than your “normal” friends. Your quality of life will be much better. And chances are you will live longer.
But, of course, most of us old geezers don’t train and eschew the shuffleboard lifestyle simply to live longer. That would be nice, however. We mainly do it to enjoy the challenge of athletic accomplishment with like-minded athletes. I’ve never met a serious athlete who spoke only of exercising to live a long time and wasn’t interested in improving his or her athletic performance, regardless of age.
Living a long time is a welcome side affect, but let's get back to athletic performance.
The point I’ve been making in the past few posts is that the decline of performance with age has been shown to result from a decrease in aerobic capacity (VO2max) in most experienced, aging athletes – not to decreases in lactate threshold or economy, the other two primary factors in endurance performance. There could be lots of reasons for this decline. The reason that is the most commonly reported in the scientific literature is a reduction in both high-intensity training and training volume that is common as we get older (Foster, Hawkins, Tanaka, Trappe, Wiswell, Young). And, as I discussed here, the more powerful influencer of aerobic capacity is the intensity at which we train. But there is a lot of physiological stuff that may have to do with the reduction in how much oxygen we can process while exercising.
The decline in aerobic capacity may also result, in part, from a loss of muscle mass. This too is often related to the decline in high-intensity training, but apparently has an aging-related component even among serious senior athletes (Faulkner). In the normal (meaning “sedentary”) population, muscle area decreases up to about 40% from age 20 to 80 (Doherty, Lepers). The decline is considerably smaller - and sometimes even non-existent - in senior athletes as I explained here.
Increasing the intensity of training places greater stress on the primary working muscles for your sport and encourages muscle development. This is because exercise, especially highly intense exercise, is anabolic (builds muscle and other tissues) as the body responds by increasing its production of hormones such as testosterone, estrogen, growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor (Cadore, Kraemer, Stokes). Hormone release occurs primarily during sleep which is why it’s so important to snooze a lot when training hard.
Another way to accomplish gains in muscle mass is through resistance training (Arazi, Lemmer, Melov, Porter) – “lifting weights.” Regardless of age, strength training, especially with heavy loads, has been shown to slow the loss of muscle fibers, which is common with advancing age, while maintaining muscle fiber size (Aagard). Lifting heavy weight loads has also been shown to benefit endurance performance (Ronnestad), but is somewhat more controversial. If true, this may be due to type 1 muscles (slow twitch, endurance muscles) being able to manage a greater load during endurance exercise thus delaying the use of type 2 muscles (fast twitch) during exercise (Ronnestad).
Then there’s the matter of bone density as we get older. Lifting heavy weights can play an important role here, too. Running is an excellent way to maintain bone health due to the increased load placed on the legs, hip and spine. But it does nothing for the arms. Cycling and swimming are less effective when it comes to maintaining bone density as load bearing is quite low (Gomez-Bruton). Strength training, however, has been shown to maintain or even increase bone density, an area of concern for both men and women, with aging (Marques, Yarasheski).
Much the same as with sport-specific, high-intensity training, lifting heavy loads in the weight room can be risky for the senior athlete who has not been doing so regularly for some time. The key here, just as with getting started with interval training, is to begin conservatively, meaning light loads with few reps and sets, and progress to greater loads and volume slowly allowing the body time to adapt. A single, overly enthusiastic mistake made in the weight room could jeopardize a season and even your athletic career. Be cautious when just starting out, especially when doing whole-body lifts such as squats and dead lifts.
In my Cyclist’s Training Bible, Triathlete’s Training Bible and Mountain Biker’s Training Bible I describe the weight training system I’ve used with the athletes I’ve coached. You can also find general guidelines for cycling and triathlon strength training programs here.
For the serious senior athlete who is focused on high-performance racing, periodization of strength training must be considered. In regards to this, the best time for serious weight lifting is in the Prep and early Base periods of the season. Heavy and frequent lifting just prior to and during the race season (Build, Peak and Race periods) will be counterproductive for performance. That’s the time for strength and muscle maintenance. Again, this is all explained in my Training Bible books.
For my next post in this looong series on aging I’ll get into how to avoid the common pitfalls of high-intensity training – both sport-specific and for weight lifting.
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