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Age and Exercise

How to Maintain your Exercise Performance as you Become an Older Athlete

This article originally appeared in the sports science newsletter, Peak Performance.

It was believed a few years ago that as you get older, after the age of 35, your aerobic capacity starts to decline. It was believed that there was little that could be done about this decline with it being a slow process at first before gaining momentum at the mid forties and plummeting out of control at 60 years of age.

This theory was supported by a study by the University of Florida, which followed athletes over a 20 year period between the ages of 50 and 70. The results showed a decrease in maximal aerobic capacity (VO2 Max) of 10% between the ages of 50 and 60 and a further 12-15% decrease between 60 and 70.

A 42 year old, female Russian runner named Yekaterina Podkopayeva however improved her performances as she got older and is the only over 40 female who has ever run a 1500-metre race in less than four minutes.

Her performances were consistently high and she just missed out on winning the 1994 1500m European Championship title by just half a second.

Podkopayeva, is now 54 years old and has retired. But over the latter stages of her career she consistently ran to times near her personal best of 3:56.65 for the 1500m, set in 1984. So instead of losing 2 to 3 seconds per year off her time as predicted by scientists for aging athletes she was losing in the region of just 3/10ths of a second per year.

Other Old Timers!
Podkopayeva was not the only aging athlete to perform well and show great performances with age. Jack Foster ran a 2:19 marathon at the age of 41, Priscilla Welch ran 2:26:51 over the same distance at the age of 42, and John Campbell scooted 26.2 miles in 2 04 when he was 41.

And let's not forget that Carlos Lopes set a world marathon record at the ripe old age of 38, a time when many scientists would have predicted that he would be reaching for a pipe and slippers.

Older athletes in other sports have also been excelling. George Foreman won the world heavyweight boxing title at an age of 45 and Teddy Sheringham is still performing consistently in the football Premiership at 40 years of age.

The average age of professional athletes is gradually increasing all the time. The performances of these old timers is amazing experts familiar with the ageing process.

The Effects of Aging
One reason why it is believed performance declines with age is the commonly observed effect of ageing on loss of muscle mass and the steady increase in body fat. Performance almost always decrease as muscle shrinks and fat expands.

An example of the effect of fat is to consider a 154-pound runner with a V02max of 60 and a marathon PB of 2:43 who maintains his normal training and muscle mass but gains 4.4 pounds of fat. This 2.9% increase in body fat could add about five full minutes on to his marathon time and send V02max spiralling downward by about 3 per cent.

Other potential effects of ageing include a decline in cardiac strength, a stiffening of the heart's walls which prevents the heart from filling fully between beats, and the narrowing of blood vessels due to an increase in fatty deposits.

Studies suggest that the maximum amount of blood which can be pumped per heartbeat decreases by about 3-4% per decade. Combined, these effects limit the heart's ability to send blood to the muscles, making high-intensity exercise more difficult.

A study in 1967 examined the effects of ageing on olympic athletes 27 years after they had retired. The findings were rather sad with an approximate decrease in VO2 Max by 15% per decade, which was actually a greater decrease than the one observed in sedentary individuals.

Maintaining Even Though Aging
There is however some evidence that ageing didnít have to destroy athletic potential at such a great rate. This was done by testing an exercise physiologist named D. B. Dill every year between the ages of 37 and 93, the period when exercise capacity was supposed to decline.

It was found his VO2 Max fell at a rate of just 0.33% per year, an astoundingly low figure. Dill did however have high levels of physical activity, which included multi-hour walks in the Nevada desert as he grew older. Many physiologists however regarded Dill as a physiological anomaly, unrepresentative of athletes at large.

This was until 1987 when researchers at the Mt. Sinai Medical Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin reported something very strange at the time. Well trained runners with an average age of 52 were able to completely maintain their V02max values over a 10-year period, during which aerobic capacity would have been expected to fall by about 10 per cent or more.

It was however later found that some of these athletes had INCREASED their training over the 10 year period. Therefore their VO2 Max maintenance may have resulted from not being in top shape at the beginning of the study.

However a follow-up study by Marc Rogers at Washington University in St. Louis indicated that age-related losses in fitness could be quite small. A 55 year old runner maintained his VO2 Max for an eight year period and even improved his 10K PB.

Gradually, a number of exercise scientists begun to realize that sometimes older is better, and new research is showing that much of the decline in performance which accompanies ageing is actually the result of disuse - not the ageing process itself.

In fact, the latest investigations suggest that athletes who continue training vigorously often don't experience significant drop-offs in performance until they reach their middle 40s or early 50s - or later. In addition, the eventual downturns are usually far smaller than expected.

High Intensity Training With Age
It has emerged in recent studies that intensive training can stop the effects of ageing. A study at Ball State University in the United States studied 37 runners first tested in 1970 and again in 1992 when the majority of runners were in their mid to late forties.

In the intervening 22 years, 11 of the runners trained strenuously, 18 exercised fairly casually (running regularly but at an easy pace), and 8 took up sedentary lifestyles.

The 8 sedentary runners exhibited characteristic declines in fitness, including a l5% per-decade loss of aerobic capacity, a decrease of running efficiency, and a significant shortening of stride length.

The 18 casual runners lost aerobic capacity at approximately 9% per decade just below the expected 10 to 15%. However the 11 intense trainers had no significant loss of VO2 Max, running economy (the amount of oxygen required to run at a given pace) or stride length even though they had aged 22 years.

It was believed that the high intensity training was the key factor between the three groups. This group continued to train intensively into their late 40s including Ken Sparks, who was still running 4:13 miles at the age of 45.

Sparks Sessions
At 49 Sparks was still training hard, with plans to break the 4:20 barrier for the mile when he turned 50. Sparks has managed to maintain and even improve his race times over time. For example he ran a 2:40 marathon at the age of 41 and a nifty 2:28 six years later.

In addition, his mile PB of 4:03 at the age of 25 declined to a still-sweet 4:13 when he turned 45, a drop-off of only half a second per year (that's an incredibly low downturn of 2 per cent per decade, even smaller than Podkopayeva's razor-thin losses). Sparks's V02 max, gauged at 68 ml/kg/min when he was 19, now routinely rests in the 65-70 range. That's perfect preservation of aerobic capacity!

This maintenance is due to his frequent, intense, interval running sessions. Sparks runs intervals of either quarter miles at one mile race pace or half miles at 2:16 to 2:18 with recoveries of one minute.

These short recoveries are an excellent way to keep oxygen consumption high during the overall workout and thus boost V02max. He runs between 2 and 3 miles per workout (12 quarter-miles or six half-miles, for example), such workouts not only stimulate fast-twitch muscle fibres but also arrest V02max slippage.

Sparks commented on his workouts, 'They're not easy.' 'When I began doing these interval workouts when I was 40, I was so sore afterward that I initially thought I just wouldn't be able to continue the interval training for long. However, after several weeks the soreness began to disappear, and I started feeling much stronger. Sometimes my motivation flags a little bit, but I find that if I cut out the intervals for a couple of weeks and just run at a more moderate pace, I can eventually get my mind back into intense training again,'

He also has plenty of recovery time with a week consisting of interval training on a Monday, a moderate pace run on a Tuesday and Wednesday and intervals again on a Thursday or Friday.

He uses the treadmill as he says the weather canít bother him and he finds it easier on his legs. Sparks, an exercise physiologist, also believes that the high-speed treadmill efforts preserve the function of his fast-twitch, leg-muscle cells.

Statistical Analysis revealed that the problems encountered by the University of Florida masters runners (described earlier), who lost 10-15 per cent of V02max per decade were due to a failure to continue training at a high-quality pace. As Sparks maintained high intensity paces through his treadmill sessions both aerobic capacity and running economy could be maintained.

Increasing the Workload
Like Ken Sparks, another renowned exercise scientist Dave Costill, Ph.D., of the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University is another athlete who has actually performed better after he reached silver-haired status.

As a college student, Costill's PB in the 1500-metre swim was 23:31, but at the age of 50 he covered the same distance in only 19:42, a close-to four-minute improvement! His running performances also improved as at the age of 32, his PB in the 10K was 43:16, but at age 46 Costill rocketed through the same distance in a brisk 40:18.

Costill did this by actually increasing his workload, unlike most people who cut back their training with age. At college he swam 7.5 miles per week compared to the 15 he does now.

Therefore sometimes it might be nice to be a bit lazy when you're younger because at a later date, you expand your training to match your burgeoning age, your performances and chronological age can increase simultaneously.

Another Example
Hal Higdon (Author and runner) is another older runner who maintained running performance as he experienced almost no decline in his running ability between the ages of 24 and 52.

At 24 Higdon ran 10K in 30:06 and a marathon in 2:21:55. At the age of 52, he breezed through a 10K in 31:08 and a marathon in 2:29:27. Thatís only a 2% decrease per decade compared to the usual 10 to 15%.

In addition, Higdon's maximal heart rate diminished only slightly, his running economy did not worsen, and his V02max did not fall off at all between the ages of 40 to 50!

What was his secret? Unlike most runners, he refused to let his training load decrease as he aged. He also used high intensity training, like Ken Sparks to keep his legs young.

This followed the classic research of Illinois scientist Dr. R. C. Hickson, who showed that aerobic capacity could be maintained for prolonged periods of time, as long as individuals continued to carry out a moderate amount of intense training. Yet speed training is often one of the first things that athletes give up as they get older.

Based on Higdon, Sparks and the Ball-State research it tells us that it shouldnít be a shock that Carlos Lopes ran a 27:17 10K at the age of 37 and a 2:07:12 world record marathon at 38.

As little capacity is lost when serious exercisrs reach their forties, the real surprise is that such performances weren't attained long ago! One of the main obstacles to maintaining performances with ageing has simply been that older athletes cut back on their training because they believe that they canít achieve this level of fitness.

The Scandinavian Lapps
These lessons about ageing recently discovered are lessons we could have learnt from the Lapps years ago. Lapps are energetic people who roam the northern reaches of Scandinavia while tending herds of reindeer.

They have a cultural tradition that upon reaching the age of 55, a Lapp father gives the family's herd of beasts to his eldest son and retires to a life of sedentary reflection and story-telling around the campfire

A Sweedish exercise physiologist, Bengt Saltin tested the Lapps and found that the herders' aerobic capacities remained at incredibly high levels up to the age of 55 but then plummeted as soon as permanent seats were taken at the fireside. Saltin concluded, it's really a lack of exercise, not ageing, which makes fitness deteriorate as we get older.

What About The Women
It was not known the affect of ageing on females as all research had been performed with male subjects. At first glance, it might seem that declines in fitness would be independent of gender.

However a key point to remember is that males produce their key sex hormone, testosterone, more or less continuously throughout life, while females' production of theirs, oestrogen, dips dramatically after menopause.

Oestrogen has a number of positive effects on performance, including a boosting of cardiac output (amount of blood pumped from the heart per minute) and a preservation of bone density.

Therefore, female athletes who don't opt for postmenopausal oestrogen-replacement therapy might suffer from weaker cardiac action, a higher incidence of stress fractures and greater overall rates of injury, all of which could downgrade performance and aerobic capacity by making consistent training more difficult.

A study conducted at the University of Colorado, by Dr. Edie Stevenson collected valuable information about what happens to female athletes. 14 runners were used but the study hasn't been going on long enough to chart individual changes over several decades.

The study showed a comparison of the sixty-year-old runners with the fifty-year-olds suggests that the loss in V02max is around 10% decade. However, one of Stevenson's runners lost only 4% of V02max between the ages of 43 and 53, a very low rate of aerobic capacity impairment.

Stevenson said Ď'We really don't know if the process is the same for females and males. For women, we do tend to see a big drop in performance and V02max in the late 50s and early 60s, but we don't really know why this is happening. To figure out oestrogen's possible role, it would be interesting to give post-menopausal female runners who aren't on oestrogen-replacement therapy some supplemental oestrogen and look at how that influences their performances over time.í

How to be the Super Fit ĎOlderí Athlete Ball-State researcher Vukovich said Ď'If you stay highly motivated and injury-free and continue training at a decent intensity during your forties and fifties, you just don't lose very much.í

However remaining injury free isnít always an easy task but recent research indicates that more experienced athletes do have a lower risk of injury, compared to athletic newcomers. This is based on high mileage and lack of recovery days and not high intensity training being the main causes of injury.

This is good news for older athletes because intensity is a greater producer of fitness than mileage. Therefore increasing the intensity and recovery and cutting back on the miles is the way to do it!

tís easy to do! See the following example:

Running six times a week for a total of 30 miles with 3 miles at a fast pace, can be changed to, Running five days a week for 25 miles with 4 miles at a fast pace. The extra day recovery and less miles will decrease the risk of injury but increasing pace for an extra mile improves V02max, running economy, and competitive performances.

The idea of adding in more recovery seems to fit well with older athletes' training needs. Runner Priscilla Welch noted that as she grew older, her speed didn't decline but she did sometimes require an extra recovery day after tough work outs.

The American marathoner Bill Rodgers noticed the same thing. Adding an extra recovery day doesn't mean that one's total training load has declined, because the additional recovery can facilitate higher-quality training on other days.

Older athletes can also use cross training (aquarunning, cycling, ski machining, and weight training if you're a runner, for example). To maintain or advance training volume.

These workouts may produce less muscle damage compared to running and recent research suggests that they represent an excellent way to preserve V02max.

Strength training is also particularly important for athletes over the age of 50 - when atrophy (wasting) of muscle and skeletal tissue begins to become a problem.

In conclusion, getting old doesnít have to be the end of high quality performances. By changing your training programme to include higher intensity training, increasing recovery days, running less miles, using cross training and strength training can all help you maintain high levels of performance.

Final note: ALWAYS consult your doctor before embarking on a programme of strenuous exercise.



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