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Older Athletes Gain More,
Trumps Genes, Recovery Discovery
Much to my surprise, I’ve discovered that I can row hard two, sometimes three, days in a row--and more often than not get stronger with each session.
For years, my friend Dick Winett (publisher of Master Trainer) and I have bantered back and forth about recovery rates after weight training, compared to high-intensity aerobics. He is more affected by hard cardio, and I’m just the opposite. Dick is sore and tired after a hard session on the Versa Climber or Airdyne and takes several days to fully recover. On the other hand, he’s a recovery genius when it comes to weight training. I’m rarely sore after a hard row or session on the treadmill, but I’m almost always sore after weights. Unlike Dick, it takes me longer to recover from a high-intensity weight workout.
My theory is that the lactic acid produced during hard cardio protects muscle fibers; it shuts them down before they can contract hard enough to get sore. Weight training, on the other hand, targets the muscle fibers; maximum contraction typically occurs before lactic acid gets the upper hand. Aerobic exercise targets the heart, lungs, circulatory system, and the energy producing mechanism in muscle fibers, not the contractile properties.
Dick is unusual; I believe my response is more typical. Bodybuilders usually train a body part once or at most two times each week, whereas elite runners and cyclists often train five to seven days a week. This suggests that the aerobic system recovers faster than muscle fibers.
Still, I never thought I could row two or three consecutive days and improve from one workout to the next. My recent article “Breakthrough” (#134) includes an example. There I reported rowing 1000 meters three times in four days and improving with each effort. I did 3:42.4 on day one, 3:41.3 on day two, skipped a day, and then did a personal best 3:40.1 on the fourth day. I had a similar experience a few days ago rowing three consecutive days; I did 2000 meters on Saturday, 2000 again on Sunday, 5.2 seconds faster, and then, on Monday, a near record (for me) 1500 meters. Interestingly, I felt pretty beat up on Monday from rowing hard the two previous days. “May be dumbest idea yet to row today when body trying to recover from weekend sessions,” I wrote in my diary; but I knew from experience that I often (not always) perform best on the third day of hard rowing.
The Ultimate Ride by Chris Carmichael, Lance Armstrong’s personal coach, (Putnam, 2003) gives credence to my experience. “I have found that athletes are capable of producing the same, if not higher, power outputs on the second day of training, and normally they are capable of producing the same wattage for a third day,” Carmichael writes. “It is interesting to note that athletes’ perceived effort continually drops off each day during such training,” he adds. They can do more work with seemingly less effort on the second and third day (my experience). Carmichael says overall results are better as well: “After giving the athletes appropriate recovery time, I found the consecutive days of load led to greater training adaptation.”
As Coach Carmichael probably would've predicted, on the Saturday following my three days of progressively better rows, I made a new 1500-meter PR, topping my time on Monday by over 4 seconds. Eight days and four rowing workouts later, I improved my 1500 time by another 1.7 seconds, on the second day of rowing.
Keep trying new things, and you'll never stop learning—and improving.
Lifestyle Trumps Genes
Arno Jensen, M.D., my friend and former doctor at the Cooper Clinic, has always emphasized the role of lifestyle. He knows we can do far more for ourselves than any doctor can do for us. Arnie often says, “Health is 50% lifestyle, 10% medicine and the rest is genetics and luck.” Upbeat as Arnie is, turns out he may actually underestimate the impact of lifestyle. According to Time magazine, Online Edition, Swedish scientists studied identical twins separated at birth and reared apart, the only set of people who share genes but not lifestyle. If genes were the controlling factor, the twins would be expected to die at about the same time and age. But they don’t. The average difference convinced the scientists that only about 20% to 30% of how long we live is genetics. Time reported: “The dominant factor is lifestyle”—up to 80%.
“The lesson is pretty clear from my standpoint in terms of what the average person should be doing,” says Dr. Thomas Perls, who heads up the New England Centenarian Study (see article 35, Living To 100). “I strongly believe that with some changes in health-related behavior, each of us can earn the right to have at least 25 years beyond the age of 60—years of healthy life in good function. The disappointing news is that it requires work and willpower.”
We know quite a lot about what’s required, according to Time.
Scientists from the U.S. and Japan have been studying oldsters since 1976 in the Okinawa Centenarian Study. As you’d expect, elderly Okinawans get plenty of exercise, which keeps blood flowing to the brain as well as the rest of the body. Their diets are high in fruits and vegetables, and packed with fiber. “They consume more soy than any other population on earth: 60-120 grams a day.” As important as what they eat may be how much. “They practice a dietary philosophy known as hara hachi bu: they eat only to the point at which they are about 80% sated.” Lastly, aged Okinawans are respected as “the sacred keepers of a family’s bond with the ancestors [and] express a high level of satisfaction with life.”
Personality seems to be a key factor in living long and well. Leonard Poon, director of the University of Georgia Gerontology Center, has studied American centenarians since 1988. Poon has found that centenarians exhibit four coping mechanisms. First, he says, “Centenarians are more dominate. They want to have their way,” and are not easily pushed around. “Suspiciousness” is another characteristic. “They do not take information on the superficial level;” they question and think issues through. They tend to be practical rather than idealistic. Finally, they are likely to be relaxed in their approach to life. “In other words, they are strong but not inflexible characters,” says Time.
And one more thing: Dr. Poon says, “I don’t have any fat centenarians” in my research pools. Supersizing is not part of the plan to live to 100 and beyond. (See article 117, French Prove Calorie Saver Rule, and Challenge Yourself.)
Time sums up beautifully: “There’s a poetry of common sense in [the centenarian] scheme for immortality. Eat sensibly. Keep walking. Keep knitting. If you can’t keep friends, make new ones. Plan so much invigorating work that there’s just no time to die. And no regrets when you do.”
Seiryu Toguchi, a thriving 103-year-old Okinawan featured in the article, says when he drifts off to sleep each night, “My head is filled with all the things I want to do tomorrow.”
Older Athletes Gain More
A Yale University study of 415,000 participants in the New York City Marathon over 16-years found that the top group of over-50 male and female runners improved more quickly than their younger counterparts. The average times of the older runners improved more than the average times for younger age groups. The top women runners aged 50-59 showed the greatest improvement, running as a group more than 2 minutes faster each year from 1983 to 1999. Top male runners in that age group improved about 8 seconds each year. The performance level for younger elites was essentially unchanged.
The number of master participants also increased faster than younger runners. Growing interest and enthusiasm of master athletes, especially women, obviously accounts for part of the improvement differential. But it sure puts the lie to any lingering belief that older athletes can’t benefit from exercise. “You can maintain a very high performance standard into the sixth or seventh decade of life,” lead researcher Dr. Peter Jokl told The Associated Press.
The study reinforces the notion that many older people grow weaker not because of age, but because they do not use their muscles, said Jokl, a professor of orthopedics at the Yale School of Medicine.
The Yale study, published in the August 2004 British Journal of Sports Medicine, bolsters past research on the benefits older athletes get from exercise. A study of exercise training in people 55 and older found they can see the same amount of improvement in muscle strength, oxygen consumption and other benefits as people in their 20s and 30s, said Dr. Kerry Stewart, who teaches clinical exercise physiology at Johns Hopkins.
Unfortunately, the word is not resonating or is being ignored. While many people know about the benefits of exercise, few are doing it, says Daniel Perry, executive director of The Alliance for Aging Research. A survey by Perry’s group found that only a third of people born between 1946 and 1964 exercise regularly.
That’s probably high or defines exercise liberally.
Bottom line: If one’s fitness is stagnant or declining, it’s likely self-defeating and a mistake to blame it on any age under three score and ten—and maybe not then. Improvement stops only when you do.
The evidence on the benefits of regular exercise keeps poring in. Here's another encouraging study, performed by researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, reported in Circulation (2004;110:1799-1805) and discussed in HealthNews (February 2005).
The researchers compared stiffening of the heart muscle in 12 healthy but sedentary 70-year-olds (plus or minus 3 years), 12 Masters athletes with average age of 68, and 14 healthy but sedentary control subjects average age 29. All groups were equally divided between men and women. Stiffness of the heart's main pumping chamber usually increases with age and is associated with heart failure.
The hearts of the sedentary 70-year-olds were found to be 50% stiffer than those of the sedentary 29-year-olds. No surprise there. "What we didn't expect was that the hearts of the senior athletes were indistinguishable from those of the younger participants," head researcher Benjamin Levine, MD, told HealthNews.
"A sedentary lifestyle during healthy aging is associated with decreased left ventricular compliance, leading to diminished diastolic performance. Prolonged, sustained endurance training preserves ventricular compliance with aging and may help prevent heart failure in the elderly," the researchers wrote in their conclusion. (Emphasis added.)
HealthNews reports that the research team is doing another study on the effects of an "age-appropriate" resistance training program. "After a year, their hearts are more muscular and more flexible."
Clearly, exercise, endurance and strength, pays big dividends, especially if you make it part of your lifestyle.
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