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“Around age 70, fast-twitch muscle begins to stop responding, followed by the decline of slow-twitch a decade later. Power drains away.” Scott Trappe, Director, Human Performance Laboratory, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana (The New York Times, November 25, 2010)

“I do what not to do to an extreme. I go out jogging. It’s not fast running, just that I do it for a long time.” Ed Whitlock, over-70 marathon world record holder (Running Times Magazine, March 2010)

Lessons from Olga and Ed, Dynamic Duo of Ageless Muscle

I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve received about Olga Kotelko, the 91-year old track and field phenom. (Thanks everyone) After a late start, this petite lady is making experts think anew about the potential for speed, strength, and power late in life. Considered one of the world’s greatest athletes, she holds 23 world records, including 17 in the 90 to 95 age category. Her events include long jump, triple jump, high jump, shot put, discus, javelin, weight throw, and the 100- 200- and 400-meter sprints—all fast-twitch events.  

If you’re thinking that Olga doesn’t have many rivals in her age-group, then you’d be correct. Her performances are nevertheless remarkable. For example, she throws the javelin more than 20 feet farther than her nearest age-group rivals and her 100-meter time is faster than top competitors two age brackets down. Using age-graded tables, her shot put, high jump, and 100-meter marks top 100 percent.

Olga is truly special. She’s not going to out run or jump Marion Jones or Carl Lewis, but she’s light years ahead of the typical 90-year-old. Ed Whitlock, who is poised to rewrite the marathon record book for the 80 plus crowd in 2011, is equally outstanding on the endurance front. His age-graded marathon time is the best in the world.

A wide-ranging article by Bruce Grierson in The New York Times (November 25, 2010) explores how and why Olga and Ed are in the age-group performance stratosphere.

Muscle aging remains a mystery in many ways, but exercise physiologists believe mitochondria and fast-twitch muscle are major factors. A loss of fast-twitch fibers is thought to be the reason we lose speed and strength as we get older. And the energy-producing mitochondria are believed to undergo age-related damage that further diminishes performance.

Olga and Ed have the experts scratching their heads and the rest of us cheering.

Olga’s Mitochondria Flawless

Olga is well-known in masters track circles, but what brought her to the attention of The New York Times and other media outlets is testing done early in 2010 at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

Olga was the invited guest of Tanya Taivassalo, assistant professor in McGill’s department of kinesiology and physical education. Taivassalo spent several days putting Olga through a series of physical tests, including strength and muscle testing, and a treadmill test to measure oxygen uptake and cardiac output.

“The most precious test is the muscle biopsy,” said Taivassalo, who specializes in mitochondrial research. She studies what happens to the body when mitochondria, the cell’s power plants, are faulty. Some researchers see aging as a kind of mitochondrial disease. Defective mitochondria appear as we get older, robbing us of endurance, strength and function.

For young patients with mitochondrial disease, exercise seems to be a potent tool, slowing the symptoms. “If that’s true,” Bruce Grierson wrote, “then exercise could also potentially be a kind of elixir of youth, combating the ravages of aging far more than we thought.

Many researchers assume that the problem is with the muscle cells (which contain mitochondria), but others disagree, saying the motor neurons that activate the muscle are the main factor. When the neuron or nerve triggering the muscle cell stops functioning, the muscle cells wither and die. Either way, it could be a case of “use it or lose it.” A disease process or aging could also be at work.

Professor Taivassalo patiently awaited word on the plug of muscle tissue extracted from Olga’s thigh muscle. Happily, the long wait—the biopsy was in April and the lab report came back in October—was well rewarded. 

In muscle samples from people over 65, researchers expect to see at least a couple of fibers with some mitochondrial defects. But in around 400 muscle fibers taken from Olga’s quad, Taivassalo gleefully reported, “We didn’t see a single fiber that had any evidence [of mitochondrial decay]. It’s remarkable!” 

What makes Olga different?

All we know for sure is that she had the audacity to enter age-group track and field competition at the age of 77. And her body responded like gangbusters. Perhaps we’d have more like her if more oldsters were so bold.

In the mind of some, it has something (or everything) to do with her genetic makeup. That’s undoubtedly true, but probably no more so than other world-class athletes. We might learn a great deal by examining her gene profile, but at this stage it’s all speculation. 

Taivassalo and other scientists believe that exercise has the potential to extend youthfulness for most of us. While it may not extend life span—many believe exercise can add between six and seven years—it is very likely to extend one’s health span. As one scientist told Grierson, you erase chronic illness and infirmity for, say, 95 percent of your life. “So you’re healthy, healthy, healthy, and then at some point you kick the bucket.”

As Olga herself acknowledges, those who take up, or continue, competition late in life must find a balance between stress and rest. “If you undertrain, you might not finish,” Olga observes. “If you overtrain, you might not start.”

You have to keep exercising, but you can’t exercise if the body breaks down. To avoid injuries, aging track athletes are often advised to keep training, but lower the intensity. That’s the strategy that allowed Ed Whitlock to run a 2:54.48 marathon at the age of 73—the age-graded equivalent of a 20-year-old running 2:03.57, which would be the fastest marathon ever run.

(Lowering intensity would also seem to be a recipe for loss of fast-twitch fibers. We’ll address that below.)

Round and Round the Cemetery

When people ask Whitlock his training secret, they learn that he runs every day, slowly, for hours, around a cemetery a few blocks from his home.

 Ed’s story is told by Scott Douglas in the March 2010 issue of Running Times Magazine.

Whitlock was a world class runner from the get-go. He ran a 4:31 mile in high school in his native England and once beat future world-record holder Gordon Pine in a cross-country race. Unfortunately, his university running career was cut short by an Achilles tendon problem. (As we’ll see, it still bothers him.) He didn’t take up running again until age 41, when he was living in Quebec, Canada.

“I run to race,” he told Douglas. “I don’t do it primarily for my health or anything else.” That has worked well, because he does well whenever he trains and runs.

He has run age-group world records at distances from 1500 meters to the marathon. He ran a 6:00-minute mile pace for 5K in his early 70s and a 5:41 mile when he was over 75. As notes earlier, he plans to go after the 80 plus marathon world record of 3:39.18 when he turns 80 on March 6, 2011. Pretty clearly, it would not be wise to bet against him.

The Achilles problem is still with him, and in large part explains his low-intensity training strategy. His loops around the cemetery vary somewhat, but he never runs the full perimeter loop—because the last segment would include a rise of about 50 yards. “I choose not to tackle this hill,” he told Mr. Douglas. “I don’t like hills.”

When at the height of marathon training, he does cemetery loops for 3 hours a day, every day. He doesn’t do pick-ups or progression runs or marathon-pace work, Douglas reports. Just 3 hours a day of what he calls “plodding” or “jogging.”

Douglas calculates that jogging 3 hours a day at Whitlock’s pace is about 140 miles a week. 

Douglas’ closing quote from Whitlock explains as well as anything why he prefers to run in the cemetery. "All people are strange in different ways.” 

Whatever the explanation, plodding around and around and around in the cemetery works for Ed. It may also account for what Douglas describes as his “gracile 115-pound frame.” (Gracile is defined as “slender or thin in a charming or attractive way.”) As shown by the photos in Running Times Magazine (link below), he’s rail thin.  

You’d be hard put to find an ounce of fat any where on his body. Like many marathoners, the same might be said for muscle mass.

We are not told the status of Ed’s fast-twitch muscle fibers. He probably doesn’t know or care.

Loss of fast fibers may not bother Ed, but it’s a major problem for many others, especially those in his age group.


It would be hard to find a doctor who doesn’t recommend exercise for seniors, but it’s likely to be something like a daily walk.

“If there’s a single trend in the research into exercise and gerontology,” Bruce Grierson wrote in his The New York Times piece, “it’s that we have underestimated what old folks are capable of, from how high their heart rates can safely climb to how deeply into old age they can exercise with no major health risk.”

Olga Kotelko didn’t hold back when she decided to enter master track and field competition at 77. According to Grierson, she found a trainer willing to push her and hit the gym hard, “performing punishing exercises like planks and roman chairs and bench presses and squats, until her muscles quivered and gassed out.”

As we’ve seen, it paid off big time. You could say that her high intensity approach was/is the polar opposite of Ed Whitlock. (Ed is the model for the long, slow distance crowd.)

Walking or jogging is a good place to start, but (apologies to ED) it’s not enough for those who want optimum results. Many researchers now believe that intense training is the best way to maintain youth and vitality. (That’s my approach. A balance of stress and rest is the key to making it work.)

One expert told Grierson, “Seniors can work out less frequently, as long as they really bring it when they do." 

Here’s the problem. It’s a bummer: “Around age 70, fast-twitch muscle begins to stop responding, followed by the decline of slow-twitch a decade later. Power drains away. [It’s called the] fast-twitch-fiber problem.” 

Those are the words of Scott Trappe, Director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, as quoted by Mr. Grierson. No matter how high-tech their exercise program, how strong their will, how good their genes, nobody escapes, Grierson added.  

Often, the drop-off happens too gradually to notice. “Things go downhill slowly until around age 75, when something alarming tends to happen,” Grierson wrote in another section of the article. “Muscle fibers ought in theory to keep responding to training. But they don’t. Something is applying the brakes.”

(Grierson, of course, offers Olga and Ed as exceptions—rare exceptions.) 

I’ve heard it said that it’s downhill after 70, but seeing it stated so starkly gave me pause. Being in the age-group bulls-eye, it bummed me out.

I’m training hard and well at 73, and feeling optimistic about more photos at 75. Still, I was spooked.  

Not for long, however.


I’ve started competing again in the Concept 2 World Rankings (500 meters). After starting out near the back of the pack (70 to 79 age group), I’ve moved up to the middle of the field (8th place out of 17).

It’s inspiring to see what top rowers my age and weight are doing. These guys apparently haven’t gotten the word that Mother Nature puts the brake on fast-twitch fibers at 70. 

I’m now well positioned to move up a few more places.

When I read Grierson’s article, it was time for my last hard row before another all-out effort for ranking. My plan was to improve at 350- and 250-meters before going for it at 500 meters. The idea is to give myself confidence that I’m ready to move up. If you think you can, you probably can. One thing is sure: If you don’t think you can, you can't and won’t.

Amazingly, the competition is so evenly matched that an improvement of a little over a second will put me in fifth place. (That can be a lot when you’re pushing your limit.)

I’ll admit it. Grierson’s article had me feeling discouraged. It’s always hard to get psyched up for a maximum effort—you have to start fast, hold the planned pace, and sprint through the finish—but this time I had to talk to myself longer than usual. You must convince yourself that you can do it. Doubt and your dead in the water. (There's no water, of course.)

I finally got my mind right and went for it—with encouraging results. I was only a tenth of a second off my 350m target pace. (I always have a plan and a goal.) I was half way there. I walked around a bit to get my legs (and psyche) back, and did the 250-meter rep. Again, I did my best at that distance in recent times. (Both efforts were, of course, faster than my target pace for 500 meters.)

That was the whole workout. Warm-up, go all-out for 350 meters, and then walk around and do the same for 250. (What’s the point in doing more reps? At best, I’d go backward. You only have to do it once for ranking.)

Doubts planted by The New York Times piece are gone, at least for now. My fast-twitch fibers are working just fine, thank you.

All we have is today. Take care of today and tomorrow will take care of it self.

 In a few of weeks, I intend to move up in the C2 Rankings. I think I can and that means I probably will.

*  *  *

Learn from Olga and Ed. They think they can—and they do.


[To read more about Olga in The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/28/magazine/28athletes-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

And Ed in Running Times Magazine  http://runningtimes.com/Print.aspx?articleID=18810 ]

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