Thursday, January 15, 2009


I turned 40 in December. Although I've been fairly athletic all of my life (became a world class 12oz. curler/hurler once I graduated from college), I didn't get started on this endurance journey until about my mid-30s. And trail running (means to the end) started, for me, last year. Naturally, there's a little regret, a little envy looking at all of the amazing athletes out there kicking ass in their. . .mid 20s! What I would give to be 30 again; but that's pretty cliche, meaning it's predictable and barely scratches the surface of one's thoughts on the subject.

My life has been an amazing learning process. And now I have a real passion in fitness and travel (on foot), which is why The Maker has pointed me in the direction of the trail. If I really look at that "regret," I could discern that it stems from the competitor in me. Sure, I guess a loss of time in general (I'm getting old) might make someone a little regretful because he wishes he had more time, but I think for me it's the thought that I could take a stab at some respectable times in certain races, train harder, really immerse myself in the life. As for racing, as one gets older, some of those "times" simply become out of reach.

That's the bad news about aging and athletic performance according to an article in the recent Runner's World. Does age matter? According to Christie Aschwanden in her article, "Age Matters," absolutely; but like most serious discussions, it's more complicated than that. She starts off by saying that with age, one's aerobic capacity falls. There's no escaping that. Supposedly, one's max hr drops about one beat per year. Although she says "no one knows the explanation," it explains why a 55 year old can't compete against a 25 year old: grandpa is "operating at a lower intensity to begin with."

Then there's the decline in muscle mass. According to the article, the neurons that supply the muscles start to shrink and die, and because of that, the muscle fibers die. An exercise scientist from Marquette qualifies it by saying "sometimes [muscle fibers] get regenerated by new neurons, but as you age you can't keep pace with the cell death. Training can slow the process, but it won't end it." The doc says at age 60 the atrophy really picks up and starts to hit fast twitch fibers especially hard. Hence, speed goes before endurance.

The article touches on recovery: loss of muscles means loss of one's ability to store glycogen, so replenishing those stores after a hard effort takes longer. And age-related hardening of the arteries cuts blood-flow to the tissues, so that slows recovery, as well.

This isn't necessarily news to anyone. As we get older, it takes us longer to get out of bed. We can't party the night before and throw-down the next day (in college, my nickname on the soccer team was JW ((johnny walker)); I'm not proud of it, but I could still ball even though my breath was a little shaky). The older we are, the more susceptible we are to injury and slow recovery. Period.

However, the article has some good news in terms of aging and athletic performance, especially for nonelites; "significant age-related losses in endurance performance did not occur before the age of 50. Mean marathon and half-marathon times were nearly identical for the age groups from 20 to 49 years." The article sites many studies done world-wide. One 2008 Austrian study found little difference between the finish times of racers 35 to 49 (top five) in the world mountain-running championships. The authors of that study say the results suggest VO2Max can be maintained at high levels through the age of 49. Great stuff to hear, obviously.

The article covers a lot of ground. In the end, it seems to say that the aerobic base is pretty key (how long one has been training/competing). Anyone can look at various race results and see how fast some masters athletes are. Science seems to support that the potential is there to compete at a very high level well into one's 40s and 50s. But the key is training and training smart. We can't control the clock, but we can control what we eat, how we train, how much stress we have in our lives.

And what exactly is one's prime, say, for the marathon? The article points-out how the trend of competitive running in this country may have a lot to do with our perception of "peak" age. Actually, the author sites Jack Daniels, who says," In the U.S., the conventional approach has been, spend your younger years trying to see how fast you can run on the track, and if you don't make it there, see how fast you can run on the road, and then, if all else fails, try the marathon." Younger runners are definitely discouraged from running longer events. Fine, this may be common sense. I think Ritz and Ryan Hall are representing a little break from that trend. They're 23-25. Are these their prime years? Wanjiru won the 2008 Oly marathon, and he's 21. On the other hand, the Romanian woman who won the 2008 Oly marathon was 38. And the marathon world record was set by Gebrselassie who is 35. Radcliffe (34) and Kastor (35) represent that mid-30s group, too. Is it mid 20's or mid 30's. Lance's comeback will be interesting. He'll be nearly 38 when it all goes down in France. Ironman Tom Evans has done some great stuff, recently winning Ironman Florida in course record time, and establishing a best-ever for OVER 40! Nice.

Obviously, I've been thinking about age. Reading, of course, gets one thinking. Racing does as well. In fact, the older we are the more we think and the more life becomes a race! One truth about me - and one the article touches on - is that I have yet to peak. I don't have any results from my 20s and 30s to illustrate my decline. Other than a few summers when I trained for college ball (soccer) and was in very very good shape, I don't think I've seen my best fitness. So in that respect, the bar can only be raised in my case. And according to science, I should be able to raise that bar - if I'm truly committed to improving my fitness -- until I'm 49 or 50. That's just the way it is.

So, despite all this youth that's tearing-up the joint, those of us a little longer in the tooth still have some gas in the tank! Of course, we're all in this together and our experience starts to play more of role the older we get. Again, I have to point to the journey each of us takes and reading 2008 reviews evidenced how cool those journies are and how much we can learn from each other. Those of us involved in endurance sports have seen a very cool light (headlamp) that we'll use to find our way to the top of that old rocky trail. I feel so blessed to have found the trail.

Now, if I can just kick this F'ing VIRUS and get back out there to kick 2009 into gear!


  1. Take a look at Noakes in the Lore of Running and what he has to say on it. He states that generally a runner has about 20 years of good competitive life ... and hence the folks who will set the records as 70 year olds won't be the ones who set them at 20 ... rather they will start running at 60, etc.

  2. GZ, I'm on it. Did you see MDA's post on Tabata? Certainly one has to have endurance to run long, but between Hudson's podcast (hills), and the talk around tabata, HR seems to be a really sticky subject. Event though I'm no longer MAF, I'm still confused. Runniing less and harder could be a legitimate approach year round. Quality.
    And crosstrain. And do core work.

  3. And run a lot. And eat less. And do tempo runs. And run uphill. And run down hill. And ...

    ... ah, screw it. Just run.

    I think hill sprints, are just a good "alternative" stress to the neuromuscular system ... almost like squats. You are firing muscle (fibers) without putting significant risky stress on the skeletal system (which downhill is actually the worst for!). The HR component is not something to focus on in those sprints.

    It comes down to it being another element to be managed in ... dependent on the runner's abilities, goals, times to train, strengths, weaknesses. I hesitate to say run less and harder ... I'd advocate moderately higher volume (particularly as the event gets longer) but with neuromuscular stress throughout the year - getting more specific to an event as one approaches that event.

    Isn't Tabata really bike oriented?

  4. Mark (Son of Grok) seems to suggest the tabata is ~8 intervals of 20sec. with 10sec. recov.

  5. Interesting!

    I am not sure that I'd follow the same approach for running hill sprints. You are going to want to be explosive on the sprints. I know that Hudson say 8-12 seconds ... I make my 15-20 because I roll up into them a bit more ... but I take as much rest as necessary. If I had to guess what my HR was in those recovs, it would be floating down south of 120, but I don't know. The rests are certainly longer than the sprint and are much longer than 10 seconds.

    FWIW ... hill sprints are nice and fun ... but it ain't a silver bullet either.