Learning With Age: How to Maintain Fitness Past Your Peak

I have to say, my generation is pretty lucky as far as runners go. As beneficiaries of the current masters athletes, we’ve been able to take advantage of many things they didn’t have in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s — aspects of the sport that they have built up as the sport has progressed. We have races at every distance just about every weekend, huge crowds at big road races, prize money, and the opportunity for anyone to jump into a race and feel confident they’ll be accepted by a great running and/or cycling community.

Along with the tangible benefits from those that came before us is the knowledge they learned along the way. As the next generation enters those years when we’re starting to wonder how to keep going as strong as we can for as long as we can, most masters are happy to share their own secrets. There are masters runners breaking records regularly. They’ve been able to continue competing. And while they haven’t necessarily been getting faster, they’ve certainly lessened the downhill slope and remained competitive at a high level.

So, how do they do it? Several of the best masters runners from the mile to the 100K distance live in the Northwest. Lucky for us, they were willing to share some of their secrets. Incredible athletes like Meghan Arbogast, Ahrlin Bauman and Mike Blackmore have great stories about their competitive careers that make them legends in their day. But perhaps more intriguing is how they’ve been able to continue their training at such a high level deep into their masters years.

In addition to experience, research in sports science has expanded our knowledge to back up what we see in real world situations. We now have the ability to know what’s going on with our bodies as we age, and if there’s anything we can do to slow the effects of aging.

Jay Dicharry (MPT), one of the country’s premier biomechanics, now resides in Bend, OR. He is the author of Anatomy for Runners and says there are four things that have big implications as we get older: soft tissue stiffening, declining VO2max, declining muscle mass, and a slower rate of repair. Each of these properties is important to competitive athletes, so the trick is how to limit the decline.

Jay’s advice on slowing (but not stopping) the decline:

“As we age, our soft tissues become stiffer. It’s important to make sure you are making some type of aim to keep your body supple. While this can be stretching, it’s not always. Most runners’ efforts would be better spent spending time working on muscle mobility rather than muscle length. Foam rollers, trigger point tools, the stick, and other toys go a long way here.”

Losing VO2 doesn’t have to mean that we stop competing. Here’s Jay’s suggestion: “Switching to longer distances doesn’t really favor the person with the highest VO2, so older runners can enjoy lots of success at longer distances. There is a reason why you don’t see 50-year olds in the Olympics in the 1500m. It takes a lot of horsepower to run sub-four minute miles.” He postulates, “Can running, faster stop the VO2 decline? No, it can’t.”

Getting older also means less muscle mass — an important attribute to running fast. Jay adds, “When you lose muscle mass, you lose the ability to produce force quickly, and this is absolutely essential for running.” Those of you who have never touched a weight as a runner, now is the time. In fact, the group of runners who MOST needs to lift weights is the aging runner. Even the great Frank Shorter said, “Each year I get a little bit slower from where I was in my peak, but each year since I started lifting, I’m still getting stronger!”

Perhaps the most noticeable and most talked about trait of the aging runner is the increase in recovery time. I’ve even started to notice recently that I just can’t do all that I used to be able to. Luckily, Jay has an answer, and it’s one that successful masters athletes have figured out as well: “You can still do long runs, you can still do weekly speed work, you can still do lots of good tempo work. The thing you are going to have to pay attention to is timing. When you were younger, you bounced back quickly from workouts. As you age, you’ll still recover, but it will take longer. You may notice that it takes longer. Remember, training breaks the body down, and it’s critical that you go into your next workout READY. Going into a workout strong means you’ll be able to put in a strong effort and reap full benefit. Giving sub-par efforts during training produce sub-par benefits. Taking more rest as we age isn’t being lazy — it’s being smart!”

Meghan Arbogast is a monster on the trails — especially in ultras. She regularly beats women 20-30 years younger. And we’re not talking soft ultra races here; these are highly competitive ultras against the best women in the country. Ahrlin Bauman, while just recently squeaking into that masters range, has been competing his entire life. He’s figured out how to maintain a drive in a sport where most elite athletes burn out between 25-30 years old, and just recently won the USATF Masters XC National Championships. And Mike Blackmore, a former sub-four-minute miler at the University of Oregon hasn’t slowed all that much in 28 years. In 2011, he set a world record in the 1500m (for the age of 49) — clocking 4:03.

Maintain Fitness Past Your Peak

One of the keys consistent with each of the athletes is the individual nature of their training. After years of competing and training, these athletes now have the experience and know-how to remain healthy. Each has his or her own way of doing this, but as Mike says, “Being really fit and broken just doesn’t work.” Staying healthy is the key. And figuring out that balance is different for everyone.

Mike has used extensive self-massage to work on muscle mobility, and intense track sessions to work on VO2max. He puts an emphasis on increased recovery between sessions. Having an intimate self-awareness and listening to his body helps him contain his injuries, straddling the line between high fitness and being broken. “Dynamic drills have been an important part of my training,” he says. “Honestly, not so much for improving speed or flexibility. But when something isn’t right, I really notice it when I do those drills. I remember those body parts that need attention when I get a massage. The self-coached athlete needs to listen to his own coaching advice! I think my answer is to under-train on the hard days, take full advantage of what my threshold runs give me, and either postpone, restructure or remove a hard session from my week in order to stay healthy.”

Mike goes on to say, “I use massage sticks, FootRubz (a massage tool for your feet), The Grid (a foam roller) when I need too. Hydration is big post-workout. I use some recovery products (FLUID Recovery and Nuun electrolytes). I also have started using one of your favorite tools, the Recovery Pump.”

Meghan uses the increased endurance from years of training and racing over ultra distances to reduce the impact of a declining VO2 max, and credits her injury resistance to her slow build up and weekly massage. “I think getting started into the competitive arena as my daughter was getting older kept me from over training and over racing, allowing a slow build up to the longer events, to the point now, as an empty nester, I have the endurance and time to race every month,“ says Meghan. And she points out that “Because I’ve stayed healthy and strong from diligence, I am still enjoying pushing myself. I try and get plenty of sleep and eat smart, all with a good dose of moderation.”

Generally speaking, a higher intensity workout schedule will be harder on a body. But Arhlin uses higher intensity workouts with training partners to help keep him motivated to reduce the decline of his VO2 max, combined with increased recovery between workouts and his knowledge of when to back off. “My secret is rather simple; you really have to find people with similar goals like you. I trained for several years alone, and just kind of got stale. I wasn’t bad, but it just wasn’t very motivating to go out there alone and have no one to gauge off of. I felt like I could cheat a workout or a run, because it didn’t matter; no one was there to make me actually finish it or do it like I should,” says Arhlin.

“I’m focusing more on speed now, because I already have the strength from years of injury-free grinding it out. I feel that helps me more right now because at my age, very few people have big kicks left in them,“ he says.  “People have asked me at work, ‘How far did you run today?’ And I’ll reply, ‘Oh, maybe six miles.’ And they’re shocked, because in their mind they think I’m running 15-20 a day. I just can’t run that far and have fun. I wouldn’t be walking around work, I’d be crawling.” According to Jay, the nice thing is that in a well-trained individual, our VO2 max will only decline 0.3-0.5 percent per year as opposed to 1 percent per year in untrained individuals.

Jay’s background as a researcher at the SPEED Clinic at the University of Virginia gives him a unique perspective and a knowledge base that’s beyond all but a few of the best minds in the country. “I’d like to think that we are constantly getting better and more skilled. The training you are doing today is based on prep work you’ve done in the years preceding. And this lies on an individual basis. Only you can take a look back at your training history, and compare it to your goals. In what areas has your training helped you excel? In what areas has your training not helped you prepare adequately? Does your work/family time place demands on you that should make you re-focus your goals? If you attack your limiters, you’ll always come out a stronger and more well rounded you.” This takes some awareness of your own fitness, and being realistic with where you are in training and in daily life. If your time and ability to train are on a comparable level to your goals, you’ll be able to reach those goals and stay motivated to continue improving.

Getting older doesn’t have to mean hanging up the shoes, bike, or anything else for that matter. Will we slow down? Sure, but we can remain competitive and motivated by treating our bodies well, taking recovery seriously, and supplementing our training with extracurricular activities that can help minimize the effects of aging. Get back out there, lace up those racing shoes, and get your game face on.

“I love to race,” says Mike. “The butterflies in the stomach, the bib number, pulling the racing vest out of the drawer to put in the shoe bag for race day. Seeing the other old guys in the club uniform has been great. I’ve been on four National Championship teams of some sort during my running career, including a master’s cross country team. Sharing the hurt and success with your buddies is just as fun now as it was in the ‘80s.”

Originally published Print Issue 2013