Legends of special, restorative waters — the proverbial fountain of youth — were floating in lore throughout the world long before the birth of Spanish conquistador Ponce de León in the 1400s. Alexander the Great was rumored to have come across a healing river of paradise in the fourth century B.C., and similar legends popped up around the globe in other locations such as the Canary Islands, Japan, Polynesia, and England. In my 20 years of running in wild places, I’ve encountered countless gorgeous, wild rivers but none of those made me younger by dipping my water filter in the cold mountain waters. I have, however, found a few strategies that have helped me continue to excel in ultramarathons and remain competitive with folks half my age. Here are some of my tips for extending your athletic pursuits well into your golden years.
Recovery is paramount in endurance training, and your diet is a key player in that strategy. The food you eat dictates your recovery. There are lots of dietary variations you can try, but eating real food is a significant start. After 13 years on a whole foods organic diet, I had a huge “aha” moment as a master’s athlete at HURT 100 in 2016. Less than two months before, I cut out grains and sugar in my everyday diet. I was eating a paleo, nutrivore, HFLC (high fat, low carb), grain-free/sugar-free — whatever you want to call it — essentially attempting to eat a more ancestral, hunter-gatherer diet in a modern, convenience-is-king age. By getting back to my genetic roots, I’ve found this lifestyle shift has a huge anti-inflammatory effect, allowing me to run more volume and harder workouts consistently. It’s also easier to maintain muscle mass and lean body weight as a masters age athlete following these guidelines.
Losing muscle mass as we age, known as Sarcopenia, hits in earnest in our 30s. According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, after the age of 35 we lose between 0.5 and 1.0 percent of our muscle mass annually — unless we engage in consistent physical activity. They recommend full body resistance training a minimum of two times per week on top of regular activity. This also includes upping your protein intake to keep your body in protein synthesis most of your waking hours.
Past the age of 35 our protein synthesis suffers a bit and we lose muscle mass — in the ballpark of around a pound a year. We have to do something to offset that fact. One strategy I employ is upping my intake of protein to 70-100% of my body weight. I weigh 140 pounds. So, that means I need to consume 100-140 grams of protein per day. I also do 2-3 strength training workouts per week; one or two should ideally be weighted and one a bodyweight workout. Besides working to maintain your lean muscle mass as a masters athlete, weight training also promotes strength through a full range of motion — controlled movement, full range under a slight load. This is an important benefit to keep you from injuries if and when the body has to go through an unexpected movement pattern — like kicking a rock while trail running and going from 10-minute pace to sub-6-minute in less than a second to keep from face-planting.
This goes hand in hand with strength training. Older athletes need to keep supple to prevent injuries and keep healthy movement patterns intact as they age. Your tissues must work properly to move your joints through the desired range of motion without dysfunction, otherwise, parts of the chain will over-compensate for a tightness or weakness. I employ dynamic stretching: controlled, smooth, and deliberate movements through a series of stretches, performed by moving through a challenging, comfortable range of motion repeatedly. Start by counting exhales and do 5-10 times before moving to the next stretch. Yoga is another great mobility workout that pays huge dividends in injury prevention and mobility and meshes well with a consistent strength training routine.
Getting out and doing something besides your primary sport is another way to build a huge aerobic base with less chance of injury because variety is the spice of life. As a runner, I prefer cycling as my first-choice aerobic cross-training go-to. I have a long history with cycling, so it was a natural cross training activity to mix with my running. I find several benefits as a runner with cycling mixed in: extra aerobic flushing time and, if you concentrate on a high-cadence spin, you can spin your leg turnover faster than you can perform your speed work runs but still be in aerobic zone heart rate. Plus, the non-weight bearing factor gives the legs an active recovery and connective tissue a rest from the pounding. I also love to use an old mountain bike turned urban commuter to get to a trailhead vs. driving my truck whenever time allows. This approach opens up all kinds of possibilities for point-to-point mountain routes by dropping a vehicle at the finish, riding to the other trailhead and linking up sweet point-to-point adventures. If cycling isn’t your cup of tea, brisk hiking or power hiking (especially on hills) is a huge benefit. And you ultrarunners out there should take note: power hiking in long mountain races is an acquired skill set that has to be practiced. Other activities many of my coaching clients employ include using the elliptical trainer, uphill hiking on a treadmill, or completing stair circuits wearing a weight vest. If you live in a snowy locale, backcountry skiing or nordic skiing in the winter months — both classic and skate skiing — are great ways to get additional low-impact aerobic cross-training time while embracing the weather.
Find the fun in these alternative activities and you’ll set yourself up for success as you age. Employing just a few of the strategies outlined can help you stay fit and strong for years to come.