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Peaking Past Forty

First published in Irish Runner Magazine 2000
There are ways and means to stay fast and strong into and well beyond middle-age, as athlete and physical therapist Gerard Hartmann explains.

As I approach my 40th birthday I am excited about entering the category known as 'vets' or 'masters'. Over the past ten years I have developed a special interest in exercise in the context of ageing. I have researched scientific studies on running and its fitness and health benefits. I have also worked with numerous elite and recreational veteran athletes.

Working with Eamonn Coghlan when as a vet he was trying to break four minutes for the mile was an education. It was wonderful to be there when at age 41 he became the first 'master' in history to crack the barrier (3.58.15).

Assisting Grete Waitz (nine times winner of the New York marathon) write her book 'On the Run', which is aimed at middle-aged executives, demanded much research. I shared with Grete (herself 47) much knowledge on our mutual interest: running, cross-training, and the health benefits of a structured exercise programme.

I know from my experience as a sports injury therapist that veterans must be in tune with their bodies. A slight niggle can sideline a veteran for weeks (recovery takes much longer than with younger athletes). The vet must continually monitor telltale signs and be willing to take rest-days and adapt as problems arise.

I have also learned that no matter how well we eat or how carefully we exercise, there are no guarantees; we can do little about the genetic factor. The sudden deaths of Jim Fixx and, more recently, my good friend Noel Carroll testify to that.

Olympic champion John Walker shocked everyone in 1995 when at age 42 he announced he had Parkinson's disease. Another Olympian, Steve Scott, still competing internationally in his late thirties, was found to have testicular cancer.

It is my opinion that stress is the most silent killer. Everyone has a different tolerance to stress, and stress is very much individually registered.

My personal approach if I have a very stressful day in the clinic is to adapt - to do a shorter run at a more relaxed pace or even take a complete rest-day and distress in a hot bath. Many athletes squeeze their training into hectic workdays - I question the wisdom of this.

In this article, I aim to promote the benefits of exercise for life and to share my knowledge on ageing and performance - to outline my 'Global View' of achieving optimal fitness and running performance.

There are four main changes typical of the veteran runner: Increase in body fat; decrease in muscle mass/strength; decease in flexibility/range of joint-motion; decrease in variety of running.

INCREASE IN BODY FAT

The accumulation of fat is the most prevalent age-associated physiological changes. With age, the average individual loses six percent of lean mass 9muscle) per decade - but maintains or increases total body mass by gaining fat.

The typical Irishman gains 25 pounds of fat from age 20 to 50. Once of the main reasons is that both basal metabolic rate and energy expenditure decline with age. Metabolic activity slows because of decreases in metabolically active tissue (muscle) and increases in metabolically inactive tissue (body fat).

The roles of physical exercise and nutrition cannot be separated when assessing age-associated changes in metabolism, body composition, and performance. Simply put, many runners are carrying two stones of dead weight (fat) on a skeletal structure that is shedding muscle - which is why so many get injured.

Aside from increasing strength and preventing injury, the obvious benefit of greater muscle mass is that muscle is metabolically active; an increase in muscle raises basal metabolic rate, which means the body burns more energy.

Many runners believe they can consume as many calories in midlife as when they were younger and not put on weight. The reality is that the best way to limit weight gain is to exercise more while eating less and limiting alcohol consumption.

There are many reasons why veterans should watch their diets - injury prevention, better performance, a healthy immune system, and shorter recovery time, to name but a few.

There are also those dreaded 'free radicals'. Without getting too scientific, though the oxygen we breath is vital for life, it is also incorporated into these very reactive substances (free radicals), which are harmful.

A runner uses up to 30 times more oxygen than a 'couch potato', and that extra oxygen makes for extra free radicals. It is therefore vital to include antioxidants in the diet to prevent and repair the damage caused by free radicals.

The best known antioxidants are vitamin A, C and E. A balanced diet rich in fruit, vegetables, cereals, nuts, seeds, pulses, fish, and dairy produce will meet your requirements.

Many veteran runners take the supplement Glucosamine to inhibit wear and tear on joints, ligaments, cartilage, and connective tissue. Glucosamine is non-toxic and has no known side effects.

DECREASED STRENGTH

Muscle strength and mass tend to decrease 30 to 50 percent between the ages of 30 and 70. As we age we weaken, because bundles of muscles and nerves called 'motor units' deteriorate.

Between the ages of 30 and 70 the average person loses 20 percent of the motor units in all the large muscles. Regular exercise counteracts or delays the detrimental effects of ageing. Muscular adaptation depends on the intensity, duration, frequency, and pattern of the stimulus.

Many veterans get stuck in a rut - running at the same pace all the time. Regular running quite obviously has cardiovascular benefit but is likely stimulating only one level of fitness potential.

Running at low intensity increases the oxidative capacity primarily of 'type one' (slow oxidative) fibres, whereas strength training tends to be more effective in producing hypertrophy in 'type two' (fast glycolytic) fibres.

I recommend a programme that focuses on the core muscles of the upper and lower back as well as the abdominals, gluteals, adductors, quadriceps, and hamstrings. When any of these core muscles weaken, imbalances can occur, and that is when the stress of running shifts to vulnerable joints - ankles, knees, hips - and shins. That is when you get injured.

The muscular system is, like a chain, only as strong as its weakest link. The goal is to build muscle mass that can absorb shock, protecting the skeleton from overload.

Remember that strength training is not just for younger runners. A strength programme will help you maintain muscle as you age. Strength training also maintains bond density, which, like muscle mass, declines with age.

DECREASED FLEXIBILITY

It is true that flexibility decreases with age, and for clear physiological reasons.

Collagen and elastin, the primary structural components of muscle, undergo specific physical and biochemical changes. Collagen reflects a loss of the minimal extensibility that existed earlier and reflects an increased rigidity. Elastin likewise changes with age. Elastic fibres lose their resilience and undergo various alterations, including fragmentation, fraying, clarification, and other mineralisations.

Nonetheless, evidence indicates that flexibility can be developed at any age. The rate of improvement will vary with age, as will the potential for improvement. In general, the longer you wait after adolescence to start on a flexibility programme, the less are the chances of absolute improvement.

Clearly, the main reason many veteran runners are stiff is that they spend too little time stretching. Most runners perform a few cursory stretches - leaning against a wall to stretch the calves or clasping the hands to the foot to stretch the quads.

I recommend at least ten minutes per day stretching. The runner who trains on a menu of 'only running' limits potential and dramatically increases the risk of injury. Flexibility is an integral part of training, and the only way to improve flexibility is to stretch regularly.

DECREASED VARIETY

It amazes me how many runners lapse into the same old leisurely pace. Although steady running does have its place, one-paced training promotes only one aspect of fitness. When leisurely runs dominate, race times suffer.

This means that the training elements that preserve speed should never be neglected - even during the off-season. In addition to incorporating varying intensities of running into the schedule, it is also beneficial to do form drills along with strength work and flexibility exercises to keep snap in the legs and maintain a speedy mindset even when not racing. Lost leg speed is difficult to regain - especially as the runner ages.

FORM DRILLS

Three basic drills can be done at least three times a week either at the start or end of running. The many Kenyans I work with incorporate drills followed by 8x100m strides into their schedules, usually after the morning run. The drills focus on correct running technique and leg turnover.

The first drill focuses on a high knee action. Stand tall, relax arms and shoulders, and lift one knee to waist level, thigh parallel to the ground, while keeping the other leg straight as your foot strikes the ground. Quickly alternate knees, keeping one foot off the ground at all times as you move forward for about 30 metres. Perform three times.

This will teach you to run tall and use the basic sprinting technique:

Extending the support leg while lifting the opposite knee. So many veterans run low to the ground because they seldom train to develop from and proper carriage.

Once you master this technique, incorporate the arms. Each time you raise your thigh parallel to the ground, bring the opposite hand up to forehead level without allowing the arm to cross the midway point of the body. Again, do this drill for 30 metres three times.

Once you master the exaggerated arm and knee action, your body will begin to use this technique when you run fast.

In the final drill, which I call 'quick feet', you simply move your feet as fast as you can across the ground, as if you were walking on hot coals. Perform the drill three times, again moving forward 30 metres each time.

VARYING INTENSITY

Many runners never achieve their potential. Because they run slowly, their intensity is low and demands are confined to the aerobic pathway.

You need to incorporate faster distance runs. This entails doing, say, an eight-miler at a faster than usual pace. This will demand a higher oxygen supply, enlarge the heart, and improve perfusion of blood to the muscles.

Another strategy is to run three to five miles very fast, at or near anaerobic threshold. This boosts tolerance to such intensity and improves muscular capacity for glycogen.

The fast run should be preceded by a ten-minute warm-up run and followed by ten to 15 minutes of easy running. Stimulating the various energy pathways and getting accustomed to varying speeds is a sure way to improve performance.

The competitive veteran will benefit from various forms of interval running. An example would be: ten minutes warm-up and 6x800m with two minutes jog recovery between each; or 10 x 400m, jogging 200m between each. Always jog ten to 15 minutes to cool down.

Some runners feel the must have access to a track to do interval training or speedwork. But sessions can be done on parkland, riverbank, trail, playing field, and several other surfaces (though for hard sessions avoid roads).

With running, the focus is on mechanics and leg-speed, lifting the feet off the ground as quickly as possible. Keeping speed intact is a year-round enterprise that entails a consistent training pattern with a variety of workouts. Rather than just grinding out the miles, stay focused on form and make leg-speed a part of the daily routine.

THE GLOBAL VIEW

My 'Global View' incorporates the 'use it or lose it' principle and involves developing many aspects of fitness - endurance, strength, flexibility, balance, rest, and discipline.

Many runners wrongly equate health with the ability to run. But the ability to run indicates only that the individual is specifically fit to run - it does not necessarily reflect overall health. Fitness and health are separate but linked entities.

The Global View incorporates all aspects of fitness. Veterans must take a global view of health and performance. We know about the ravages of age, but science has shown (and we have vets of all ages as living proof) that regular exercise diminishes the effects of ageing.

Strength can be increased at any age; so too can flexibility; body composition can be changed; muscle mass can be altered.

Athletes who follow this plan report among its benefits that on less mileage they not only improve performance and avoid injury but also enjoy better general health.

WHAT YOU NEED - WHY YOU NEED IT

Endurance: Training the cardiorespiratory system through steady running is the cornerstone of the sport.
Strength: Strong muscles aid running and help avoid imbalance injuries. Main locomotive muscles: hamstrings, quadriceps, calf and anterior shin. Postular stabilizing muscles: back extensors and trunk flexors (erector spine and abdominals). Hip abductors and adductors.
Flexibility: Stretching produces a more efficient stride and fewer injuries. Emphasise hamstrings, quadriceps, gluteals, adductors, low back, and calf.
Speed: Incorporate interval training, fartlek, speed, strides, form drills and races and all-round running becomes easier.
Variety: Incorporate strength, flexibility, and a variety of speeds. Supplement running with cycling, swimming, orienteering, aerobics , and rowing. Other sports help runners achieve optimal fitness on less mileage.
Balance: As training options increase, a balanced programme is essential.
Rest: Don't overdo it. Recovery time is essential. Listen to your body. When you're tired or stressed, back off. Take every injury seriously - healing takes longer for veterans.
Nutrition: A balanced diet (low fat, high carbo) makes a healthy runner. Accommodate decrease in metabolism with age.
Discipline: A multifaceted programme demands planning and organization.