Coach Al (showing his back-side) at a Pisgah Mountain 50k trail race aid station. Keeping it young!
Today, more than ever, athletes are performing at a high level well into their 50s, 60s, and beyond! How are they doing it? How do I (a nearly 60 year-old endurance athlete/coach with 40+ years of training and racing in the legs) maintain the ability to keep “playing” even as I’m aging well into my late 50s?
To help YOU maintain the ability to keep playing, here are FOUR tips for the aging athlete. These could be YOUR secrets to success! (I’ve learned much of this through trial and error - take advantage of my mistakes and get started now).
- Maintain Your Mobility and Flexibility: The single thing we lose most as we age is the ability for our joints to move FREELY. Freedom of movement is what we associate with being young, isn’t it? Flexibility is related and is also something we lose as we age. Mobility and flexibility suffer as the miles pile up, too, so if you’ve been running or training for a few years, its likely you’ve lost some of that freedom of movement.
When you lose mobility:
- Your body loses its ability to absorb pounding and attenuate forces that work on it while you're moving, such as gravity and ground reaction.
- Your stride shortens and you feel every “bump” in the road that much more.
- You enjoy your training less because it becomes more of a struggle to do simple things such as bend over or step up.
- Your risk of injury sky rockets!
To avoid these, first seek to find out where you’re tight or imbalanced, and then get started on a specific targeted program to address these restrictions. This is absolutely your #1 priority as you get older.
A Helpful Video: One common area of unwanted tightness as we age is in our hamstrings. Hamstring tightness can develop for a number of different reasons (including dysfunction of the glute region or extreme tightness of the hip flexor region). However, very often it develops simply from the overall loss of flexiblity as we age (or from too much sitting in a chair!).
Try this effective and safe movement (stretch) for the hamstrings demonstrated by Dr. Strecker.
(To learn more about WHY mobility is so vital to your success, listen to Doc Strecker and I discuss the importance of this element of human movement!)
- Get Stronger: Like mobility, strength (as well as the pre-requisite to developing true functional strength, which is basic core stability) often decline as we age and the miles pile up. Along with staying mobile, the key to maintaining YOUR ability to play comes down to getting stronger!
Many athletes aren’t familiar with the difference between strength and stability. Its important for sure, and something you will want to KNOW as you age. To learn more, check out this blog post we did on the topic.
So what is the best way to get stronger?
There are as many programs and exercises as there are stars in the sky, or so it would seem. I like to keep things simple at first, by going straight at bodyweight exercises. After all, what is better than a pull up or push up to develop trunk strength? Not too much!
(If you’re unable to do a single pull up, start by doing “hangs” and then doing “negatives” as part of your progression!)
Whether it’s a kettlebell, floor based exercises, suspension training, or simply lifting and moving rocks or flipping tires, the best path to optimal strength development and good health is to start with simpler, more foundational movements and progress to more complex as you improve and gain strength.
One last thing: don’t get INJURED trying to get stronger. That happens all too often. Start at a smart level, and progress intelligently.
- Get Massage: With increasing age (and more miles along with chronic injuries) come the development of micro trauma in the muscle, which leads to the development of scar tissue and a loss of elasticity. Scar tissue, which forms in response to that micro trauma and tearing of the muscle fiber, reduces elasticity and leads to weaker and shorter, more injury prone muscle.
One key to overcoming the long term negative impact of scar tissue development (and keeping muscle healthy and young), is massage, from a qualified competent massage therapist of course.
Yes, your foam roller used routinely, can help. But your foam roller can’t do the same things the sensitive and educated human hands of a qualified professional can, digging deeply into the muscle to strip it down and help the tissue remodel. Massage can literally be THE secret for the aging athlete whose goal it is to maintain healthy tissue.
(One additional tip about massage: In my experience, if you have been battling injury or know you have a significant amount of scar tissue or have lost flexibility, getting massage only occasionally won’t do the trick. You need to commit to successive sessions where the same therapist can work progressively to restore tissue health. With repeated sessions, the therapist will learn more about your body and be able to address YOUR specific issues more effectively).
- Get Off Road: When it comes to staying young and fighting father time as a runner or cyclist, nothing beats getting off road! Trails offer variable terrain that challenges the mobility, flexibility and strength you’re working to retain, while also minimizing the repetitive stress that comes from road running and riding.
- Mountain biking and trail running (and hiking) require very specific skills which keep you young!
- Glute and hip strength, balance, handling, and leg strength all improve when you ride off road.
- Agility and balance, elasticity, and leg and hip strength all improve when you run off road.
- And since every footstrike is different and the surfaces are softer than asphalt, your risk of repetitive injury goes way down!
- Best of all, you get to PLAY in the woods and keep it fun! Trail running and riding is just plain fun!
Even if you’re not quite as old as I am, you will be sooner than you realize! You'd be smart to start NOW to begin following the recommendations I’ve shared today. The same things that keep you young will also help the younger athlete stay healthier, perform better, and go faster.
ps: Do you have questions, comments or feedback about these four tips to help you stay younger? Or your own tips to add? Leave your thoughts below or on our FACEBOOK page.