Current medical research shows how the mental habits of exercise addiction can lead to a phenomena known as "athlete's heart," the official medical term referring to both the natural and pathological enlargement of the heart of someone who engages in strenuous exercise over a long period of time. The good news is that “athlete’s heart” is not the inevitable consequence of training hard. Intensity and rest modifications, effective medicines, and safe supplements are all proven treatments that protect the heart. The information-rich fields of Emotional Physiology and Neurocardiology are also beginning to offer valuable contributions to the conversation.
Ed Whitlock, the retired mining engineer and masters running champion who broke three hours in the marathon in his 70s and last fall became the oldest person ever to run 26.2 miles in under four hours, died in Toronto in March 2017. He was 86. What everyone loved about Ed is that he forced scientists and fellow runners to reassess the possibilities of aging and performance.
There have always been inspirational runners who defy conventional beliefs regarding aging and human performance. A little over a year ago (Sunday, October 16, 2016 to be exact), 85-year old Canadian runner Ed Whitlock joined their ranks in a major way. Whitlock blew away expectations by running a 3:56 marathon at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, crushing the men’s 85-89 world record by more than 30 minutes. The Milton, Ontario resident wore a 30-year-old singlet and ran in 15-year-old Brooks shoes.
After the race Ed reminded everyone that, at any age, the struggle of the marathon is never easy, “I went out a bit too hard so I didn’t feel at all happy at 25K… My legs were getting pretty heavy and I wasn’t running freely. So I consciously eased back. I thought it was going to be an absolute disaster.”
Ed’s marathon story is not wonderful and encouraging just because of his superlative time. It demonstrates his huge heart and spirit, one that embraces the fact of aging and celebrates it rather than trying to fend it off or conquer it.
Can I Run Forever?
Coaches and competitors alike are constantly grappling with the question of making concessions to age. Some people insist that aging is purely a mental game, and the only reason we think we can’t run after a certain age is because of our societal conditioning and beliefs.
In the late 1990’s I met several 70-something runners who joined me at the starting line of the Leadville Trail 100. I was deeply moved. I knew from that day forward I would be a “lifer.” Hence my original coaching slogan was born: “Run Forever.”
Now, at 61 years young, I’ve become more of a realist. Even if I were to advance some novel argument touting the merits of running to attain long term health and longevity, the truth of the matter is that the biopsychology of aging remains largely a mystery. I personally believe it is entirely dependent on individual human experience.
As we get older, we discover changes — sometimes dramatic changes — in how our bodies move and behave. If we can accept the reality of life after our prime years with poise and grace, if we can decide to “intentionally age” with optimism and humor, we can turn our golden years into a time of personal renewal and deep satisfaction.
Do You Know Your Fitness Age?
How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?
A recent study of fitness and lifespan merges scientific training with modern lifestyle habits and relevant health factors, which can provide the inspiration to live a more balanced life. The research suggests that a person’s “fitness age” — determined primarily by a measure of cardiovascular health — is a better predictor of longevity than chronological age. And your body’s capacity to transport and use oxygen during exercise (VO2 max) is the most precise measure of overall cardiovascular health and fitness.
Many older athletes are amazingly young in terms of fitness age. Sports like running can potentially slow the rate of decline from aging drastically. Many of the masters ultra runners I know have stayed remarkably young.
The wisdom they’ve gained over the years and decades allows them to mentally cope with the challenges of longer-distance training and racing. Their strength is found in their ability to concentrate and endure. In this way, they run well beyond their prime years.
However, quantity of exercise is not the same as quality of exercise. In fact, master’s endurance athletes and weekend warriors who spend an inordinate amount of time getting fit may actually be harming themselves by pushing and sacrificing their bodies beyond their limits. By training smarter, not harder, one can both maintain optimum health while achieving impressive levels of physical performance.
When Life is in Balance, Everything Works Better
It’s easy to assume that running and other endurance activities always lead to a wide range of health benefits, but our overall health is also influenced by how we lead our lives, both at home and at work. We’re all familiar with how much stress can arise due to competing demands on our time and attention. The time we spend in training can help counteract these tensions by putting them in perspective and making them manageable.
An injured knee, an irregular heartbeat, recurring respiratory infection, chronic fatigue or other health problems should not be considered “side effects” of training hard. These symptoms are all indicators of an imbalance between fitness and health. It is vital to acknowledging and pay heed to our bodies, no matter how old we are.
More importantly, researchers far smarter and more eloquent than I am have recently reported some very interesting findings. The three-decade Harvard Men’s Health Study indicates that the strongest determiner of longevity by far is not cardiovascular health, but the quality of relationships, friendships and family ties that one has cultivated throughout one’s life. The better the quality of our relationships, the longer and happier our lives. Thus my current coaching mantra: “Run Together.”
Foster’s Formula for Resilience
Thankfully, one’s fitness age is not set in stone. Amazingly, some older athletes can even improve with age – if they learn how to adjust their training expectations in order to compensate for the inevitable effects of physical aging. It’s not unusual to meet runners who exude the glow of fitness well after the chronological age of 50.
One such runner was New Zealand’s Jack Foster, who developed guidelines for dealing with two types of slow-down: racing and recovery. Foster was one of the first runners to figure out just how long to “back off” after a big effort. His recovery formula has become a valuable guideline for runners of all ages.
This is Foster’s formula in a nutshell:
longer recovery time
+ attitude adjustment
+ realistic goals
= continued gratification and satisfaction with performance and achievement
Even when he was racing his hardest and training his best, Foster took at least one easy day for every mile he raced. This meant that he eased up for a week or more after a 10K, and a month or more after a marathon. He didn’t completely stop running. But neither did he race, or even train very long or hard, until the period of recovering and rebuilding was over.
Jack also adjusted well to life after personal records philosophically: “The drop-off in racing performance with age manifests itself only on timekeepers’ stopwatches… the sensations of the running action, the breathing and the other experiences of racing all feel the same. Only the watch shows otherwise.”
The older you are, the more flexible you need to be with your training plans. Older runners need longer recovery time, an attitude adjustment, and realistic goals to insure continued fulfillment, achievement and hopefully an improved fitness age.
Times change but feelings don’t. The movements of the running action, the deeper, rhythmic breathing will always make us feel good. Everyone’s times will eventually slow down, but may the sensation of the effort and the excitement of running make you feel forever young!