It doesn’t have to be all downhill as you age
Hormones are chemical messengers that have effects on a vast range of tissue types, organs and therefore regulate metabolic and physiological processes occurring in systems throughout the body, e.g. the immune system.
Our hormones are affected by ageing:
As we age the Growth and Sex hormones decline, our bodies response to training decreases, both cardio-vascular and anaerobic capacity, and our bodies naturally hoard fat and our muscles’, tendons’ and bones’ tissue quality decreases, so increasing the risk of injury.
We cannot influence aging but we can influence how we react, through the things in our control :
and ensuring they are kept in balance.
Let’s look at the trilemma in more detail.
Firstly, exercise is a major stimulus of growth hormone, whose action positively affects body composition in terms of lean mass, bone density and reduction of visceral fat.
To achieve progression in your running, or minimising the decline if a Master Athlete, you need to do sufficient training to stimulate adaptive change, but not too much. The principle of progressive overload requires that you increase the loading on your body carefully, giving it time to recover and become stronger. Typically, training plans are done in 6 weeks blocks, the 3rdweek easier than previous two to enable adaptation.
So how much is enough? The answer may not seem very helpful, but it does really depend on your current health, fitness and physical abilities, and what your goals are. There are very different training requirements for preparing for a marathon to doing track-based races. But despite that, including a variety of training loads on your body will help.
Despite common perceptions about older people needing to slow down, Master Athletes need to include high intensity intervals in their training (about 20% of training time) and the rest (80%) should be done at moderate intensity. NB Master Athletes should have a longer dynamic warm-up for their sessions.
Many runners just run, many cyclists just cycle, but it’s been found that other activities benefit performance, in particular those that enable “multidirectional loading” (a fancy term for cross-fit or other activities that challenge the body in a different way to running). Interesting, older athletes need the variety of activities that we give youngsters before they begin to specialise in their sport, or event groups (e.g. throws).
Strength building to enable one to maintain or improve one’s speed and or stamina, requires weight training. Using bodyweight is a good start but as the NHS has stated weight training has benefits to older people’s mobility (NHS recommend twice per week). It not only benefits muscles but tendons and importantly bone density is increased when under compression that weight training gives. Research with 72-year old men showed that after 12 weeks of weight training their skeletal muscle and capillary density was no different to those of 26-year old men.
Energy and vitamins and minerals are required to enable you to train effectively and avoid the risk of developing serious illness, such as Reduced Energy Deficiency Syndrome (RED-S). You need sufficient calories for the bodies normal functions, in addition to that from the training. So, beware of dieting whilst doing longer training sessions. REDs occurs when you continuously spend more calories than you consume, so reducing fat, but once at low Body Mass Index, your body will start to metabolise muscles, tendons and bones to get the energy it needs.
We all know what foods are good for us and which are not. What we also need to remember as runners, is that when we train we damage the body slightly and the key repair element is protein, so ensuring you get enough protein in your diet is key – about 100 grams per day. But it’s not just what we eat but also when. Take protein ideally in 20-25g portions, every 3 to 4 hours (my protein powder comes with a 23g scoop, now I know why!), including just after a training session. Having a milky drink (either dairy or soya based, but not nut based) at bedtime is an ideal time to take on protein to enable the body to repair the muscles, etc. It also helps with sleep (below) due to containing precursors to the sleep hormone, melatonin.
You can get most of your vitamins from what you eat and drink, except for one key element for helping your Hormone System work : Vitamin D. It is only available naturally from sunlight; and guess what, it’s not sunny enough in the UK in winter to get enough, even if you are a roofer! So, if you only take one supplement in the winter, take Vitamin D. It helps reduce risk of reduced bone density and so fracture, and it supports the immune system, particularly relevant during the current pandemic. But why I mention it here is that it supports the hormones repair the effects of training.
“Active recovery” is an oxymoron. A gentle run may help get lactate or stiffness out of the muscles but it’s still exercise. Recovery and adaptation start when you stop exercising, i.e. “passive recovery”. Static stretching will aid recovery and is not exercise. Exercise that increases our mobility (I prefer this term to flexibility as it describes controlled movement, which is what athletes need, not being Stretch Armstrong!)
Jenny Meadows, no mean slouch as a sub 2-minute 800m runner, had to choose between a five-mile run and a 45-minute flexibility session after a long day at work. What did she choose? The stretching and other flexibility activity. Would we?
It’s not unreasonable for Master Athletes to have a whole day free of exercise, so that they can resume training in a stronger state than before and without tiredness. They can do the training sessions at the required quality and reap the sessions’ design benefits.
So how do you know it’s ok to do another training session (as opposed to an easy run)? Your body will probably tell you. Ask yourself, how am I feeling : do I feel tired?, are my muscles sore?, etc.
For those who prefer a more scientific approach, and wear a Heart Rate monitor, there are two parameters that can help tell you about how recovered you are from your previous session, or just the stresses of daily living : Resting Heart Rate (RHR) and Heart Rate Variation (HRV). If you see an increase in RHR or a reduction in HRV, then this may mean you have not recovered sufficiently, so perhaps defer the session until tomorrow.
Lastly, but not least, sleep is a great form of recovery, as this aids release of hormones and provides mental refresh.
So, in summary, Master Athletes can mitigate the inevitable effects of ageing by:
Ensure you balance your training load with recovery – you need more of the latter as you age
Take note of what your body (or Heart Rate monitor) is telling you
Take a day off a week to fully recover and get enough sleep
Still include high intensity sessions in your training and ensure you warm-up properly
Do resistance (weight) training, ideally twice a week
Do mobility exercises, not just running
Supplement your diet with protein, especially just before bedtime
Take Vitamin D in the winter
And remember, ageing is preferable to the alternative!