Dr. Gabe Mirkin
At 86, I can look back on more than 75 years of daily training and can tell you that there is a huge difference between the way your body reacts to exercise when you are young and when you are old. The key to healthy training for younger people is to try to make some of their workouts more intense. Older people should try to exercise every day and try to exercise some intensity when their muscles feel fresh, but if their body talks to them with discomfort, they should exercise at a reduced intensity or take the day off. If you don’t listen to your body, you will quickly find that pain and discomfort are signs of an impending injury. See Recovery: the key to improving your sport
Intense training makes you a better athlete
At the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, the unannounced Luxemburgish rider Josy Barthel won the men’s 1500-meter run in 3: 45.2, which corresponds to a 4: 03 mile. He had gone from being a practically unknown runner to Olympic gold by doing all of his interval training at a pace of less than 4 minutes mile. In the same race, England Roger Bannister set a British record over 1,500 meters, but finished fourth. As a medical student, Bannister had little time to train, so he took shorter training sessions after the Olympics, but tried to complete his intervals at a pace of less than 4 minutes. Two years later, on May 6, 1954, he ran the first mile under 4 minutes in 3: 59.4 minutes. In the 67 years since then, more than 1,500 runners have run the mile faster than four minutes (Track and Field News, April 15, 2021).
I trained for marathons by doing an interval workout of 20 quarter mile repetitions of 75 seconds each. That’s a 5 minute mile pace, which is way too slow, and I was a very mediocre marathon runner. In 1954, Josey Barthel came to Harvard and trained regularly on the Harvard track. At the time, America’s best marathon runners were training very slowly. Some did not do any intervals at all, while many others ran their intervals at a 5-minute mile pace. A then relatively mediocre marathon runner named Nick Costes decided to train for the marathon by doing sub-4-minute mile intervals with Josey Barthel, who was training for the mile. He was the first American marathon runner to train at such fast intervals. In 1955, after just a year of such fast training, he became the first American to break 2:20 when he finished third in the Boston Marathon in 2:19:57. At the Boston Marathon in 1956, he improved his time to 2:18:01, won the national marathon title in Yonkers and was the best American finisher at the Melbourne Olympics that year. Virtually all top runners today complete their quarter mile repetitions in less than 60 seconds. That’s a 4 minute mile pace. Your workouts are often so intense that you have to slow down two or three days to recover. Since “hard day” workouts were less intense in the early 1950s, top runners only needed 48 hours of light, slow running to recover for their next quick workout.
Why you lose muscle strength and size as you age
Muscles are made up of hundreds of thousands of individual fibers, just like a rope is made up of many strands. Each muscle fiber is innervated by a single motor nerve. As you age, you lose motor nerves, and with each loss of a nerve, you also lose the corresponding muscle fiber it innervates. For example, the vastus medialis muscle at the front of your thigh contains about 800,000 muscle fibers by the age of 20, but by the age of 60 it is likely to have only about 250,000 fibers. However, after a muscle fiber loses its primary nerve, other nerves covering other fibers can pass over to stimulate that fiber in addition to stimulating their own primary muscle fibers. In one study, lifelong competitive athletes over 50 who exercised four to five times a week did not lose as many nerves that innervate the muscles, and therefore retained more muscle size and strength with age than their non-athletes (The Physician and Sportsmedicine, October 2011; 39 (3): 172-8).
Aging increases the risk of injury
When middle-aged and elderly people start an exercise program, they are at increased risk of injury, usually because they are trying to exercise like younger people. The muscles of older people contain fewer muscle fibers and are therefore much weaker than those of younger people. Older people shouldn’t put as much force on their muscles as younger people. This means that you should lift lighter weights and run more slowly because the faster you run, the greater the force on your muscles and the more likely you are to tear them.
If your favorite sport becomes painful for you, it is probably time to switch to a different sport or exercise activity. When I was 55, I switched from running to cycling because pedaling is done in a gentle twisting motion instead of hammering on the sidewalk. Swimming or jogging in the water are usually harmless as the buoyancy of the water cushions the impact and prevents joint damage. People with cartilage damage in their knees or hips, and those with hip or knee replacements, should never run, jump, or walk quickly as your foot hits the ground causing further damage. Your bones also get thinner and weaker as you age, which increases your chances of breaking them. One in three people over 65 has a serious fall and the United States has the highest rate of hip fractures in the world (Archives of Internal Medicine, Sep 26, 2011). Diana has such severe osteoporosis that she only rides one tricycle, and our tandem group rides are now on a Tandem trike. An ergometer or swimming pool are other great ways to avoid falls or impact injuries.
Lessons from the old marathon runner
If you want to get the maximum training effects and health benefits from your exercise program, set your schedule so that you exercise more intensely one day, feel sore the next day, and then slowly work muscles for as many days as possible to freshen up feel to do your next fast workout, however, keep in mind that as you age, your muscles get weaker and take longer to recover from each workout, so you are at an increased risk of injury and will take longer to do so to recover from an injury. Always stop exercising immediately if you experience pain in an area that does not go away when you slow down or stop.
Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com