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Four things I learned as an Orthopedic Surgeon and as an aging endurance athlete


“Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, Rage against the dying of the light.”

Dylan Thomas 


Sadly there are few examples of those who are aging with vibrancy and strength. While aging is inevitable, a sedentary and painfilled life does not have to be. 


Personally and professionally, I have unique insight into this aging phenomenon. Professionally, being an Orthopedic Surgeon treating athletes for over 20 years, I see many injuries from poor training techniques, overuse, and just bad choices. These choices leave athletes struggling as they age.  


Personally, now older than 50, I train and perform at a recreational and competitive level while attempting to stay injury-free. I have been an endurance athlete almost my whole life, competing in water polo in college. I have had the privilege of racing at an elite level worldwide, including Ironman World Championships in Kona Hawaii, racing for Team USA in international events, and exploding in my attempt at the Boston Marathon. 


I have tried many training programs and many “fad diets” to stay fit, and I have suffered from and recovered from multiple injuries from these attempts along the way. My professional and athletic focus provides me a unique lens through which to view this issue of the aging athlete. 


Here are 4 few things I’ve learned along the way: 


1. Don’t let your mind accept generalizations 


What are generalizations? They are broad statements made to put people into categories. The problem is, just because a statement is true for some people doesn’t mean it has to be true for everyone. 


Don’t let people box you into the “aging and falling apart” category. 


There are scientific reasons why our performance and energy levels aren’t “what they used to be.” Evidence shows we lose VO2 max, muscle mass, and motivation. 


But just because a study shows something doesn’t mean we just accept that as our truth and train at a diminished level of intensity. 


There are many studies written about avoiding “natural” decline. Our blogs highlight overcoming decline, encouraging athletes’ fitness, health, and longevity. You should be able to enjoy activities, competitions, and challenges due to being fit for life. 


2. Building muscle slows down the effects of aging


In Joel Friel’s book “Fast After 50: How to Race Strong for the Rest of Your Life,” he discusses the loss of VO2 capacity as one of the battles we are fighting as we age. 


V02 max is the ability of your heart to act as a pump and your muscles to utilize oxygen from the cardiovascular system. Studies have shown a loss of 10% per decade after 30 if untrained. You can stave off that loss to approximately 5% by maintaining a continued level of training or exercise. 


Your max heart rate drops as you age. The less the heart can pump, the less oxygen is available for the muscles, lowering your V02 max. Loss of muscle mass is a significant contributor to loss of VOo2 max. 


Muscle is replaced by fat as we age. This muscle change to fat decreases our ability to use oxygen, again lowering your V02 max. Therefore, maintaining muscle mass and consistent training can dramatically decrease this decline in VO2 max and keep us training hard.  


Muscle mass decreases as we age; however, strength training slows this down tremendously. Safe and effective strength training focuses on form and technique and can be done at virtually any age. 


3. Train with intensity 


Don’t be afraid to train with intensity and full effort. The significant change needed for athletes as they age is to create space for rest and recovery. Adequate recovery allows your body to adapt and benefit from more challenging efforts. So train hard to get the results of effort, but balance that we excellent recovery! 


Many researchers have written about an 80/20 rule. These programs use an 80% easy or steady effort and 20% hard. The major mistake we make is pushing our easier efforts too hard. Gaining a greater understanding of what your body needs when it comes to rest will allow you to train with higher intensity when needed. 


These recovery days are crucial to fitness progression and injury prevention. Recovery also includes sleep. Being able to survive on minimal sleep is not a “badge of honor .” Instead, sleep is crucial to recovery and regeneration. 


4. Find balance in life


Last, balance is the key to everything. Sadly many look at their lives and see zero balance. We are all busy with family, work, training, and more! 


To maintain balance, set your long-term goals first. Then begin to set short-term goals that allow you to progress in a manner that integrates with the rest of your life. 


Then stay consistent! Consistency is the most essential factor for success over time. 


As you work out your plan, remember to have fun. Surround yourself with people who make you laugh and who support your goals.


Remember, balance allows you to stay happy, healthy, and injury-free so you can train for life!


If you are interested in building a sustainable training plan that allows you to keep going fast after fifty, Schedule a Call with a HUB coach today. We’ll help you stay running well into your prime while others are struggling to pick up their grandkids.