Finishing as number 23 out of 38 at the Brabantse Ultra Trail might not sound that cool. But he, I am 50 years old and if I look at my age category, I’m number 5. Plus; if I hadn’t taken that wrong turn at the end I would be standing on the podium now with a bronze medal around my neck. So for an ageing athlete I’m not doing so bad.
My younger self once ran a marathon in 4 hours and 1 minute. I think I can do better, I think. I mean in those days 42 kilometers was the maximum I could run. Now I’ve already done two ultra’s of 50 kilometers. The last one, the Brabantse Ultra Trail, only a week after the Mighty Marathon (43,5) kilometers. The big question is, how am I going to beat my younger self? How should I train as an ageing athlete?
Peak sport age: 24-28
A week after the Brabantse Ultra Trail I drive to the nearby village of Eersel to visit sports scientist Sven Verstappen. His specialty is physical training and stamina. Now-a-days he works for the youth academy of football club N.E.C in Nijmegen. In the past he was part of the staff of Erik ten Hag, when Ten Hag was the head coach of FC Utrecht. These days Ten Hag is trying to breathe some life back in Manchester United.
“An athlete is at his or her peak between the age of 24 and 28”, says Verstappen. That is not the thing I want to hear. However, he has some good news as well: “If you take good care of yourself you can keep your endurance at a high level for a long time. That’s why an athlete like Sifan Hassan can win the London Marathon on her debut, at the age of 30. Pure speed and power is something we quickly lose, but endurance not.”
To stay strong for life, there are 3 things we have to keep in mind and compensate for as an aging atlethe: strength, flexibility and recovery.
Strength, speed and stability
If we want it or not, we will become weaker and slower. “In puberty the amount of testosterone in your body is increasing exponentially”, explains Verstappen. “Testosterone plays an important role in building and maintaining strong muscles. However, halfway your twenties the amount of testosterone your body is producing gradually decreases. As a result we become weaker.”
Luckily there is a way to slow down that process; strength training. “Trail runners should do at least twice a week heavy strength training, aimed at running; lunges, squats, but also dead-lifts, and fast forms of strength training; less weight, quick movements. It’s also wise to improve the neuro-muscular function. You can do that by doing, for example, lunges with an aqua bag on your shoulders. That will help to keep the coordination between the brain and body on a high level.”
As we age, we lose a lot of our flexibility and stability. Not just the flexibility of our muscles, but also that of our connective tissue, like our tendons and ligaments. Verstappen: “On top of that, your brain becomes more protective. If you stretch, sooner than before, you will feel a pain, because your brain is afraid you’re going to tear a muscle or ligament.”
To compensate for that, the sports scientists recommend doing a lot of stretching, like yoga. “You can do yoga as a warming-up, cooling down or as a form of stretching on its own. Ryan Giggs played football up until he was 40. He did yoga. At N.E.C we have Lasse Schone. He’s 36 years old and still going strong. I see him doing yoga at the club every day.”
As an ageing athlete, we need more time to recover. “Your body produces less hormones, like testosterone and human growth hormone”, explains Verstappen, “Those hormones play an important role during recovery. Because we have less of them, we can’t train as often and as hard at an older age as we could in our twenties.”
Verstappen isn’t a fan of running 7 times a week anyway. “I don’t see the point. I think a trail runner is better off running four to five times a week and doing strength training on the other days.”
Other important forms of recovery are: massage, sauna and infrared, hot and cold therapy and sleep. Verstappen: “An athlete has to sleep a minimum of 8 and a maximum of 11 hours each night. Besides that, a good sleep routine and hygiene are important. That means going to bed every evening at the same time and no smartphone or television in the bedroom. A bedroom is for sleeping only.”
Last, but not least a healthy diet improves recovery, which includes eating within an hour and a half after a training session.
Slowing down ageing
The good thing is, running helps to slow down ageing. Elderly runners have fewer disabilities, a longer span of active life, and are half as likely as ageing non-runners to die early deaths, according to a study from the Stanford University School of Medicine.
“If you had to pick one thing to make people healthier as they age, it would be aerobic exercise”, said James Fries, emeritus professor of medicine at Stanford in an interview on the Stanford website. Verstappen: “By running, we demand our body to replace old cells with healthy young cells. That’s what keeps us young.”
So more strength training, more yoga and more hours in bed for me as an ageing athlete. If I can find the time to do all of that, I will beat my younger self at the marathon. The bet is on.