I spent the first four decades of my life largely sedentary. As a child, I was the skinny kid on the sidelines with glasses and a back brace.
In my 40s, however, I took up running. No one was more surprised than me. At first, I couldn’t run a single mile without stopping. But within a year or so, I was faster and calling myself a runner.
Then, recently, a trusted fellow runner suggested that when I turn 50 in two years, all my progress would fade away.
That stopped me in my tracks.
Turns out, that doesn’t need to be your fate—and that’s especially true for those of us in endurance sports, such as running, biking and swimming. The key: taking smart action now to effectively counter the common challenges likely to crop up as you age.
As both men and women get older, for example, our bones and cartilage grow weaker, muscle fibers change, and imbalances throughout the body leave us more prone to injury. We are also able to draw less oxygen into the lungs, which means less gets delivered through the blood to working muscles.
Then there’s menopause for women and andropause for men. Both sexes experience less muscle mass, tone and elasticity. Shifting hormones can bring depression, anxiety and mood shifts. (Not to mention the hot flashes that can hit women.)
You might think the hormonal symptoms are what slows down athletes once they hit their 50s.
You’d be wrong.
Instead, it’s our changing muscles, says Michael Richardson, a family physician in Boston with a strong interest in sports medicine.
“One of the reasons we slow down as athletes is that our muscle fibers change,’’ he says. “Fast twitch muscle fibers, responsible for strength and speed, degrade faster than slow twitch fibers.”
What does that mean? Good news for those who prefer endurance sports, which engage slow twitch muscle fibers.
Here are six ways recreational athletes can modify their existing regimens to remain competitive. And even if you’re not into sports, you may find these steps useful for combatting the aging process.
1. Focus on building stronger bones.
Experts agree that strong bones and muscles are essential to both athletic performance and aging gracefully. Many equate strength with big muscles and forget that bones are also made up of living tissues that are in a constant state of regenerating.
Having strong bone density is as important in older age as it was when we were adolescents.
“Maintaining bone health is a big deal, as hormonal changes put some of us at risk for osteoporosis,” says Richardson. “Weight-bearing exercises and strength training both put stress on the bones, which stimulates growth and makes them stronger.”
Boris Gilzon, a physical therapist who has his own clinic in Brooklyn, adds that brief, high-intensity bursts are especially effective at making stronger bones in older athletes and have the added benefit of boosting heart and lung capacity.
Ultimately, stronger bones result in fewer injuries, like stress fractures and breaks.
2. Add in some strength training too.
Since muscle loss comes with aging, resistance training and weight-lifting are excellent ways to maintain and build muscle. Due to the potential for injury, guidance from a personal trainer may be helpful to make sure you get the most out of your practice and keep yourself safe.
Richardson also says that quality of exercise as we get older becomes more important than sheer volume.
“The way to get faster as a runner over 50, for instance, has more to do with getting stronger and less about running more and more miles,” he says. “A smart strength routine will have a greater impact on lowering our times, with less risk of overtraining and injuring ourselves.”
Building strength is equally important to fast-twitch muscle pursuits, like golf and tennis. Strength training can help you maintain your swing, for instance.
It will also help slow down any decline. Of course, it won’t prevent it entirely, which is why golfers and tennis players especially will need to adapt their playing style to any encroaching limitations.
3. Boost your aerobic capacity
For those of us still eager to break personal records, we need to address the diminishing amount of oxygen that our that bodies are able to take in and distribute to our activated muscles.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is any type of cardio workout that shifts between burst of intense effort and slower recovery periods. Due to the level of exertion required for HIIT, these sessions can feel uncomfortable and pose a greater risk of injury. So exercise some caution.
As interval training gains popularity, YMCAs and most gyms offer a variety of group classes appropriate for both newer and more experienced athletes. According to Friel, athletes new to HIIT can experience a boost in performance in a relatively short period of time.
4. Maintain your core
Another vital component to middle-aged athletes is building a strong core—think stability, not six-pack abs. Research touts the everyday benefits of strengthening the core, including reduced risk of injury to the lower back, better posture, stability, and balance.
In sporty endeavors, a stable spine and pelvis are responsible for radiating power to our extremities, a requirement for all sports. A well maintained core also promotes efficient movements, and makes us helps youperform better with fewer repercussions.
Richardson prefers the term “balance training,” and encourages his patients of all ages to adopt a core-strengthening practice that might include squats, deadlifts, and kettlebell swings. As a way to combat the aging process, a strong core means greater stability and fewer falls later in life.
5. Reduce inflammation
Larisa Litvinova practices internal medicine in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn and is passionate about prevention.
“Inflammation in the body makes us more vulnerable to injury and has a negative impact on performance, among other things,” says Litvinova. “I encourage my patients to view food as medicine and their first line of defense against inflammation.”
In fact, 90% of her arthritic patients have experienced reduced symptoms from an anti-inflammatory diet alone. The Arthritis Foundation promotes a similar diet, which includes berries and other fruits, green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, nuts, olive oil, and fatty fish.
In addition to a cleaner diet, Litvinova recommends omega 3, turmeric, and bromelain supplements as natural remedies to combat inflammation. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that omega 3s may relieve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and joint pain, but it does not support claims that it reduces inflammation.
But not everyone agrees with her on the latter two supplements. NIH studies on the benefits of turmeric for inflammation are split. Studies on the effectiveness of bromelain, an enzyme which comes from pineapple and is thought to aid muscle soreness, are also often contradictory.
As with any supplement use, it’s best to follow the advice of your trusted physician.
6. Get physical therapy before you’re hurt
Whether you’ve been active in your sport for decades or you’re only a few years in, Gilzon strongly encourages that you get a full body evaluation before pursuing more ambitious goals.
“Most clients come to our offices because they are already injured,” he says. “But physical therapy is also designed to prevent injury.”
A practitioner will evaluate your form and identify imbalances and weaknesses that might cause problems down the road. You’ll also get strength and mobility exercises to restore function.
A preventative visit to a physical therapist is particularly important if you’re older and still want to improve your performance.
Being competitive is not a prerequisite for optimal aging. In fact, what matters most is that you remain active and enjoy your exercise routines enough to keep them going. Otherwise, motivation wanes.
And if you’re ambitious and still eager to pursue a personal record, go for it. Middle age presents a great opportunity to shake things up and explore new ways of getting stronger and faster.