Old man training, part 1.
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.
Ten years ago, I was unstoppable. I was indestructible. I was strong, capable, my body could do anything I asked of it with the minimal of care. Something broke down? Doesn’t matter, push harder. Work “around” it, and by around it I mean “This hurts marginally less than that, so I’m going to do this”.
This worked for many years. I had some great training years- heavy squats and deadlifts, ironman triathlons, years of rugby, the feeling that physically there was nothing I could not do, nothing I could not recover from. I was ripped, jacked and tan, everything I’d ever wanted to be. I could pop something in my knee today and squat again tomorrow. This worked for many years.
This worked, for many years… until it didn’t. Three years ago, a bike crash took me down. I had bruised and broken bones, I was hurt, but didn’t feel shattered. Undeterred, I got right back on the bike, but three weeks later, I crashed again. In the same manner. As I lay there staring at the sky, wondering what had happened, a multitude of thoughts crept through my head. I’d crashed the second time not because of carelessness, but because my hip wasn’t healed. My shoulder wasn’t healed. My balance was off and when I got out of the saddle, and I lost my balance. I slowly limped home. Two days later, at the gym, I tried to squat the bar and couldn’t, so I went home. Two months later, after doing everything I could to try to get my poundage back up, I subluxed my right hip joint and experienced some of the most excruciating pain of my life. And then.. I realized something: I was entirely too human. I felt fragile. It wasn’t just my hip.
My back would hurt for no reason in the mornings. My shoulders hurt. My left elbow hurt. My knees hurt. My wrist hadn’t healed from god knows what for the last four months and was starting to impact EVERY lift I was doing. My usual gym warm up of “walk into the squat rack and readjust everything in my crotch” before getting under the bar just didn’t seem to do me much good. I was no longer progressing- I was regressing, in no small part because I hadn’t had a consistent training month without some setback in well over a year.
The revelation here was simple- I wasn’t a kid anymore. I was… getting old.
I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record!
Also Dylan Thomas, shortly before his death. Not sure if relevant here but found it funny.
Some may say “well, 37 isn’t old”. No, perhaps equated to maximum human lifespan, it is not. Yet let’s be honest, for most of our species in the state of nature, we’re pretty much supposed to be spending the years up until we’re about 25-30 eating and procreating with everyone we can find. Once we hit our mid 30’s, our role in prehistoric tribes was generally relegated to picking herbs or some such nonsense and serving as conveniently slow moving targets for saber tooth tigers so that the cats didn’t go munch on kids.
Already, when men hit their 20’s, their testosterone levels start to decline, by around 1-2% per year fairly consistently. By the time most men hit their 40’s, these levels are low enough to start impacting everything from mood to physical appearance. Sure, there are some treatments available for these things that can keep your muscle mass up and ensure that the phrase “playing pool with a rope” never becomes part of your personal vernacular, but this is only part of the puzzle. Other processes change- secretion and proliferation of growth factors after exercise decreases, bone repair and new bone creation slows, your circulatory system begins showing signs of occlusion and vessels start to harden in all but the most “healthy” of individuals. These are unavoidable. And these apply to women as well- an aging body is an aging body.
At this point, I will stop the review of the aging process, because quite frankly it’s somewhat depressing, there is plenty written on it, and I’m late for my afternoon nap and warm milk already. Also, I forget where I was going with this. Legitimately.
The bigger question is this: What the hell can I do about this? What should I change?
Ever looked at those people who seem to be ageless? They’re 60, 65, 70 years old and still running marathons, still deadlifting, still doing all these things while you’re trying to get that tweak out of your knee and get your shoulder un-frozen so you can pick up a barbell without squealing? Those people who are 55 years old with the bodies of a 20 year old, and here you are, late 30’s, feeling as though you’ll be a pile of orthopedic screws and painkillers by the time you hit 50. What the hell are those people doing? How do they do it?
Reduction in recovery capacity- less stimulation, more active recovery
The first thing to remember is that, as you age, you can still TRAIN for the same number of hours a week, but the BREAKDOWN of the training has to change. When you’re 20, training for 10 hours a week, 9.5 hours are training for an adaptive effect, 0.5 hours are rehab/prehab. By the time you’re 60, you can still train for 10 hours, but as few as 4-5 may be for adaptive effect.
The reasons are two-fold. First, your body will take more time to get moving. Your heart rate doesn’t get as high as quickly (so warming up for cardiovascular training takes longer). Your peripheral blood flow isn’t quite what it was, so even your joints take longer to warm up (synovial fluid may decrease, calcification around bones can limit movement, etc.).
Second, the most critical thing is, you CANNOT AFFORD TO FUCK YOURSELF UP. As we get older, we replace piss and vinegar with mastery, and while the former can cover up a lot of mistakes, the latter will stop you from making those mistakes in the first place. We need to understand this- realize that our movement quality needs to improve. Our first loaded rep should be as textbook as our last, even on warmups. Ingraining perfect form from start to finish, because the external load is no longer the ONLY insult you’re inflicting on yourself. The simple act of moving unfavorably can cause issues as we age, for all the reasons mentioned. No sloppy reps, no careless warmups, those rapacious rapscallions with their hip hop and their baggy jeans can get away with that nonsense because their background level of activity may be higher, they are more robust in general, and most importantly, their healing process is faster. They may be incurring minor injuries every time they train because of their shite form, but their recovery capabilities have those totally sorted by the next time they exercise. For the rest of us, those start to accrue.
It snowed last year too: I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.
– Dylan Thomas, again. No idea what he was on about here, but I needed another quote from him.
Rules to live (and grow older) by
1) Focused mobility work. This is specific mobility- a targeted warm up of the working muscles isn’t just recommended, it’s essential. How will you know when the warmup objective is reached? When you can perform your first target movement with nearly zero tightness or discomfort. If you’re squatting down to depth with just the bar and everything already feels tight and off-kilter, throwing 45’s on each side isn’t the solution anymore. Analyze what’s going on, and target your warmup to loosening up those adductors, or getting your knees tracking properly. “Warm up by performing the movement” is no longer adequate (I’ve changed my views on this in the last three years).
2) Realize that we are the sum of our training history. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Had a hamstring tear 15 years ago? While you may not have noticed it for the last decade, it’s certainly had long term effects. Your movement patterns may have changed slowly for years, and irregular cartilage wear patterns and mineral deposits around the joint may have finally reached the point where you can no longer perform certain movements. Get a gait analysis done! The simple act of running or walking can uncover almost your entire injury history (in my experience). Even if you’re not a runner, get it done. A good analyst will be able to see what might be holding you back, and work around it.
3) Focus. Junk miles are a waste of time to begin with, with limited value, but as your “adaptive training hours” go down, quality work becomes a valuable commodity. Your focus needs to narrow, your training can no longer be “flavor of the week”. Nonsensical circuits and random panoplies of movements are a TRUE waste of time, and run the risk of being immediately harmful, not simply benign in their uselessness.
4) Deloads. These become, seemingly paradoxically, LESS needed in my experience. The concept of taking a regular period of time to reduce training volume and give the body a “break” from adaptation is a relatively new one, physically speaking. Under proper regular stimulus, there’s not much reason why the body needs to take a break, unless the stimulus is exceeding recovery, or there is a case of fatigue masking fitness (when, say, peaking for an event or re-testing norms). Temporarily suspending the adaptive process is always a calculated risk- certain adaptations are relatively short lived, and deloads balance this inevitable loss in discrete fitness parameters in exchange for allowing recovery of other systems (including mental recovery). As you get older, the allowance for overreaching becomes far lesser. With extended recovery times and faster loss of fitness (due to hormonal changes, for example), the rate of deterioration of fitness parameters increases and the rate of recovery from overtraining/overreaching decreases. This means, simply put, that once you put yourself in a hole, you can’t take a week off and return to form. You’ll need to take two weeks off, three weeks off, four weeks off to recover appreciably, and in that time you’ll lose far more fitness.
5) Sleep. Duh, no shit. This is always important. But quite frankly, we know this is always important and it drives me nuts that someone always touts this shit out like it’s something revolutionary in these lists. BELIEVE ME, MISTER FITPRO, I’D LOVE TO SLEEP FOR TEN HOURS A NIGHT. Asshat. So disregard this one. Where’s my warm milk.
6) The aforementioned “adaptive hours” rule. Simple way to look at it- Every decade, starting in your 20’s, allot an additional 10% of the balance of training hours to non-adaptive, repair or form work with NO training stimulus. So, 10% in your 20’s, 20% in your 30’s, and so forth.
7) Lose your fear. Try new things. Keeping the mind engaged with new challenges, new tasks that require coordination, new patterns for the brain to learn- these things pay dividends as we age. Learning new skills can actually delay age-related cognitive decline, and this same rule applies for our bodies. Learning new movements requires developing balance, improving proprioception, uncovers weaknesses we didn’t know we had. Try yoga, study a martial art, learn to rock climb (Though I’d recommend doing so with a good belayer), do SOMETHING that requires you to get out of your comfort zone. This will reward you even in your preferred activity… and learning new tasks may uncover talents that you never knew existed.
In the next installment, I’ll discuss specific implementations of these points and how to adapt a few sample routines for older athletes.
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