Secrets of the Slow Twitch

Who says the race is for the young? More and more endurance athletes are rising to the top of their game as they age. Is that success due to their experience as wily veterans or can a lifetime of training pay late dividends?

Age is clearly no longer the limiting factor it once was at sport’s elite level, a point Lance Armstrong hopes to prove when he returns with team RadioShack to the Tour de France this July. Armstrong will be 39 when he attempts to add an eighth Tour victory to his list of career wins, but nothing says he won’t be able to do it because of his age. In fact, a couple more grey hairs might make Lance even more formidable.

Enduring Lance: At 39, Armstrong will shoot for Tour victory No. 8 again this year. He’s been keeping those old bones spry training in Carbondale and competing in the Leadville 100.

Quite a few athletes over 40 have been raising eyebrows recently, with notable performances from characters as varied as Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Farve and Mexican Olympic skier Hubertus von Hohenlohe. The only Mexican athlete at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, Hohenlohe, 51, was also the oldest competitor at the games. Though finishing 46th in the Giant Slalom was his best result, as he said, “Don’t look at my time; Look at my style.”

More and more often, elite athletes in all manner of different sports are finding that time is on their side. True, you can’t stop time, and there’s an inevitable decline in aerobic capacity and recovery rate that comes with age. Studies have shown, for instance, the fast-twitch muscles responsible for speed and short bursts of power start to deteriorate in your late 20s. But the good news for aging athletes is the slow-twitch muscles needed for endurance sports can thrive well into your 40s.

“OLD MAN POWER”

As any rookie cyclist who’s been outlasted by a group of retirees on a club ride can attest, old guys can go the distance. But is that because of a lifetime spent building up their slow-twitch muscles or some mystic wisdom learned over countless hours of pedal rotations? According to Armstrong’s coach, Chris Carmichael, it’s actually a bit of both.

“I call it Old Man Power,” he says. “It has to do with the time those old guys have spent at high intensities over their years of riding.” Years of strenuous aerobic workouts build up your ability to utilize fuel efficiently during exercise. So even though young guys have a higher V02 max – the maximum capacity of an individual’s body to transport and utilize oxygen during exercise – and can recover more quickly, older dudes can sustain hard intensities—though not maximal—long enough to wear young guys out. Simply put: a 25-year-old would likely beat an experienced 40-year-old in a 50-meter sprint. In a half-marathon, however, you might want to put your money on the older guy.

According to Jay T. Kearney, Ph.D., of the United States Olympic Committee, the key is oxygen supply. Most endurance sports don’t require an athlete to go anaerobic—where the muscles’ demand for oxygen outstrips the supply—so older athletes who have a lower lactate threshold than in their youth aren’t at a disadvantage. But most importantly, a career’s worth of training can enhance other aspects of an athlete’s ability.

EXPERIENCE PAYS

Ralph Vernacchia, Ph.D., Director at the Center for Performance Excellence and Professor of Physical Education at Western Washington University, says years of practice can give a 40-year old athlete an advantage impossible for a younger competitor to match. “Sometimes we use the word ‘older’ when we should really be saying ‘experienced,’” he says. “You’re talking about the lifespan of an athlete, and—just like a normal lifespan for an individual—as you get older, you get wiser. Experienced athletes understand not only the physical, but the mental, emotional and spiritual side of sports.”

Vernacchia advises older athletes not to try to force a result or performance, but instead be patient and have confidence that the cumulative effect of years of training and preparation will allow the best performances to come naturally.

“You can’t overpower a sport,” he advises. “Experienced athletes know that. They don’t force it. Instead, they let it happen.”

For Rebecca Rusch, 40, who last year became the consecutive three-time 24-Hour Solo Mountain Biking World Champion and won the women’s title in her first ever Leadville 100, maturing physically as an athlete took a back seat to the mental and emotional maturation that allowed her to leave younger competitors in the dust. “I have 12 years of training, so during competition, my brain says, ‘Yeah, I’ve felt this before. I know I’ve pushed through this before. I know I can ride for 24 hours. I know it’s going to hurt, but I can do it.’”

Matthew Weatherley-White, Rusch’s coach, agrees. “[Athletes] have to understand what every little sensation means and how it will impact their ability to sustain an effort,” he says. “You have to become familiar with discomfort. You must build a deep reservoir of stubbornness. Habits must form that support your engagement with a race. There are literally hundreds of things like this that must be aggregated, brick by brick, into the foundation that allows you to excel. No matter how tough you are, or how focused, or how gifted, you can’t accelerate it.”

Carmichael, too, attributes much of the success of slightly older Grand Tour cyclists to their experience. “It takes a long time for a cyclist to gain the fitness to race 21 days out of 23 and be on top of his game for every pedal stroke,” he says. “It also takes that long for most riders to gain the tactical maturity to win the biggest and most pressure packed events in cycling.”

How does Rebecca Rusch keep so competitive? Well timed rest (and having fun) are key.

REST, INVEST, AND KEEP AT IT
Caring for the body also takes on added significance later in an athlete’s career, and increased attention paid to massage, structured rest and recovery techniques pay off.

“We understand, at a more experienced level, the value of rest, restoration and recovery,” Vernacchia says. “If you put your nose to the grindstone, you’re only going to end up with a flat nose.”

Rusch says many of her recent victories can actually be attributed to training less than she has in the past, but with an enhanced focus. “Now, my training is more specific. Instead of feeling I have to go out for a ten hour ride, it’s more about, ‘I need to do one hour of intervals, but it has to be quality.’ I feel like I’m wasting less time and getting more out of my training than I ever have before,” she says.

Many older athletes are also better able to devote the time, effort and money required to keep their body in top form.

“Look at Dara Torres,” says Kearney, referring to the the 40-year-old three-time silver medalist at the 2008 summer Olympics. “Dara’s overall strength training, massage, physical therapy and nutrition program is costing her hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. How many collegiate-age athletes are capable of that?”

But that doesn’t mean you need an extra hundred G’s to stay in top form through your golden years. Kearney says obeying a few of the basic tenants of sports and fitness are enough to keep older athletes in the game. To start, don’t get lazy.

“One of the most important behaviors is to continue to participate and stay in near competitive shape,” he says, pointing out how an active person’s fitness declines at a slower rate than an inactive person as they age.

Avoiding injury caused by overtraining, and committing to competitively full rehabilitation if injured also plays an important role in continued endurance fitness. Says Kearney, many aging athletes see their fitness fall prey to a mounting set of small, nagging but detrimental injuries.

Weatherley-White says taking part in yoga practices and having regular therapeutic massage can play a big part in sustaining performance. Aside from that, he believes the most important factor related to maintaining athletic prowess may also be the most simple. The magic ingredient? Rest.

“As you get older you have to trust the hard work you do sets the stage for fitness and strength,” he says. “But it’s the recovery that really lets that happen.”

Weatherley-White has altered Rusch’s training schedule accordingly, and while in her youth she may have only taken a single rest day a week, she now follows a three days on, one day off plan. For Rusch, he says, effective training has become much more a science of regeneration than a science of exercise.

THE REVOLUTION
While there’s still no definitive consensus within the scientific community about the best ways to age within your sport, Weatherley-White for one is confident we’re living through an athletic revolution. “We’re in the process right now of rewriting all the rules regarding aging and athletic performance,” he says. “If you have an open mind towards the capacities of the human body, don’t let the assumptions of old science drive the decisions you make. We’re reinventing ourselves as we go.”

In fact, evidence suggests older athletes sometimes succeed simply because they know they might never have another chance to try. Pitcher Jamie Moyer, for instance, started for the Phillies in Game Three of the 2008 World Series at age 45—despite suffering from a severe stomach virus.

“He said, ‘I’m pitching,’ and he had a great performance,” says Vernacchia, who’s worked with elite athletes like Moyer for his entire career. “The reason for that was because he knew he might never be there again. This was his last shot, and he wanted to leave his mark. It was the urgency of the moment.”

“All athletes should be doing that every time they compete, because we’re never guaranteed another time, another chance, another tomorrow,” says Vernacchia. “But I think it really comes to the front as you get older and your opportunities diminish. You realize it’s now, or never.” •

Sean Leslie is a Seattle-based freelance writer and wannabe outdoorsman.

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