Archive for the ‘Elite Sports Performance’ Category
Last week I happened to see the ceremonial opening tee shot at the Masters golf tournament that featured Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Gary Player who are all great champions. Palmer is 83, Nicklaus is 73, and Player 77. What struck me as I watched was how well Player hit the ball at age 77. The video clip below is from earlier in the year and shows Player hitting off the tee. Here is a link to a slow motion video from a year ago.
click here for video
I am not a huge golf fan, but the flexibility, range of motion, rhythm and power of Player at age 77 is remarkable. Player is also one of the first high profile athletes to really incorporate fitness training into his routine and he has kept at it as he ages and continues to participate and compete. His program includes a lot of core strength exercises and he has some excellent tips about things like remembering to take the stairs. Here are his “10 rules” on being an athlete, you can argue about some of the specifics, but on the whole he has it right. His program and his rules might also be described as state of the art thoughts from someone who is aging well — extremely well. He also makes a key point about staying engaged in life with his rule number 10:
“When I’m on vacation, I try to play golf with younger people, the fitter the better. I think you tend to take on the characteristics of the individuals you spend the most time with. Doing activities with young, healthy people has had a way of making me rise to their level. The best traits of young people–their optimism, curiosity, alertness and energy–are contagious and will definitely make you feel younger. “
Never Too Late!
Seeing Player hit the ball so well and reading about his fitness program reminded me that it is never too late to improve. The clip below is of 95 year old Paul Lurie swimming with Terry Laughlin. Lurie, like Player, shows outstanding flexibility and rhythm along with terrific overall technique. I find the fact that Lurie is taking lessons and improving in his 90s as inspirational.
click here for video
It is tempting to argue that Player and Lurie are “something special”; however what they do is pretty typical of “healthy agers”. And while the population as a whole gets fatter and less fit there is going to be a subset of people like Player and Lurie who both age and thrive. I also think Player’s comments about doing things with younger people are right on the mark and a key part of the “staying engaged in life” element of successful or active aging. Some have argued that aging has become overly medicalized and that as the world gets older we need a new paradigm focused on the many positive aspects of aging and how to promote them. Player and Lurie are good examples of what a new aging paradigm might look like.
Last month there was a lot of hullabaloo when 38 year old Bernard Lagat ran a very fast 2-mile (8:09) indoors at the Millrose games in New York City. On March 9th 48 year old Bernard Hopkins won the IBF light heavy weight boxing title. Hopkins has a “grew up hard” story that is typical of many fighters and some would say boxing is not what it used to be. However, I can only think of one athlete, the cyclist Jeannie Longo, who did as well as Hopkins has in their later 40s in a sport that requires a champion be in truly superior physical condition. Unfortunately at least the end of Longo’s career has been tainted by all too familiar evidence of performance enhancing drug use in cycling.
The golfers Jack Nicklaus won the Master’s at age 46, Julius Boros won the PGA at age 48, and Tom Watson (incredibly) tied for second at the British open at age 59. The pitcher Jamie Moyer played major league baseball at a high but not dominant level into his middle 40s and won a game at age 50 (he was outstanding in his early 40s). Martina Navratilova played in the mixed doubles competition at Wimbledon in her late 40s. Hockey fans know about Gordie Howe who played well in the NHL at age 52, and hockey unlike golf is a test of conditioning.
Is there anyone Bernard Hopkins compares too? The short answer is Archie Moore (1916?-98), who like Hopkins was a boxer with a troubled past and fought long, hard and incredibly well into his late 40s and held a world title at around age 46. Moore was self-educated, an icon in the civil rights movement, and became something of a renaissance man/humanitarian. Here is a link to an extended interview with Moore from the early 70s that aired on the Public TV interview show “Day at Night”. Moore defies the stereotype of the inarticulate boxer who says little and thinks less.
When we think about those who beat the clock during middle age we tend to focus on endurance athletes or those in skill sports and not about boxing where some of the most notable examples come from. Any middle aged champion has to overcome all sorts of odds and obstacles, but the boxer also has to confront what must the incredible fear of entering the ring and actually having to fight his way out. Boxing is nuts and maybe it should be banned as an archaic, brutal and frequently corrupt spectacle. However, never doubt the courage, heart and (incredibly) the intelligence of some of these men. Anyone who does should read Shadow Box by George Plimpton who said:
“Shadow Box is the best of my works because it gave me a chance to enter a very strange, but likeable and interesting fraternity; that of the boxing world.”
Last weekend 38 year old Bernard Lagat, a multiple Olympic medalist in the 1500m, broke the American record for the indoor 2-mile run at the Millrose games in New York City. His time was just over 8:09. This prompted Nick Thompson of the New Yorker to post an excellent piece “Will Bernard Lagat Live Forever?” It highlighted a number of things about Lagat, a native of Kenya who now competes for the United States, and I was able to provide a bit of physiological insight for Mr. Thompson into why such a great performance was possible by such and “old” runner. In this post I want to take a bit of deeper dive into: a) just how unusual this performance is, b) some of the physiology behind it, and c) how long Lagat might continue to run fast.
A Fast Time by a 38 Year Old?
Every time someone in their late 30s or early 40s runs, swims, or rides a bike fast it causes a stir. That having been said the first thing to remember is that this is not unprecedented. Here is a top of my head list of other examples of people who have run very fast in their late 30s or early 40s (there are Wiki sites on all of these folks).
- Jack Foster – multiple fast marathons in his late 30s and early 40s.
- Carlos Lopes — 1984 Olympic marathon champ at age 37
- Francie Larrieu (Smith) – 5 time Olympian, last at age 40
- Steve Scott – broke 4 minutes for the mile 136 times, the last when he was 37
- Eamonn Coughlin – broke 4 minutes at age 41
- Haile Gebrselassie – set the world record for the marathon at age 35
- Miruts Yifter – gold medals in the 5k and 10k in 1980 when he as at least 36
- Constantina Diţă — won the Peking Marathon in 2008 at age 38
The 2-Mile Run is a Max Test!
It turns out a 2-mile run is essentially a VO2 max test and highly dependent on the maximum ability of the body to deliver oxygen to the exercising muscles. In fact the velocity at VO2 max on a flat incremental treadmill test to exhaustion is a great predictor of 3k or 2-mile time. This measurement also considers running economy because more efficient or economical runners will go faster while consuming a given amount of oxygen. The other thing to remember here is that while VO2 starts to fall at age 30 in untrained subjects it is both much higher and starts to fall later in the super fit who continue to train hard and do intervals.
What About Lagat, and How Fast for How Long?
Lagat is a relatively light trainer in terms of his weekly mileage, but he runs his mileage fast and does the type of interval training critical for maintaining a high VO2 max as you age. He also ran very fast indoor 3k times in 2010 and 2012, so fast times in races lasting about 8 minutes are nothing new. His relatively light training also probably protects him from physical injury and psychological burn out. All of this is consistent with information I shared in a previous post on running fast while getting older. So the only question is how much longer can these fast times last? The short answer is who knows, but longitudinal data on elite male distance runners over 20 plus years shows that those who continue to train intensely lose the least and those who train the hardest (not the most) lose almost nothing (2%) into their middle to late 40s. So, if Bernard Lagat wants to keep running fast, there is no physiological reason he can’t be running almost as fast as he is now for at least five more years. 1% of a fast 2-mile is about 5 seconds and somewhere under 8:20 would certainly seem possible for Lagat 5 years from now. He would only be 43!
I got an e-mail a couple of weeks ago from a reader about when to start training again after a marathon. That is a pretty broad based question and the answer depends on all sorts of things including the training background and goals of the athlete, the course he or she just ran, and just how sore and tired the runner was after the race. Here are a few things to think about.
Delayed Muscle Soreness
After a period of exercise, especially trying something new, people frequently experience so-called delayed muscle soreness that usually peaks about 48-72 hours after the bout of exercise. This can also happen after something like a marathon and downhill running is a notorious way to generate delayed muscle soreness. The idea is that microdamage to muscle and inflammation lead to the soreness and pain. Going down stairs is particularly uncomfortable but going downstairs backwards typically is much easier. What is interesting is that things like stretching and cold water immersion post-exercise don’t seem to help that much. Drugs like ibuprofen can help with the soreness but may not improve muscle function either. The best way to avoid delayed muscle soreness is to start a new program slowly. One key for running races with a lot of downhill is to actually do some training going downhill.
Training After a Marathon
The rule of thumb is that it takes about 1 day per mile to recover from a race. So 6 days for a 10k and 20 plus days for a marathon. I am not sure where these rules of thumb came from and again they would depend on how trained the runner is and a lot of the individual factors mentioned at the start of this post. However, there is some research on what happens when people do run in the days right after a marathon and whether it speeds recovery. In a classic study from the 1980s, scientists at Ball State University studied 10 young male runners who ran a marathon on average in less than 3 hours. Half of the runners ran for 30-45 minutes per day the next week, and half rested. The authors concluded that:
“Seven days rest postmarathon did not allow complete recovery of maximum peak torque (MPT) nor did exercise facilitate recovery of work capacity. To prevent impairment of the normal course of recovery postmarathon, exercise intensity and duration must be judiciously selected.”
So what to do? After something like a marathon give yourself at least a week or two to recover. One idea is to use something called active rest. This might include things like cycling, swimming, or deep water running for a few days at 50% effort for about 30 minutes until the delayed muscle soreness has passed. Then slowly add a bit of running. Daily training is a part of the routine for most people who do marathons so there is no need to get out of your routine. However, there is nothing magical about “running the next day”, so give it some time and substitute other activities. One of the nice things about both biking and swimming is that they seem to generate much less of the soreness associated with running.
I have gotten a lot of e-mails and chatted with a number of friends about the future of sports doping post Lance and Oprah. Here is a sample of what has come up.
The Future of Doping? A couple of people sent me a link to a New York Times piece on doping in the 21st century. Among other things this piece talks about so-called gene doping and other high tech approaches to doping. I am a bit skeptical in the short run because literally billions of dollars have been spent on gene therapy for medical conditions like cystic fibrosis with limited success. So when gene therapy becomes a reality in clinical medicine we can maybe revisit the possibility of gene-doping in sports.
The 1% Solution? Most people, including journalists, fail to understand that a 1% edge in something like a 10,000m running race means the doper wins by 100m, a huge margin. This also means that there is no need to use industrial strength doping. Thus doses of things like EPO and steroids can be given at levels beneath the threshold of detection with any imaginable drug testing technology. A number of people, and I am one of them, are shocked that anyone fails a drug test given how beatable they are. The low rates of positive tests at things like the Olympics can be seen as proof that testing is working or proof that testing is beatable. Perhaps it is some of both.
Brand Protection vs. Drug Testing? Some argue that all the sports federations, leagues, sponsors and TV networks want is the appearance of clean play and that depending on the situation they intentionally or unintentionally turn a blind eye toward doping. The idea is that if they really cracked down, all sorts of people would have to be suspended, and the “product” would be second rate. The best example used to support this reasoning is the widespread suspicion that management tolerated or even tacitly encouraged steroid use in Major League Baseball in the late 1990s after the 1994-95 baseball strike. Was doping part of a pact of ignorance designed to generate home run records and get fans back in the stands?
How Many Tours Would Lance Have Won Without Doping? The short answer is who knows. The Tour de France is a long and brutal three week race that lasts about 90 hours with margins of victory of only a few minutes. Additionally, perhaps only 5 to 10 of these hours are typically decisive. So to win, the champion must be lucky and not crash, have a team to protect him on the long boring stages, and then do well in the time trials and on a limited number of the steepest climbs. Time trialing and steep climbing are especially sensitive to something called VO2 max and this is where EPO use or blood doping would make the biggest physiological difference. So Lance appears to have had the best doped team, best able to protect him and his doping strategy was optimized for the critical stages. However, based on what others have said he also trained like a maniac and left nothing to chance. So again, who knows……. he might have won several but I doubt seven in a row.
The Level Playing Field? Everyone was doping therefore it is “dope or be marginalized”, that is more or less one of the arguments Lance made to Oprah. Just like the average person and journalist do not understand what 1% is worth, most don’t understand what it is to be immersed in a micro-culture where the only things that matter are the last race or workout or the next race or workout. So the temptation to dope is immense. The 1968 Boston Marathon champ Amby Burfoot has recently commented on this and wondered whether he would have doped back in the day. I applaud Amby for being so honest.
What Next For Lance? I see three paths:
- He gets caught in a downward spiral of lawsuits and legal proceedings over the next few years and his downfall is complete and might include prison time.
- He drifts into irrelevancy and perhaps ends up on a reality TV show for faded celebrities down the road.
- He names his enablers, has a protracted apology tour, settles the lawsuits and is back in business one way or another.
If I were betting, I would bet on number three. Never underestimate someone as driven as Lance Armstrong.
News reports indicate that Lance Armstrong will admit to doping when he is interviewed this week by the media impresario and TV personality Oprah Winfrey. In a number of earlier posts I have laid out the pros and cons of the Lance doping case, his motivation to dope, stonewall and then stop contesting doping allegations, and the idea he might be seeking a “second act. In addition to looking for some sort of return to the limelight there is at least some speculation that Lance is worried about criminal charges if he admits to too much.
All of this makes me think about Richard Nixon, who resigned the Presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal, and a series of interviews he did with David Frost a few years after he resigned. Nixon and Armstrong both grew up under tough circumstances. They were both self-made, tenacious, incredibly resilient, and devoted practitioners of hard-ball tactics. Lance “won” the Tour de France 7 times; Nixon is the only man to be on the National ticket of a major political party and run for President or Vice President five times. Frost was an all-around media operator and society high flyer before Oprah took these labels to a new level.
That having been said, Nixon fundamentally never saw Watergate as more than a political problem vs. a series of criminal acts. The clip below shows this pretty clearly. Will Oprah be able to get a similar admission out of Lance? Nixon saw Watergate as political gamesmanship that needed to be contained. Will Lance tell Oprah that he saw allegations and denials concerning his well-organized doping program as athletic gamesmanship that needed to be contained vs. a vast and corrupt criminal conspiracy that did all sorts of damage to all sorts of people?
click here for video
In the next clip Nixon says:
“I don’t go with the idea that there … that what brought me down was a coup, a conspiracy etc. I brought myself down. I gave them a sword, and they stuck it in and they twisted it with relish. And I guess if I had been in their position, I’d have done the same thing.”
click here for video
Nixon, for all his faults, understood that in the end he was a victim of his relentless and even obsessive use of hard ball tactics. Will Lance ever understand this? Additionally, at least until now, Lance clearly has not grasped the central lesson of Richard Nixon’s life……..that a cover up is always worse than whatever led to it.
Richard Nixon can be seen as tragic giant. If Lance is lucky he will avoid prison, retain some of his fortune, and re-emerge as a less than first rate celebrity.
Today I want to focus on two practical questions from readers. The first question comes from Bob Fix who is a late 30 something IT person in the Twin Cities.
My question is for those (like me) who want to achieve a higher level of training in the coming year, but are conscious of calories and want to lose more weight: What is the physiological response to “under” nutrition (not enough calories) and more intensive training?
A bit more information, Bob is an avid cyclist and last summer he rode almost 4,000 miles and lost about 20 pounds doing a lot of group rides. He is currently doing about 3-4 indoor aerobic workouts of around an hour per week and strength training 1-2 times per week. The aerobic workouts include some higher intensity efforts. Bob also wants to avoid gaining weight this winter so he is ready to go when it warms up. He is currently counting calories and really watching what he eats and shooting for about 1900 calories per day. Here is a summary of some ideas I shared with Bob:
- For bang for the buck indoor training I prefer the type of interval workouts I have outlined in the blog. This approach keeps you cardiovascular fitness high and then when Spring/Summer rolls around you are good to go. It looks like the workouts you sent have some of these elements so if they are working, keep doing them. Weights a couple of times per week are also a good idea as will be discussed in a bit more detail in response to question #2 below. So, I think you have the bases covered in terms of winter working out.
- Biking on the road is always essentially interval or fartlek training due to hills, drafting, the wind etc. So this is another reason to do some higher intensity exercise during your indoor sessions this winter.
- About counting calories, see what the 1900 cals/day does to your working out. If you feel overly “wasted” and are not recovering then up the calories a bit. The other issue in the winter is the temptation to drink a bunch of beers and eat a plate of wings or something while watching a football game. To avoid situations like this, people who are successful at keeping weight off typically have plenty of carrots and low calorie snacks around to munch on. There is also at least some evidence that people who work out for longer overestimate the calories they are burning, or that more prolonged exercise stimulates their appetite and can make it harder to keep weight off. When you are doing multiple hours of riding per day in the summer this is likely less of an issue, so calorie counting can be important for people when they are doing the types of workouts you describe.
Summary, see how the diet goes and make minor adjustments so that your training does not suffer. More weight will come off when you get outside and the duration of your weekly training picks up. The key is to not lose what you gained in terms of fitness and to gain what you lost in terms of weight over the winter.
The second question comes from Dr. John Schmidt a colleague who is a research and clinical psychologist at the U of Pittsburgh.
I would be very interested in your thoughts on weight training worked into a typical fitness routine. I recall much controversy regarding the use of weights and the potential for detrimental vascular effects.
Here are a few thoughts on this topic:
- Current guidelines now emphasize the need for strength training for middle aged and older adults. The concerns you mention have not panned out and a bigger problem is that many middle aged and older people lack the strength to do their activities of daily living. Grip strength is also a powerful predictor of health as we get older, and it is even predictive in younger people.
- There is some controversy for more competitive people about whether cyclists or runner for example should do weight training with their legs. For cycling some studies are positive and others are negative so there is not clear answer and there is also no clear answer for running. However, there are some positive indicators in more elite runners. For both cycling and running it is probably a matter of whether the fatigue associated with the strength training interferes with the quality of the cycling or running training. Things might also be different for recreational participants vs. more elite athletes.
Summary, resistance training is a key component to overall fitness and health. The winter might be a good time to experiment and see what works for you. This is especially true for more competitive people who want to see if strength training their legs will improve their cycling or running.
In answer to both questions I would urge people to use the cold months to experiment and see what works for them. This will keep you mentally fresh and provide you with some new ideas for when warms up.
There are news reports that Lance Armstrong is considering coming clean and admitting that he doped. Back in October I speculated that this might happen, and at least some of this may be about his desire to compete in high level triathlons. As I think more about it, the average observer may not be fully aware that a subset of super-elite athletes really “needs” the combination of fame, glory, money, and adrenaline that comes from being at the absolute competitive edge. My bet is that Lance is thinking that with a suspension lasting between 2-4 years he would be back by his middle 40s with just enough “physiological time” left to win the Ironman. It would be a stretch, but some folks in their early 40s have done very well at that distance and it is certainly not physiologically impossible. If Lance did it, he would get everything he seems to crave…… at least for a while.
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