I’ve been so inspired by stories of women runners in their 50s and older, that I decided to talk to an expert on the concept of fitness after 50. Much of my feel-good research has been anecdotal, so I sought out Debra Atkinson, author of the upcoming book, “The After 50 Fitness Formula for Women.” She has done in-depth research on the concept of age and the effects it has on women athletes.
As we delved into the topic of women runners who continue to see improvement over 50, it became clear that we needed to define HOW these women are running. Debra’s research found that athletes who run at a moderate level, maybe 3 times per week, without following an intense or structured program, but who are instead “self-paced,” fall into the sweet spot for happy running maintenance. They don’t experience as many negative effects (injuries, fatigue and more) that more intense or more frequent runners experience as they age.
But let’s face it, most people in the Baby Boomer generation do not operate this way. This generation especially was trained to subscribe to this mantra, “The harder you work, the better results you get.” Don’t get me wrong, as a Gen-X’er, I too, subscribe to this belief. The problem is in how we define hard work. I think Baby Boomers tend to focus on the “more is better” side of the equation. I have to admit that I do too. This is a tough habit to break, the “I’m out for 6 miles, but I feel good, so I’ll do an extra few” mentality. I succinctly remember a story that Kathrine Switzer (the first official woman finisher of the Boston Marathon in 1967) tells about her Boston Marathon training at 21 years old. She was on a training run with her coach Artie in the dead of winter in Syracuse, NY. They finished 26 miles, and instead of stopping, she said, “Let’s just do another 5 to TRULY prove we will be able to finish this thing!” Talk about more is better!
When you’re young, you can abuse your body and get away with it more often. Youngsters recover quickly. But as you age, the golden ticket to athletic success is the opposite of what we consider hard work – it’s about getting enough rest and recovery. The problem is that there is no standard for how and when to increase your recovery. Wouldn’t it be great if someone said, “Now that you turned 37, you need to add 4 more hours of rest per week into your routine?” But life isn’t textbook.
I asked Debra if we can easily figure out if we are getting enough rest. She suggested monitoring the tangibles and intangibles of our bodies. It’s all about listening to our bodies, and better yet, not ignoring what we hear! We can monitor the intangibles like unexplained weight and appetite changes, mood fluctuations (though mood may be best monitored by someone close to you for utmost honesty!). When you experience sustained crabbiness, you may be in need of additional rest.
But this is not a perfect science, so a better, yet still realistic, way to measure your body is to monitor your heart rate, starting with your resting heart rate. Debra says that if your resting heart rate is elevated by 3 to 5 beats for multiple days, you are not recovering properly. Your body is in a state of fatigue. Well guess what? I’ve been in a state of fatigue since my daughter was born 3.5 years ago, so this is also difficult to monitor perfectly! If you want to get more scientific, you can invest in a heart rate variability monitor and keep a more structured log. Once you start logging, patterns will emerge.
So what happens next? How do you amend your athletic routine to account for an aging body with greater rest and recovery needs? I talked to my husband, Tim DeBoom, about this topic. Tim is a 2-time Hawaii Ironman World Champion, who after more than a decade of improvement, experienced a similar long, slow decline in his performance abilities until the end of his career. He was 21 when he started his triathlon career and he was 41 when he retired. One of the x-factors is that he may not have amended his general workout routine appropriately to account for his aging body (and all those aggregate miles!).
In retrospect, he explained the following concept that probably would have benefitted him in regards to setting up a training calendar. He planned his triathlon training around a 7-day cycle. Mondays were rest days. Tuesdays were brick workouts. Wednesdays were hilly runs. You get the gist. As we age, we can continue to include these all-important workouts in our schedules, but we should lengthen the cycle. By the end of his career, he may have benefitted from stretching his program into a 10-day cycle instead of a 7-day cycle.
The difficult part of this concept is that there is no perfect line in the sand that tells us when we need to add more rest. We have to figure it out on our own, often through experiencing failures and injuries. And more importantly, we need to embrace the fact that more rest and recovery does not mean we are not working hard. In fact, it can often require even more mental toughness to take those rest days!
So the moral of the story is: Keep running. Keep moving. Keep going forward. Just be sure to give your body more rest and recovery as you get older, and the best way to do this is to listen to what your body is telling you. And my all means, please share your rest and recovery stories– we’d all love to hear!