You dont stop running because you get old, you get old because you stop running, Christopher McDougall.
Biology is working against us as we age, making it harder to stay fit much less compete at a high level. Our cardiac output falls and our VO2 max starts to drop. VO2 max refers to the maximum amount of oxygen you can utilize during exercise. It's commonly used to test the aerobic endurance or cardiovascular fitness of athletes. Aging muscles also lose mass and elasticity.
As athletes age, they are more likely to suffer injury and illness. OK, enough of the downside.
Phil Mickelson won the PGA Championship on May 23 at age 50, becoming the oldest winner in the 161 years of major championship golf. In February, Tom Brady became the oldest quarterback to start and win a Superbowl at age 43. Meb Keflezighi won the 2014 Boston Marathon just two weeks shy of his 39th birthday. Serena Williams continues to compete at the highest level of professional womens tennis at age 40, while the sport is dominated by players in their late teens and early twenties.
Kathy Martin is not a professional athlete. Shes known as the Running Realtor. She took up running in her 30s on a whim to join her husband. Her first run with him lasted one city block.
However, she didnt quit and the next day she ran two blocks, then three and eventually a mile. Shes now over age 65 and recently ran a 5k race at a 6:26-mile pace.
She has set running records from 5k to 50k since she turned 40.
How do these folks continue to compete at such a high level at their respective ages, and what can we learn from them?
First, being over the hill doesnt mean being over the cliff. Staying physically active, getting enough sleep, taking care of any medical conditions, and challenging your body through some type of regular physical activity is critical to maintain your fitness level. High-intensity workouts can improve your VO2max. Lifting weights can help maintain muscle mass. Stimulating your mind by being a life-long learner can make a big difference, too.
Mickelson added meditation to his training routine and considers coffee a health drink. I havent read how he lost weight, but he looked lighter than in recent years.
Keflezighi added elliptical and core training to his regimen to avoid injury. Williams is a strict vegan during the tennis season and an advocate for high-intensity workouts. Brady trains all year long and is obsessive about his diet.
Food first. Adequate fuel is the key to being a lifelong athlete and a healthy adult. Not just for a few months but a steady lifestyle. As we age, we should be focused on consuming foods to enrich our body and mind.
Many health experts promote the Mediterranean diet a diet that's rich in vegetables, berries, fruit, whole grains, and healthy fats and proteins. While there is no single definition of the Mediterranean diet, the main components include:
Be consistent. Athletes who have long careers stay consistent with their training and health habits. Indeed, a study from the University of New Mexico showed as much as 70% of age-related decline is because of deconditioning rather than the aging process itself.
There may be all sorts of reasons you have become deconditioned, but the good news is the body adapts.
Ruby Ghadially decided to run a mile at age 57. It took her 15 minutes. Now, at age 63, she recently ran a 6:09 mile for a track club in San Francisco. A teammate of hers took up running after a divorce at age 51 and is now an accomplished runner at ag 61. For that matter, my wife, Kathie, a self-proclaimed non-athlete, started running in her mid-30s after a divorce. She became a top Masters runner in the Central Florida area for years. (We met in a race a few years later.)
The best things you can do to be a lifelong athlete, or healthy adult, is to have a healthy diet and be consistent with your training. If you arent an athlete, no worries. Thats just a word and a mind-set. The main thing is to keep (or start) moving forward.
(Patrick Johnson, RN, BSN, MPA is the former public health director in Haywood County, N.C. He worked in public health for 36 years in Florida and North Carolina. He retired from the U.S. Air Force Reserve Nurse Corps in 2013 as a Colonel after 27 years. Col Johnson is an Iraq war veteran and has run over 400 races from 5k to marathon. Hes been a vegetarian for 35 years. Hes also bounced back from a heart valve repair, a severe stroke, a seizure disorder and still battles atrial fibrillation and retirement. He continues to run, hike, lift weights, stretch, meditate and tries to work out four times a week. One workout is my trail maintenance morning with the Carolina Mountain Club on the Mountain to Sea Trail in Haywood County. If you are interested in checking it out go to CarolinaMountainclub.org and look for the volunteer link. You wont regret it.)