As I move through the fall term at UVM, I’ve crossed paths with various people in the research and academic world. There is a ton of research being done in the applied sciences, much of it related to chronic conditions and disease mitigation. This is where the money is! Understandably, the NIH is not going to prioritize funding for developing interventions to maximize athletic performance into the golden years. This funding will likely come from private sources, supporting entrepreneurial researchers and practitioners looking for answers and strategies.
After a conversation last week with a professor about why he has chosen to research chronic conditions, I thought about why I am interested in interventions to preserve and extend athletic performance. And it hit me straight on: I see athletics as a true celebration of life! Certainly as much as good music, art, literature, or academic achievement. Those of us fortunate to have retained our fundamental capacities have a choice to pursue athletics at a high level or dabble at physical activity here and there and lament our declining abilities. I then thought about what it takes to retain this prowess and decided in simplistic terms it takes 90 minutes a day, on average. Not once or twice a week, rather every day.
I’ll break that down. There are three fundamental aspects that enable a high level of performance: aerobic training with anaerobic overload, strength training, and flexibility. Aerobic training is the base for a runner. On average 45-60 minutes of the 90 minutes should be spent there (at an 8 to 9 minute/mile pace, that is a 5.5 to 8 mile run) with anaerobic overload (track, hill, tempo workout or a race) ideally a couple times a week. On the strength front, we all know people who spend more than 90 minutes a day just in the weight room. More power to them! But that cohort is unlikely to read my running blog. My advice is to look to do strength and flexibility training with the other 30-45 minutes, probably in tandem with the aerobic/anaerobic activity. This amounts to a good block of time. To be clear, this is actual workout time, not the time getting to the gym/track or time spent dressing, showering or chatting with others in the gym. So, if you’re a morning person and you need to be someplace by 9:00, you’ve got to start your workout by 6:30 or so. If you’re an afternoon aficionado, a 5:30 p.m. start may mean you’re not home for dinner until 7:30 or 8:00.
On days we do longer runs or tempos, the entire 90 minutes (or more!) might be taken up with running. On average is the key here. We need those longer aerobic workouts and must build those in. But it’s important not to short-shrift the strength and flexibility work. A primary reason why chronic conditions develop in runners is too much running combined with too little weight work and stretching.
Good to insert a thought here about running equivalents (REQs). I need to do a post focusing on these. But suffice it to say, as we age (or even before we age!) we should incorporate non-running aerobic exercise into our weeks. At this stage I run four, maybe five times a week. The other 2-3 days generally involve deep-water running and/or Stairmaster workouts. It’s a balance that has worked over the years. Some prefer the bike or elliptical for their REQs. Whatever, works for you, as long as you take days off from running!
What do I mean by strength training? We have hundreds of muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments we simultaneously use to run. Which means we can’t rely on just five or six simple exercises. And since running creates forces about three times our body weight, it’s important to do some exercises with weights. I regularly perform about 20 weight-bearing exercises during the course of the week, mostly with machines or free weights. Since I do eight to 12 of these each day, each exercise it done roughly three times a week.
Flexibility is both a before and after affair. It’s good to start running days with 5-7 minutes of easy dynamic stretching. The body needs to be warmed up – even more so as we age – before we engage in vigorous physical activity. If you feel tight in the beginning of a run, stop and do some more stretching. Then, after your run or aerobic workout stretch on benches in between weight reps and always, always, always do a bunch of eccentric heel dips (please see my November 2015 post on those!)
There is nothing new here. We inherently know all of this. But the Nike adage applies – “Just Do It!” It’s easy to get side-tracked and do first things first and let the second and third things slide. Maybe we could do that in younger years. But it catches up. Regardless, every day is a new day. And I encourage you to set aside 90 minutes today for your aerobic, strength, and flexibility training!