Play On!

Play On by Jeff Bercovici, just released, is a great read about how older professional athletes in various sports are flattening, and even bending up the aging curve. It’s loaded with insights about things master’s runners care about.

Bercovici starts with an account of how Meb Keflezighi won the 2014 Boston Marathon, which is particularly relevant since it also speaks to the bizarre conditions of the 2018 race.   In 2014, Meb was a clear underdog against one of the strongest fields ever assembled for Boston. He wanted to run a steady pace, which resulted in him taking the lead after nine miles as others were taking stock of each other and thinking Meb would come back to them. He extended his lead to over a minute in the Newton Hills. When at mile 22 it became clear Meb was for real, two Kenyan runners, Wilson Chebet and Frankline Chepkwony, went on a tear to catch him, cutting their pace by 20 seconds a mile. The margin evaporated to six seconds at mile 25 and it looked like Meb was toast. But it turned out the chasers had gone into anaerobic debt to catch him while Meb was still within his aerobic self.   They fizzled in the final stretch and began to look like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, while Meb’s form stayed true to the end. Fast forward to 2018 when Desi Linden and Yuki Kawauchi both bided their time, letting the front-runners, who were totally thrown off by the cold, rain and stark wind, set the pace. Desi went into overdrive at mile 22 and blew by a fast-fading Mamitu Daska, who only minutes before had looked invincible.   Clearly, Daska had gone anaerobic to forge her lead and fight the elements, whereas Desi ran a steady race within herself. Kawauchi, too, kept in the race but let others expend themselves and was there when they folded.

Whether we’re young or old, but especially as we age, we have to pay attention to what’s in the tank and how to use that. To this point, when you’re driving on an open flat road set the cruise control at 55 for 10 miles. Check you mpg reading. Then reset and do 10 miles at 70 mph.   You should notice a marked difference, maybe up to 15% less at the faster speed. Compare this to running — we train to increase our aerobic capacity so we can run faster and longer without going into anaerobic debt. But there are limits. If we go too hard we find ourselves struggling like Chebet and Chepkwony.   We can run at a faster pace for a while, but at a cost and we can’t pull into a gas station to fuel up. Pacing is both an art and science!

Elsewhere in the book, Bercovici boils kinesiology down to two words: mobility and stability. And provides various examples how professional athletes incorporate exercises into their routines aimed at shoring up these aspects. In running, we know speed is a function of stride length and cadence. Most competitive runners largely maintain cadence through their 60s, but as muscles weaken, joints stiffen, and tendons lose elasticity, stride length declines. And race times suffer! So, what to do? It may not be a magic elixir, but skipping and jumping drills can help. These don’t have to be extreme plyometrics as performed by collegiate and Olympic level athletes. Rather six to eight modified drills that work the muscles and tendons up and down the kinetic chain. Doing these several times a week for about 10 minutes per session should provide a boost to both your running rhythm and stride length.

We all want to play on! That may mean something different to each of us. But there are some common themes Bercovici suggests at the end of his book, including: ramp up training gradually, training harder on hard days and easier on easy days, regular mobility training aimed at enhancing range of motion, eating well, believing in ourselves, and a willingness to diversify sports we participate in. All of this makes good sense. So, let’s play on!

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