Training the Elite Athlete

Times have changed from the days we assumed that the body must degenerate as we age. Study after study shows that the longer we remain active, the longer we remain fit and healthy. From the “Masters World Records” in 2002 we know that 75, 80, 90, 96 and 100 year old runners have set world records (the 100 year old runner was from the USA!) These are the elite athletes who have remained active throughout their lives. If you are reading this hopefully you are already living an ongoing active lifestyle.

The “elite” or more “mature” athlete wants to stay fit and competitive well into his or her forties, fifties, sixties and beyond. While this is absolutely possible it is imperative to train intelligently and eat properly to counteract the effects of growing older. As we age there is a 10% decline in muscle mass between the ages of 25 and 50. The decline becomes greater after the age of 50 if we do not proactively counteract this regression. This decline in muscle fiber affects our bodies in several ways.

First of all, with less muscle mass our metabolism slows down. We burn fewer calories and require less food. Should we continue to eat the same amount of calories year after year with a decline in muscle fiber the average American will gain 5 to 7 pounds per year, in fat mass! The second effect is less strength and less energy. This becomes a vicious downward spiral. Less strength, less energy, less effort put forth, less strength, etc. In addition, for the elite athlete, speed is sacrificed with muscle loss. Flexibility also declines with age as our soft tissue hardens and our joints stiffen.

Due to these various components sports performance becomes considerably worse. Stride length and velocity declines and (ground) contact time increases. Now for the bad news… (just kidding!)

There are absolute ways to reverse these negatives. Hill sprinting is an excellent way to increase stride length. Hill sprinting generates more work of the calf muscles on push off, enhancing stride length and reducing contact time. This type of cardio workout will also increase lower limb and ankle strength and power. It is essential that you work with your heart rate monitor and begin hill workouts gradually. One-30 second hill with a 1.5 to 3 minute recovery will work at first. As you become more agile and fit your recovery time will decrease. You need to make sure your heart rate has recovered to a manageable level (anywhere from 50 to 70% depending on your fitness level) prior to beginning your next hill. Hill workouts should begin with 3 hills and gradually progress to 10.

Plyometric exercises condition the stretch/reflex in our muscles, boost speed and power and can stimulate fast-twitch muscle fibers (which are the key to strength, speed and power.) Drills in which the athlete bounds and hops are examples of effective plyometric exercises. Again, this type of workout is to be entered into gradually, for athletes of all ages.

Resistance training (with weights, bands or body weight) is crucial for the mature athlete. Runners and those who sprint in their sports sometimes tend to stray towards too much cardiovascular activity. However, too much steady state aerobic activity can actually reduce the sharpness of fast-twitch muscle fibers. Training with weights will offset fast-twitch muscle fiber shrinkage significantly. In addition this type of training will also help to keep us slim. Stronger and more powerful muscle fiber speeds up our metabolism 24 hours per day, therefore burning more calories. When weight training the elite athlete needs to continually be challenged. Sets should consist of 8 to 15 repetitions, with muscle failure or fatigue reached by the end of each set. When you are weight training to recruit and challenge fast-twitch muscle fibers do not expect an easy session!

Another positive side effect of intense training is an increase in the stimulation of Growth Hormone (GH). These days we can take a supplement for just about anything in the world but there is no contest between a supplement and a hormone released naturally in the body. GH is crucial for speed maintenance later in life, helps us to hold onto lean muscle tissue and helps to offset some general effects of aging.

If the sport you participate in requires endurance and speed (as mine does) or you are a recreational athlete looking to stay fit and lean, you will need to find a combination in your workout schedule that is effective for you. A certain amount of endurance work should be scheduled in with your intense training. Simply running to train for running will not increase your speed or performance, may lead to injury and may not even keep you lean.

Last but not least. Recovery, rest and nutrition are the remaining part of the formula for the mature athlete. You may train extremely hard and then need to rest and recover the following day. Listen to your body. Pushing through when you are in pain is not only counter-productive it is harmful. Hydration and healthy nutrition are essential for performance and recovery. Under eating will cause your metabolism to slow down and your body to retain fat weight. Avoiding healthy carbohydrates will cause your body to cannibalize its own muscle tissue (not fat tissue) for energy, therefore slowing down your metabolism and maintaining or adding body fat. Proteins are the building blocks of the body but carbohydrates are the fuel. You cannot perform well without a regime of healthy carbohydrates. I often ask my clients this question; which is the unhealthy carbohydrate: whole wheat bread, an apple or a jelly doughnut? (Answer to appear in the next issue!)

Should you be confused on your workout program I can absolutely help you out. I can test your metabolism and tell you with 97% accuracy how many calories you need each day. I can assist in your nutrition and design a perfect, individualized training program for you. Remember, train hard, train smart and never stop!