How Athletes Can Stay ‘Fast After 50’
A celebrated triathlete argues that high-intensity interval training can reduce the effects of aging on performance
START SLOW, BUT... | ‘To be fast, one needs to train fast,’ says Joe Friel. PHOTO: JOE FRIEL
By KATHLEEN A. HUGHES
As we get older, most of us get slower. But aging athletes may be able to stave off those changes more successfully than most people realize.
That’s the conclusion that Joe Friel, a celebrated triathlete, coach and author, reaches in his new book, “Fast After 50.” As he approached his 70th birthday, Mr. Friel began researching how aging affects athletic performance.
Among his primary findings: Many older adults are capable of pursuing high-intensity workouts well into later life. Put simply, “to be fast, one needs to train fast,” Mr. Friel says.
“If we do this, our aerobic capacities decline at a slower rate,” he says. In fact, “people will live longer with high-intensity training than if they adopted a long-slow-distance approach to exercise, which is what most of us do.”
We exchanged emails with Mr. Friel at his home in Boulder, Colo. Here are edited excerpts from that discussion.
It’s the hormones
WSJ: At what age do we start to slow down, and what happens, in a nutshell?
MR. FRIEL: Most endurance athletes will begin to notice a change in performance by their late 30s. The change is mostly the result of decreasing hormone production.
When we’re young we release lots of anabolic—tissue-building—hormones: testosterone, growth hormone, insulin-like growth factor, etc. These have a lot to do with recovery and damage control. As we age, the body gradually produces less and less. That means even slower healing of injuries and slower recovery as we move into our 40s, 50s and later.
WSJ: How would you sum up your research? How do we keep from slowing down?
MR. FRIEL: The best way to maintain health and performance for the dedicated but aging athlete is by doing high-intensity interval training, doing strength training with heavy loads, including adequate protein in the diet, and getting lots of sleep.
WSJ: What would be an example of high-intensity training? How would that compare with a traditional workout for an older athlete?
MR. FRIEL: High-intensity training is doing short bouts, or intervals, at greater than anaerobic threshold, where labored breathing first shows up.
An example would be five intervals of one minute each at high intensity with one-minute recoveries after each. Most aging athletes begin to move away from such training in their 50s and, instead, adopt a training pattern of long slow distances.
A gradual approach
WSJ: Isn’t fear a factor? Aren’t older athletes more prone to injury?
MR. FRIEL: It comes down to controlling the dose (how hard an individual workout is) and the density (how closely spaced the hard workouts are) of training. Dose is controlled by starting high-intensity intervals very conservatively. Only one or two the first time. Then very gradually add more per session.
Density is managed by making sure there is adequate rest following a hard training session. When in doubt as to what to do, rest more.
WSJ: You write that strength training, particularly with heavy loads, is critically important to counteract shrinking muscles. How would that fit into a person’s workouts?
MR. FRIEL: The athletes who tend to benefit the most from strength training are novices, women and ectomorphs (skinny people who have a hard time adding muscle). With that in mind, I would say that most aging athletes who are healthy and cleared to lift weights need to do heavy-load strength training two to three times a week year-round.
WSJ: If most of our deterioration is due to plummeting hormones, what’s the best way to stimulate those hormones?
MR. FRIEL: Sleep. Anabolic hormones respond very well to sleep. That’s why I emphasize focusing on sleep every day. Cutting back on sleep to fit more things into our daily lives diminishes athletic performance and may even shorten one’s life.
Eating adequate amounts of protein also seems to benefit anabolic-hormone production. Most of the research indicates that the average aging person doesn’t eat enough protein.
WSJ: How much sleep do we need?
MR. FRIEL: If you use an alarm clock to wake up in the morning, then you didn’t get enough sleep. One should wake up naturally when the body is ready. If you have to be at work early, then go to bed earlier in the evening.
No reverse, but fast forward
WSJ: You suggest that the right kind of exercise can slow—and perhaps reverse—the aging process. What does the research show?
MR. FRIEL: Aging can be “reversed” for only a brief period. This can be done by training and lifestyle as described above. But at some point down the road the body will cease to adapt and the cells will start “aging” again, albeit at a slower rate if the high-intensity training coupled with adequate protein in the diet and ample sleep are continued. There is some evidence that such a lifestyle modifies the aging process—but it never fully reverses it.
WSJ: How do you expect baby boomers to change the research results on aging, athletes and speed?
MR. FRIEL: Most of the research on aging athletes was done with people who started exercising late in life. The baby-boom generation is the first to exercise seriously throughout their lives, and so their fitness level is much greater than that of any previous generation. So I expect to see the boomers set records in every endurance sport in the coming years.
Ms. Hughes is a writer living in California and New York. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The article can also be viewed at www.wsj.com/articles/how-athletes-can-stay-fast-after-50-1445220142?mod=e2fb