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Older Athletes: Beating the Clock

First Posted: 09/11/2012 1:37 pm EDT Updated: 09/17/2012 10:33 am EDT

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Some bicyclists talk about the pain cave—where the mind pushes the body beyond the normal limits of exhaustion. Lynn Bradshaw was there.

Her skinny tires hit a rough patch of pavement 93 miles into a grueling, 103-mile challenge called Mountains of Misery, which she had been riding ahead of her pace from the year before. Now, as she lay sprawled next to her bike with her elbow bleeding and starting to swell, she considered what lay ahead—a murderous, 3.5-mile climb from a riverside low spot to the mountaintop finish.

"What would you have done?" she asks, bristling at the notion that the crash—which cracked her elbow, and left her with two bone chips she still feels under her skin—stymied her. "I got back on and I finished."

At 56-years-old, Bradshaw—an amateur, late-in-life, competitive biker—is a statistical anomaly.

The number of physically active Americans has steadily dropped since the 1950s, with less than a quarter of adults now getting the government recommendation of two and a half hours of moderate activity each week, and fewer than 5 percent doing anything vigorous enough to work up a sweat in a given day. For people ages 35 and older, even fewer get enough exercise—a statistic that reads prophetically as the over-35 population swells from 162 million in 2010 to an estimated 229 million in 2030.

But a minority of those middle-aged and beyond have found an open secret to aging well—regular activity. Within that healthy slice of the population are a growing number of people like Lynn Bradshaw, who defies the stereotype of a slow-walking old person by getting faster with age.

That’s right. Bradshaw is faster now than she was in her 20s. She can outride, outswim and outrun most of the people she knows, even those much younger. A dozen women, all younger, beat her up that same southwest Virginia mountain in 2010. But hundreds of men and women — many half her age or less — didn’t.

Science can’t fully explain Bradshaw’s achievement. Though some professional cyclists keep racing into their 40s, even the strongest can’t keep up with pros in their 20s and 30s. For most professionals, their performance in endurance sports begins declining at around age 35, then gradually drops until about age 60, when the speed graph nosedives. For baseball players and runners, the age of peak performance is 28. For tennis, 24. Golf, 31. Women’s gymnastics, 16.

But Bradshaw, and a cross-section of active, older people, seem to be performing outside the bounds of the professional athlete’s timeline. As America’s population gets older and heavier, Bradshaw and her kind present a scientific conundrum. How does one get faster and stronger with age?

There is no exact data on how many of these middle-aged achievers exist, but one need only look around a triathlon or Iron Man competition to see them in the flesh. At the annual Hawaii Ironman, more than half of those who successfully swam, ran and biked their way to the finish line in recent years have been older than 40. The USA Triathlon registered 147,000 athletes in 2011, and their records show more than half were older than 35. Then there’s the World Masters Games, an international endurance competition for athletes 35 and older. Far from fading away as a novelty item, the Games now draw triple the number of competitors since 1987. Thirty thousand are expected to compete in 2013.  

It’s no coincidence that older athletes are succeeding competitively in sports like swimming and biking. Take basketball, a sport where wear and tear and injury can slow performance over time far more than for swimmers and cyclists, according to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Exercise Science & Fitness. Though older athletes also are swelling membership in senior leagues for baseball and basketball, the low-impact nature of cycling lends itself to aging speedsters.

Dozens of mountainous, 100-mile bike rides similar to Mountains of Misery — called challenge rides because participants typically challenge themselves with a time goal, rather than race against one another — are held annually by local bike clubs and charity groups, with names like the Savage Century, Mountain Mama and Blood, Sweat and Gears. Many are crowded with gray-haired riders, who often outride young racers. In this year’s Mountains of Misery, 13 of the top 20 finishers were older than 40.

The game they’re playing, of course, has risks. Older athletes tempt a range of mishaps, from common sprains and muscle tears to crashes and heart attacks. And older athletes who go all-out face longer recovery times between workouts and a class of exercise-induced strain injuries that orthopedists call boomeritis, named after hard-charging baby boomers.

Still, Bradshaw’s story — and the untold others — suggest the American narrative of the primacy of youth can perhaps be rewritten. By maintaining a decent level of health and steady training, you too might be able to run a marathon, ride a bike 100 miles, or swim 3,000 meters. You might beat others your age at the same game. You might even humble those much younger.

TURNING BACK TIME

Hirofumi Tanaka, a physiologist who directs the University of Texas at Austin’s cardiovascular aging research lab, has spent decades fascinated by masters athletes, hoping to discover secrets of aging that will allow him to avoid taking drugs as he gets older. He’s 46 now, so far so good, and spends most of his time researching the subject that pays his bills — the vascular system. There’s not much funding available for studying aging athletes, he says.

Still, Tanaka has made revelations that correlate with others’ research, and with the anecdotal evidence of older athletes performing at higher and higher levels. His breakthrough came in the realm of VO2 max — the scientific shorthand for the amount of oxygen a person consumes at her highest level of performance. The biggest indicator of a person’s capabilities in an athletic endurance sport, VO2 max drops roughly 10 percent a decade after about age 30 in healthy but sedentary adults. It was long believed that rule held no matter how active one was.  

This belief in inevitable decline went unquestioned until 2007, when Tanaka and a fellow researcher discovered why some people can improve with time.The researchers found that exercising harder and longer as one gets older delays the decline in VO2 max. This simple discovery also helps explain why most people do get slower with age. Family and job responsibilities, injuries and a loss of enthusiasm can cut into training time, yielding a performance slowdown.

Baby boomers, the 78 million Americans born from 1946 to 1964, are partly responsible for the fast track. Physical activity has been a lifelong part of many boomers’ lives. As they become empty-nesters and their working careers wind down, some throw themselves into sports. The 30-somethings are watching their kids play Little League. The 50-somethings are training for Ironman and Mountains of Misery.

Improvements in nutrition, training regimens and injury care also have helped increase performance, according to Tanaka. A broken collarbone, for example, a common bicycling injury that takes an average of 28 weeks to heal on its own, will only briefly sideline determined cyclists who opt for a new surgical technique.

There are also some intangibles outside the realm of pure science. Tanaka cites an abstract quality as a factor in the success of older athletes: the determination to win. Why, for example, was the four-minute mile elusive for so long to runners? Once Roger Bannister smashed the milestone in 1954, others routinely broke the mark.

“It was a change in paradigm,” Tanaka says. “People began to think it as possible and they began to do it.”

Hunter Allen, a former pro bike racer who has coached thousands of cyclists, sees determination in most of the older cyclists he trains. They’re from a generation of highly motivated achievers, and understand what he calls “the principles of success.” Some want to recapture athletic glory from their school years. Others are searching for a fountain of youth, or at least a way to stay healthy, look good and feel strong. A few discovered cycling late in life and want to test their limits.

“It’s a hard sport and you have to be willing to suffer,” Allen says. “That comes from a desire to win and from pushing yourself harder.”

That includes the wind-in-the-face thrill of pedaling away from someone half your age. It’s also just a lot of fun.

“When I ride my bike, all I’m thinking about is riding my bike,” Bradshaw says. “It’s like being a kid again. That’s what it feels like.”

Bradshaw’s husband, a devoted cyclist for most of his life, convinced her to join him on her 50th birthday, around the time her son graduated high school. Now, like others who devote free time to sports, they find camaraderie, competition and much of their social life in their town’s bicycle and triathlon clubs.  

For Bradshaw, another strong motivator is her job. As a pharmaceutical sales representative, she has a depressing ringside view of doctors’ waiting rooms filled with people struggling with illness and weight problems.

“Americans are in terrible shape,” she says. “I see that a lot.” She’s not about to let that happen to her.

BEYOND THE PAIN

Nor is Bernie Sanders. He was working too many hours, seven days a week, managing two restaurants and carrying almost 50 pounds of flab. His dad died at age 62, the day Sanders graduated high school. “I can’t keep this up,” he remembers thinking. He was 40 years old and he bought a bike.

Sanders is now 62 himself. He’s 5-feet-9, 155 pounds and looks like a slab of metal. He won the world cycling championship for his age group in 2010, he’s still getting faster by the day, partly because of genetic luck and partly because of determination.

Sanders has a hard attitude about training, holding a fierce pace for miles of steady, sustained hill climbing. He keeps a sticky note on his car dashboard that says, “WIN.” To Sanders, the word defines his identity. “You either are the winner or you aren’t,” he says. “Are you a whiner and do you fold up when there’s resistance, or are you the man in the mirror?”

Dealing with pain, too, is a test of character to Sanders. “Some people have a very shallow pain threshold and some people can take it,” he said. “The good news is you can train for that. What’s the problem? You pass out before you die.”

Mark Sommers, a 56-year-old Washington lawyer, races on weekends, often with cyclists half his age. Though his overall speed is no longer increasing, he remains one of the city’s fastest riders. And he’s a wizened veteran with a bag of winning tricks. He knows that staying in the game is not just a matter of physical ability and training but of strategy and determination as well.
His racing team assignment is lead-out man, the hardest job. He sets the race pace, keeping his team’s fastest sprinter on his back wheel, in his draft, until almost the end, when the sprinter breaks out of Sommers’ slipstream and powers past everyone. Sommers is done before he sees the finish line. “I know my job,” he says. “I’m a domestique. I’m not going to win. But I am going to change the outcome of the race.”

His body is like a pack of matches, he says. In his youth, he could recklessly competitors with  ill-conceived sprints and showmanship. Plenty of matches left in the pack. Now he only has a few. “But I will burn them all,” he says. And if the day comes when he can’t lead his team to victory, he’ll stick to competing against riders his own age. Staying in winning condition, of course, takes time. Bradshaw keeps a six-day-a-week workout schedule.

“AGE CATCHES UP, EVENTUALLY”

Even people with Bradshaw’s  devotion live no longer, on average, than couch-sitters. They are, however, healthier. Exercise helps prevent premature death. Science can’t yet explain why.

What that means in dollars is profound. A 2004 study published in Chest, the journal of the American College of Chest Physicians, proved the link between exercise and health care costs. Not surprisingly, exercisers spent less time in doctors offices — and less money on care. The study blamed 9.4 percent of the nation’s health care spending — $244 billion in 2010 — on inactivity and obesity.

Of course if everyone exercised, there’d be more sports injuries. The Consumer Product Safety Commission calculated the cost of baby boomers’ sports-related injuries in 1998 at $18.7 billion — a figure many times larger by now. These daredevils still don’t tax the health care system in the way of those on the couch, beset by obesity, diabetes and heart failure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the health risks of being sedentary far outweigh those of exercise.

Andrew Thacker, 36, never forgot the childhood thrill of going really fast on a bike. Thacker, a high school teacher in Roanoke, fell in love with his Trek racing bike the first time he rode it. Though he loves basketball, the steady pounding up and down the court was wearing hard on his body.  Which is not surprising. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, participation in team sports like basketball drops sharply after 25, while activities such as cycling gain new followers.

“I was looking for something different,” Thacker remembers. The year after he got his racing bike, somebody stuck a flyer for a bike race under his car windshield wiper. “I thought, ‘Why not?’” He finished second. “I was hooked,” he says.

By last summer, he was racing as often as he could, usually every week. He, too, was getting faster, improving on regular rides with Bradshaw and her husband, Dick. But then came September. His job and his two young daughters interrupted his training and racing schedule. By then, his shoulder had been nagging him for a month, a golf ball-sized knot reminding him of the crash in Turn 1 at the weekly parking lot.

By February, when Bradshaw challenged him to sign up for this year’s Mountains of Misery, he knew he wouldn’t be able to get in shape for the Memorial Day weekend event. They settled on a 56-mile challenge later in the summer. Bradshaw beat him climbing the hills. Thacker beat her coming down. Neither was able to claim decisive victory, though Bradshaw says she held back.

Thacker is now back to getting faster by the day. And if he’d lost that challenge to someone old enough to be his mom? “I’d have asked for a rematch,” he says.

The coach Hunter Allen tells the story of a 65-year-old with a competitive dream. The guy was 40 pounds overweight and hadn’t ridden a bike since childhood. Allen set him on an exercise program. By the end of his first season, he was tagging along with his bike club on local rides. The second year, he rode in a 100-mile ride and in a local race. The third year, he was finishing near the top of his age group in races. And in the fourth year, by then 68, the man raced in the Masters national competition in his age group. He finished 12th of 30 racers.

That doesn’t prove it’s never too late. But it does show what’s possible.

“There’s no question that exercise is an essential component for older age health,” says Tanaka, the University of Texas physiologist. There’s also no question of this, he says: “Age catches up eventually,” no matter what.

This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.

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