by Scott Johnston
I never imagined that this day would come: having just received my Social Security card in the mail, I am now a certified, card-carrying old person. While I am probably more able-bodied than most 65-year-olds, my carcass carries the scars of over ten significant orthopedic surgeries. Though a bit bruised and dented around the edges, I still like to get out there—maybe not like I did 20 years ago, but I’m not hanging up my skis, crampons, or rock shoes just yet.
Each of these surgeries patched me up enough to get me back into the mountains, and each had some significant lessons attached to it. Since I can’t trade the wisdom of old age for any of my youthful vigor, I’d like to pass on the most important lesson I’ve learned in the 40 years since my first big bust-up: More than anything else we older mountain athletes can do, strength and mobility training can help combat the effects of aging.
Strength, Mobility, and the Aging Mountain Athlete
Steve and I have written extensively about strength: its importance for mountain athletes, its multiple forms, and how to use it as a tool to enhance your performance. Now I want to explain to all you other old(er) codgers out there why you need to pay special attention to strength.
No exercise will fully offset the ravages of time, but nothing will delay it as much as strength training. For the aging mountain athlete, strength training will keep you healthier and more injury free. It will allow you to train more and harder for a greater number of years. This means you will have a better chance of keeping up with those pesky kids you increasingly find yourself adventuring with as your normal climbing, skiing, and running partners ride off into the sunset.
NOTE: By strength training I don’t mean the body-building, bulking-up style of strength training so in vogue today. I mean strength training like an athlete as explained here.
Youthful vigor is that nebulous quality that allowed you to party all night when you were in your 20s and still crush that hard climb the next day. It’s the reason we send young men into battle. We come out of the box with this, and it alone can propel us through our most physically active years. It’s the reason teens and 20-somethings adapt to any training so quickly.
However, most of us take that youthful vigor for granted. We coast along on either our natural talents or relatively easily won gains . . . until we can’t any longer. For those of us with a highly active life, this usually begins to make itself felt in our mid-40s. When this day arrives, many fail to make the connection and adjustments required to offset a decline in physical prowess. If you don’t make the extra effort, you will fall behind the curve on maintaining, let alone increasing, your strength.
The outcome of this drop-off in strength is that ALL of your athletic performance qualities begin to degrade. It’s not just your ability to pull hard moves at the crag that you lose. Long days ski touring, running, big alpine climbing days—they all begin to circle the drain.
Strength vs. Sarcopenia
Sarcopenia is the phenomenon of losing muscle mass and strength with age. This typically sets in around age 40 but really accelerates after 70. It is caused by calcium leakage from muscle cells, which lowers their contractile force. It shares some of the same mechanisms as muscular dystrophy. While there is a promising drug undergoing FDA trials, the current best treatment for sarcopenia is strength training—working against resistance.
It’s never too soon (or too late) to start a strength training program. If you are under 40 and have a decent strength training background, keep it up as you age. Those of us who are over 40 need to spend extra time and effort on strength training, regardless of our history with it. If you have lapsed in the strength department or have never engaged in structured strength training, do not wait another day to get started on a program. I can’t emphasize this enough, especially for those of you who have harbored a lifelong distaste for strength training in its various forms.
In general, the more advanced the athlete, the more he or she will need sport-specific strength to see gains in performance. This does not hold true for the aging athlete. No matter the level of proficiency, the aging athlete needs to increase the amount of general strength training in their program. Due to the effects of sarcopenia, a drop in general strength can very easily lead to either chronic/overuse or acute/traumatic injuries. And once we oldsters get injured, we are slower to heal. Plus any fitness we lose while injured is more difficult to regain than when we were younger. While injury avoidance is important for all endurance athletes, it becomes the top priority for those past their prime who still wish to keep the youngsters honest.
Mobility and Functionality
Mobility is the ability to move freely and easily. This is a concept most people will be less familiar with than strength, but it is equally if not more important for the older demographic. Restricted range of motion in our joints comes with aging like night follows day. Especially if you have been banged around a bit, it is likely your injuries have left you with impaired mobility. That impairment can limit function.
Functionality is the combination of strength and mobility that allows us to perform at a higher level, both in normal life activities as well as in our chosen sports. The qualities of strength and mobility are closely intertwined and interdependent. Lack of mobility will normally result in a lack of strength and vice versa. Deficits in either or both will result in reduced function. This is where compensatory movement patterns come home to roost with all of their negative consequences.
Our brains are remarkably clever when it comes to rewiring the firing patterns of muscles to compensate for any impairment. We develop movement work-arounds—compensatory movement patterns—that allow us to continue doing certain activities. But because we were not designed to move in these compensatory patterns, they almost inevitably have unintended ripple effects. Do the wrong thing for 20 years and it’s likely to show up as an injury to a joint, muscle weakness, or both.
Maintaining good mobility and range of motion will have a pronounced effect not only on your long-term health but also on your ability to function more like your younger self.
If you are beginning to miss the old days when you could easily pull hard moves, run long distances, and climb big mountains, you need to shift some of your emphasis away from just going climbing, running, or skiing every chance you get. Instead, apply that time and effort toward more strength and mobility maintenance work. These are critical for the aging athlete. As much as I can guarantee anything, I can almost assuredly promise you better results doing those activities you love.
Read now: Nutrition for the Aging Athlete by Rebecca Dent, High Performance Dietician.