by Scott Johnston
I never imagined that this day would come but 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 training can help combat the effects of aging.
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 take a moment to explain to all you other old(er), and soon to be old(er), codgers out there why you need to pay special attention to your 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 and 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 that 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 strength training so in vogue today. I mean strength training like an athlete as explained here.
Strength vs. Sarcopenia
Youthful vigor is that nebulous quality that allowed you to party all night and still crush that hard climb the next day when you were in your 20s. 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 coast on them 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 are caught off guard and fail to make the connection and adjustments required to offset the 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. So 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—all begin to circle the drain.
Sarcopenia is the phenomenon of losing muscle mass and strength with age. It typically sets in around the age of 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. If you are over 40, even with a history of strength training you need to spend extra time and effort on it. If you have lapsed in that 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 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 sport 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 injury from doing your sport. And once we oldsters get injured, we are slower to heal—with any fitness lost while injured being more difficult to regain than when we were in our 20s or 30s. While injury avoidance is important for all endurance athletes, it becomes the top priority for those past their prime who still wish to keep those 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.
Unbeknownst to most of us, 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. These almost inevitably have unintended ripple effects down the road since we were not designed to move in these compensatory patterns. Do the wrong thing for 20 years and it’s very likely to show up as an injury to a joint or muscle weakness or both.
Maintaining good mobility and range of motion will have a pronounced effect on not only your long-term health but, perhaps more immediately important to you, 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 and instead apply that time and effort toward more strength and mobility maintenance work. As much as I can guarantee anything, I can almost assuredly promise you better results doing those activities you love.