Aerobic Ability Stays with You as You Age ~ Runner’s World

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Steve Magness

A college coach can outlast his athletes on tempo runs thanks to “old-man strength.”

When you show up at my college team’s practice, the banter often isn’t about the difficulty of the workout or the humidity—it’s about my assistant coach and me. The men find it a challenge to drop the coaches on a tempo run. Not because we’re in phenomenal shape or because our team isn’t good. No, we’re known for our “old-man strength.”

Old-person’s strength is our ability to complete longer aerobic efforts, whether tempo runs or long runs, despite not having the current fitness or training to justify performing at that level. While in my heyday of competing, I might have run 100 or more miles per week with multiple speed workouts; I now settle for around 65 miles and squeeze in a workout once every three weeks. Despite this reduced volume and intensity, I can still run tempos and long runs at paces close to, or sometimes better than, I did before.

From a physiological standpoint, this phenomenon makes perfect sense. The body adapts well to repeated training stress, with the goal of becoming as efficient as possible at doing the activity that is causing the stress. My brain has built stronger connections to my muscles and cardiovascular system—recruiting the necessary fibers and oxygen. After many thousands of miles, the delivery system of blood to the muscles has expanded and increased.

In other words, I’ve developed an efficient freeway system in my body. And even if I don’t have the fastest car, I can get places pretty quickly due to the extensive delivery network created over years. Compare this to a young runner who has a much bigger engine and faster car to drive, but whose “roads” haven’t been fully developed. The key is that I still train enough. Sixty-five miles per week may be only about 60 percent of what I did previously, but it works to maintain all the adaptations.

What can we take away from this lesson of my old-man strength? It’s easier to go somewhere if you’ve been there before. In training, we become adept at what we practice. It seems simple enough, but it has some profound consequences.

It’s easier to maintain something we’ve built than it is to recreate a parameter all over again.

When you’re training for your next race, keep in touch with all workout types and intensities throughout the plan. Don’t go three months without doing a single fast stride. It’s counterproductive. You want to keep those pathways and freeways open for business so that when you really need to go in that direction, like at the end of the season, it’s a quick transition.

The other message? Know your biggest bang for the buck. If I can keep my aerobic gains at 65 miles per week versus 110 miles, the likelihood of getting any significant aerobic gains by increasing my mileage again is minimal. I’ve already developed and maxed out that area. Instead, I should look for improvements in an area where I haven’t fully developed yet.

Renato Canova, Chinese national coach, uses this principle when building yearly mileage. For example, the mileage progression of Saif Saaeed Shaheen, steeplechase world-record holder, increased for four years to 120 miles per week, but then reduced to 100 miles in the fifth year and 80 miles in year six. The reduction to 80 was because his base was built and he just needed to maintain it and attack improvement in other areas instead.

The same principles can be applied to your training. Take advantage of your “old-person’s strength.” If you’re young and developing, build that base up over several years of consistent work to engrain those adaptations. If you’re a bit older, do enough to maintain what got you there, but change up the training to give your body new stimuli and new strengths.

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Steve Magness coaches professional runners and the cross country team at the University of Houston, where he is pursuing a doctorate in exercise science.

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