You can improve athletic performance at any age with proper training, even if you are over 100 years old. Traditional feeling among scientists is that aging is progressive and inevitable, and that your genetic programming causes you to age no matter what you do. This paper shows that physical training can reverse established markers of aging (J Appl Physiol, February 15, 2017).
I have reported on Robert Marchand, the 105-year-old cyclist who had improved his world record for how far he could ride a bicycle in one-hour from 15.07 miles (24.25 kilometers) at age 101 to 16.73 miles (26.92 kilometers) at age 103. That is an 11 percent improvement in a world record after just two years of serious training, an impressive accomplishment at any age.
Marchand’s Training Program
For two years, from age 101 to 103, Marchand trained by riding 3000 miles (5,000 km) per year, with 20 percent of his workouts doing hard, intense riding and 80 percent doing slow recovery riding. He spun his pedals at a cadence between 50 and 70 rotations per minute.
The newer study documents his training program and the improvements in his markers of aging. Athletes can run, ride, swim or ski faster if they improve their maximum ability to take in and use oxygen (VO2max) and their peak power output (strength). These same measurements are used by scientists to track aging in non-athletes. Marchand’s VO2max (maximal ability to take in and use oxygen) increased 13 percent, from 31 to 35 ml.kg-1.min-1, and his peak power output increased by 39 percent, from 90 to 125 watts.
These factors improved in Marchand because he was able to increase his maximal pedaling frequency by 30 percent, from 69 to 90 rotations per minute, and his ability to take in air through his lungs by 23 percent, from 57 to 70 liters per minute. His maximum heart rate and body weight did not change.
Training That Reduces Measures of Aging
Here is a program of training that is typical of the way competitive athletes in endurance sports work to become faster.
Muscle-sugar-depleting workout (one per week): You must exercise long enough to use up most of the sugar stored in your most-used muscles. Muscles use primarily fat and sugar for energy. You have an almost infinite amount of fat stored in your body, but only a very limited amount of sugar stored in the liver and muscles. Sugar requires less oxygen than fat to fuel your muscles, so when you run out of sugar stored in your muscles, you have to slow down. Exercising long enough to deplete muscles of their stored sugar supply increases the amount of sugar they can store and also increases your ability to move faster longer. The faster you move, the quicker you use up your muscles’ stored supply of sugar. The average runner can use up most of his stored muscle sugar supply while running fairly fast for two hours, and the average bicycle rider can use up his stored muscle sugar in three hours.
Intense oxygen deficit workout (two per week): The limiting factor to how fast you can move is the time it takes to move oxygen into muscles. You can increase your ability to take in and use oxygen by using interval workouts in which you run up severe oxygen debts and gasp for breath. You also have to damage muscles so that when they heal, they become stronger. To do this you must put great pressure on your muscles by moving very fast.
Type of Intervals: A short interval lasts less than 30 seconds. You can do lots of them in a single workout because in less than 30 seconds, you do not build up much lactic acid and do less muscle damage. A long interval lasts longer than two minutes and you should do only a limited number of these intervals because they cause considerable muscle damage and can take a long time for muscles to heal and recover.
Recovery workouts (at least four per week): Intense interval workouts cause considerable muscle damage, and it usually takes at least 48 hours for muscles to heal, so each intense workout requires easier workouts on the following day. If you are training twice a day, each intense workout is usually followed by three recovery workouts.
Example of a Weekly Training Program
Sunday: race or depletion workout
Monday: recovery workout
Tuesday: short intervals
Wednesday: recovery workout
Thursday: long intervals
Friday: recovery workout
Saturday: recovery workout
How to Apply These Concepts to an Ordinary Exercise Program
While exercisers who are not competing are likely to spend far less time in their sport, they can still benefit from following the same training principles. Increasing evidence shows that intense exercise is more effective than casual exercise, so plan to introduce at least some intense intervals into your program. You can gain the health benefits and help to prevent injuries if you:
• Plan to exercise every day
• Realize that if you are training properly, your legs are likely to feel sore every morning. If your legs do not feel fresh after a 5-to-10-minute warm up, take the day off.
• Stop your workout immediately if you feel a tightness, discomfort or pain in one area.
• As soon as your legs start to feel heavy during a workout, stop for the day.
Caution: People with blocked arteries leading to their hearts can be harmed by intense exercise, so check with your doctor if you have any questions.