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I have been giving a lot of thought to the correlations between aging, recovery ability and overtraining. The common wisdom is that if you continue to train very intensely
as you get older, it's almost inevitable that you'll overtrain. In other words, because your recuperative powers are diminished through aging, you can't keep doing what you
used to do.
I'd like to point out a few things about this so-called common wisdom. First, except for the infirm or the very elderly, I am not sure that anyone has come up with a scientific definition for "recuperative power," much less determined how recovery ability decreases with age. Second, we know that in bodybuilding and strength sports (and probably most other athletic endeavors) the ability to train intensely is the key. Slacking off on intensity to fit the presumed loss of recovery ability is a sure way to guarantee reduced performance, and then once you are no longer training very hard, it stands to reason that you will also no longer recover well from new initiatives of hard training. Finally, and more personally, at age 45, when I supposedly have experienced diminishing recovery ability for at least 10 years, I find that I can train harder than I could when I was younger.
As I began to think about these points and new experiences, I developed a number of ideas and hypotheses of my own about aging, recovery ability and overtraining.
1 - Just as a small body of research currently indicates that there is minimal loss of function and performance in one's 40s and 50s if you continue to train intensely, there is probably little or no loss in "recovery ability" if you continue to train hard and maintain your overall health.
2 - In general, however, consistent hard training and/or training without varying the routine will over the long haul lead to overuse injuries and breakdown in most athletes. For example, 20 years of day-in and day-out hard running greatly increases the probability of injury.
3 - The corollary of the previous point is that if you vary the intensity and the form of training, for most athletes the likelihood of overuse injuries and breakdown is reduced. For example, if your schedule includes a combination of heavy and light sessions and you rotate several different aerobic exercises, you'll increase your ability to train hard for many years and be relatively injury-free.
4 - Observant athletes who plan their workout schedules well become experts at stressing themselves. As some athletes become older, they may indeed become overtrained not because they have lost recuperative power, but because they can design their workouts to be more stressful in order to increase their adaptation to stress.
Let me now provide some personal observations about these points as well as some research data that is pertinent to overtraining. In other columns I have described the periodization system, a favorite split routine of mine and the rotation of different aerobic exercises I do. Interestingly, the overall work load I now do is considerably more than what I did 10 years ago. There are two qualifications to this, one on either side of the coin: By dropping running five years ago, I eliminated a good deal of useless stress in the form of impact. The aerobic exercises I do now are all low or no impact. I am working harder these days on my job, however, and that takes a lot out of me.
I will even say something heretical from the point of view of the average trainee. When I am not pushing myself that much at work or when I am vacationing, I am now capable of training hard twice per day, almost every day, something I could not do before. So you would have to conclude that I have improved my recovery ability over the years! And if adaptation to stress is a legitimate definition of recovery ability, that conclusion is probably true.
At the same time I constantly have to guard against overtraining. One reason is because I work too hard at my job, which often leads to restless sleep. A second reason is that even with the planned back-offs of the periodization system, chronic fatigue builds up simply as a function of how many weeks and months I have been training reasonably hard. Sometimes I have to find more rest somewhere, and so I have to do back-offs that are not part of the schedule. Furthermore, because I am better at planning and more observant than I was in my younger years and have become more proficient at applying stressors, I must be careful not to push myself too far.
For many years I felt I needed eight or more-and at the very least, six- hours between weight and aerobics sessions so that I would not be so tired from weight training and could give the aerobics a decent effort. That would invariably schedule an aerobics session between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., a time of day that for many of us is a real physical and mental lull.
During the past summer I changed my work schedule so that I could do aerobics at 1:30 p.m., or approximately five hours after a weight session. This seemed very effective for a number of reasons: It broke my workday relatively in half; I was at a high point, not a low point; I was able to eat twice before and three to four times after aerobics; and the greater time between aerobics on one day and weights the next led to better recovery. The results of this new schedule have been very good-but with one caveat. Since I am able to do aerobics harder, it's easier to slip in and out of overtraining. I am not becoming overtrained because I am aging, however, but because I am getting more resourceful and more skillful at applying high-level training stressors.
While my own experience suggests that there need not be any drop off in recuperative powers (at least in early middle age), it would be foolish to believe that youthful resilience will always be with us. Techniques such as massage, sauna and closer attention to post-training meals may improve recovery; however, massage, sauna and other similar techniques take time, and you can conceivably end up with your days totally filled with training and recovery and yourself totally preoccupied.
One approach is to alter a key training variable that appears to have minimal or no effects on performance. In an elegant series of studies Dr. Robert C. Hickson, a professor in the College of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at the University of Illinois at Chicago, examined the effects of reduced duration and intensity on maintenance of VO2 max (a standard measure of cardiovascular fitness). In these studies participants were first trained to a high level of fitness during a 10-week period, six days per week, through alternating 40-minute sessions of fast running and hard-interval stationary biking. Next, for 15 weeks some participants reduced their training frequency by one-third (to four days per week) or two-thirds (to two days per week), while other participants either reduced their training duration or their intensity by one-third or two-thirds.
Generalizing between the results of studies for aerobic training such as the above-mentioned and anaerobic and strength training may be a bit risky. And generalizing between studies of maintenance and discussions of improvement also may not be proper. Hickson's work provides an interesting hypothesis and guideline, however. The hypothesis is that decreased frequency of training (up to one-third) does not affect performance. The guideline is that if you are feeling overtrained by your present seven-day cycle, increase the cycle to nine or 10 days while maintaining the same intensity and the volume of work. Likewise, a nine-day cycle may be increased to 11 or 12 days. There is nothing sacred about the frequency of training, and you may actually improve by training less often.
Mature bodybuilders are pathfinders in many ways. We not only are finding different and more effective ways to train, but in our 40s, 50s and 60s are defying conventional wisdom about the inevitability of decline in our middle years.