Thursday, January 26, 2012

The ageing (tri)athelete

They say that a man has the face he deserves when he is 40 years old. I suppose the same can be said about his body.

I'm coming up to the big 4-0 in the next few months so I guess this topic has been a bit on my mind lately, if only on a subconscious level. So, it wouldn't be a coincidence, then, that I have recently read several articles on the subject - one even in the Economist this week. According to this article, there has been a recent flurry of activity on the subject of autophagy - which comes from the Greek for "self-eating". Rather than some kind of perverted sexual act, this refers to a process the body uses to break down and recycle damaged cells. Evidence from tests performed on the usual suspects - rats - seems to indicate that this process, triggered by regular exercise, helps combat the effects of aging.

I also stumbled upon this article from another blog, where I found this striking photo:

It is originally from an article by 2.52 Marathoner and physiotherapist, Laura McIntyre.

Then last night, as I was drifting off to sleep, I dipped into the Runners's Lore by Tim Noakes and started reading a section on running ultramarathons as you age. By his own admission, it was strange that the main thrust of the article (in a book about running) was actually to encourage older runners to mix up running with increasing amounts of non-weight bearing sports such as swimming and cycling. Anecdotally, the author reported that he had noticed as the years wore on, that the aches and pains in his muscles would become a more or less permanent accompaniment of his running mileage. He said that research was (at the time of writing) currently being undertaken in Cape Town University as to whether muscles had a limited number of "repair cycles". This would imply that a runner in his 40's who had been running since he or she was 20 might suffer a similar slow down to a 60 year old runner who took up running at the age of 40. Selfishly, I hope he is right. It's certainly food for thought and perhaps a good reason to move towards triathlon as we get older. However, an important point he made was that we should not base our expectations on those "outliers" who run sub-3 hour Marathons well into their 60's, or complete Ironman's in their 80's. While part of what makes them an outlier might be due to the small population of similarly aged athletes, some of it will be due to extraordinary genetics. After all, we wouldn't expect to be able to run as fast as Haile even if we did the same amount of training... Still, I just hope I can find a way to keep being active until the end credits roll...

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