Sachin Tendulkar’s meeting with Don Bradman about a decade ago received tremendous coverage from the Indian media. Apparently, Sachin had quizzed the great Don about how much he would average if he played cricket in the present times. Pat came the reply from the great master, albeit a bit tongue-in-cheek, “around 75-80”. What? Not the high 90s that he actually finished with, then?
“You have to consider that I would be in my late 70s if I was playing today,” quipped the great man with a twinkle in his eyes.
On a more serious note, sports history is replete with achievements by athletes in their twilight years that defy the stereotypical notions that international sport is the preserve of the young. Ryan Giggs at 42 stands out as one of the fittest footballers to have played the game in recent years.
Last month, Misbah–ul–Haq, at 42, became the oldest Pakistani to hit a Test century and his team-mate, Younis Khan, only a few years younger, has just completed a double hundred even as I write this column. Closer home, Leander Paes continues to defy age as he adds more and more Grand slam titles to his tally. In the present Olympic Games, many senior athletes are stealing the limelight from under the noses of competitors half their age. Anthony Ervin won the 50m freestyle swimming gold medal at the age of 35. Kristin Armstrong, of the US, won the cycling time trial gold medal on her 43rd birthday.
So what keeps these champions in the state of physical health that allows them to compete at the highest level?
Is it just hard work or smart, sensible work? What are the dietary and lifestyle changes that need to be made to maintain such high standards?
Here, I have compiled a few guidelines on physical training for senior athletes. These protocols are born out of my long experience in clinical exercise practice and strength and conditioning work with older and senior athletes. These will benefit not only the actively competing athlete but also the weekend warriors among you trying to cope with creaking bones and crying muscles in order to still keep the recreational athlete in you alive.
I tell my senior clients to ask themselves this question: How old would you think you were if you did not know how old you were? In most cases, the disparity between the reality and the imagined age will give the answer to your fitness level. So if you are only 50 and feel like you are 60, then you have work to do. On the other hand, I can give examples of many in my camp, who can quite regularly out-run or out-row their children.
The changes that come with ageing
A look at some of the major changes that accompany the ageing process makes it abundantly clear why sticking to fitness and exercise regime gets more and more important as you age. As you grow older, your body will start losing muscle mass in a process called sarcopenia. Then there’s the deterioration of bone density or osteopenia. The basal metabolic rate or BMR, the rate at which your body burns the calories you consume in the form of food, also slows down. Both muscles and joints start losing their flexibility and their ability to generate movement. The sense of stability and balance also goes down. The cardiovascular functions also slow down, which means that the lungs and heart have to work harder and harder each year to pump blood and other nutrients to the muscles.
Every single one of these processes can be arrested and their effects subdued through good exercise and proper diet.
Similarly, not exercising and not eating well greatly accelerate the processes.
I am going to be 50 next year. Over the years, I have had to moderate and monitor my training to adjust to the ravages of time. With trial and error and clinical knowledge, my physio and I have been able to arrive at a protocol which should keep me physically active for sports and conditioning for another decade or so.
I have committed to a mobility programme that takes a full session. One complete session of mobility and flexibility is extremely important to keep range of motion intact and injuries away. For me, this logically comes on Friday, just before the weekend sports grind. On Monday, I do another half and hour or so of static stretching work to recover from the gruelling sessions over the weekend.
This work is split into two parts, with the first part being about 40 minutes of Primal Move and get-ups. This could just as easily be a yoga class or an hour of stretching but the point is the same — to spend time on your mobility, because you’ll want to keep as much range as possible as you grow older. It’ll also help your muscles retain elasticity, which is essential when you do decide to do some fast and explosive work.
Proprioceptive skills diminish with age. Stability drills need to pick up as we grow older. I am not a big one for fancy stuff on the Bosu ball but I do recommend one-legged stuff on terra firma. My favourite stability work involves doing one legged dead-lifts with kettle bells.
Shoulder and hip stability are vital too and this is where get-ups, overhead holds, push-up holds, and lunges all come in. The final piece of the stability grind is core work and I mix this up with a variety of static holds like planks, hollow holds, and lever variations, as well as FMS (Functional Movement Systems) based chops. But again, I do some kind of stability work in every single session.
Once a week, I may do low reps around four to six, but on other days its higher reps like 12-15. Higher repetition patterns with moderate weights seem to work much better on me. It also allows you to carry lesser weights which reduce the stress on aging ligaments and tendons. One day on, one day off; two days on, two days off is my present weekly pattern.
I have never been an advocate of high intensity cardio training. My issues with it are far too many to name in this article, but let’s just say that as you get older there are only so many hard sessions per week that you can do. It’s your choice if you want to use the one or two genuine hard efforts in you for the week on a conditioning session or a strength session. I would advise that unless you have competitive aspirations, you’d be far better off saving your hard efforts to lift more weight than you will on dropping five seconds off your 2000m-row time.
For older people, it is imperative that they discuss any exercise regime with their physician so that the exercises help and do not aggravate pre-existing medical conditions.
Ten sedentary men and women in their late 60s and eleven 30-year-old men and women completed a 16-week cardio programme, all of them working out on a treadmill or a stair-climbing machine for 20-40 minutes at roughly 60-80% of their maximum heart rate. At the end of the 16 weeks, the young group increased their aerobic capacity by 12%. The older group increased theirs by an incredible 14%.
According to the study ‘Aerobic Fitness Reduces Brain Tissue Loss in Aging Humans’, published in 2003 in the ’Journal of Gerontology’, the human brain gradually loses tissue from the third decade onwards, leading to decline in cognitive and memory performance. However, aerobic fitness can arrest age-related deterioration of tissue density in the brain. More importantly, the findings — also part of a 2010 University of Florida dissertation, ‘Neural Correlates of Aerobic Fitness And Aging: A Cross-sectional Investigation’ Using fMRI, DTI And TMS — indicate that aerobic conditioning is linked directly to improving the tissues that play a central role in causing clinical syndromes like Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia.
Just like cardio takes care of the heart and lungs (and mind), weight training will improve both bone density and prevent muscle loss. The best exercises for developing bone density are squats, lunges and step-ups for the lower body; and shoulder press or military press for the upper body. Choose weights that you can safely lift 15 times without tiring.
A series of studies conducted over the years have stated that muscles shrink with age, and these weight exercises prevent that.
Research demonstrates that even individuals over the age of 80 can fortify their muscles by participating in regular strength-training workouts. This also seems to increase the number of small blood vessels around muscles by up to 15%, potentially increasing endurance capacity. Since the overall process of muscle loss picks pace after the age of 50, strength training for people above the age of 50 is especially critical.
‘Melbourne Collaborative Cohort Study’ published in the October 2007 issue of ‘Arthritis Care & Research’, the researchers studied the effect of physical activity, in various degrees of intensity, frequency and duration, on knee structures in a total of 257 healthy adults between the ages of 50 and 79, and found that intense exercise prevents and helps osteoarthritis.
Most of the common age-related symptoms like lower back pain, neck pain and knee pain can easily be avoided with regular strength-training routines and stretching. The key word here is regular: You don’t have to push yourself hard, or do huge amounts of exercise, or get to athletic levels of fitness — you need to do a little bit of exercise, but you need to do it every day.