Notes on Recovery and (Old) Age

I just read an article in the NYTimes about Dara Torres, the swimmer who made the Olympic swim team at 41 years of age. The first amazing thing is her age, which challenges the notion that as we grow older we must slow down. In fact, the NYTimes article cites many studies that refute that claim and that we can maintain high performance levels well into advanced age. At some point, I want to post about that once I dig more into age and performance. But the second amazing thing I read was her recovery regimen, which consisted of having two essentially full time trainers who stretch her out and massage her muscles after each workout.
Yesterday I (half) joked with my physical therapist on what would it take to be my personal recovery specialist, meeting me every day (including weekends) after my workouts and then doing her therapy magic on me so that I could recover faster for the next day’s workouts. I wasn’t able to find a model that worked, but I’m still thinking about it!
In absence of having a personal therapist, we must all bow down to the fact that recovery is important and that it does change over time as we age.
My first clue on this was last year, when I began doing laps up Old La Honda, a 3.3 mile steep climb. I would find that this workout was quite extreme, by my body’s standards, and that one day off was not enough to recover me for my normal middle of the week workouts.
Oh I did try though. I would take my usual Sunday off completely doing absolutely nothing. Then on Monday morning, I’d hit the pool and try to run. Sometimes my Monday sprinting workout would be ok, and that was topped out at 2000 meters anyways so the length of the workout did matter. But after that, I would switch into running clothes and hit the treadmill for a workout and found that I could not maintain any sort of endurance workout, let alone a threshold workout at all! I would inevitably peter out at around 20min or less and head to the shower. During these workouts, my heart rate would climb very quickly and my ability to sustain the aerobic, or anaerobic, effort was nearly impossible. Even on the next day when I would ride on my Computrainer, I could not sustain a normal bike workout; high wattages were impossible to maintain, let alone attain them.
Eventually I gave up and listened to my body. I’d take Sunday completely off, and on Mondays, I would try for a swim sprint workout and sometimes I’d be ok. After that, I’d run a form workout on the treadmill for about 20 min. On Tuesdays, I’d do a pedaling efficiency workout for about 30 min and that’s it. Then by Wednesday morning, I’d be pretty fully recovered for a great swim and run workout at normal levels.
I’m 42 now. I need more recovery time. But I am also getting faster as my Ironman times have been whittling down race after race. I am pretty sure I have not maxed out my ability yet either, as my marathon time has also been dropping as well. Yet, our conventional thinking has us believing that older people can’t still perform and should slow down, and that we can’t speed up unless we’re stressing our bodies practically every day.
I think conventional thinking is wrong, and many others are thinking that too.
Here are my notes on recovery, and especially for us 42 year old folks who refuse to believe that we can’t race Ironman when we’re 90:
1. You gotta listen to your body! But you also have to have the right intuition about your body, which can be learned. Sometimes when I get up in the morning, I have developed the ability to really know what my body is capable of at the time. I know when I feel really great (the easiest) and can go out and do a normal workout. I also know that when I just don’t have it. These are the times when it’s obvious I can’t sustain a normal workout and I’d be frustrated quitting in the middle. And then there are the unknown times when I feel a bit tired, but am not sure how much. These are times when I go out facing a normal workout but decide after I warmup. During warmup, I test my body and see how it responds to the efforts. If it doesn’t seem to have it, then I either stop or just do a form workout, or just go for an easy ride, run or swim.
2. You need to accept that you may need more recovery days. It was hard for a while, thinking that I was doing something wrong. But I gave up with that notion and proved to myself that I was still improving despite not having a “normal” set of workouts throughout the week. Even this year, as I ramp up laps up Kings Mountain, I find that I need Sundays and Mondays for recovery. As I increase my laps, I may add Tuesdays which was similar to last year. But that’s what my body needs and that’s what I give it.
3. Recovery doesn’t necessarily mean do nothing. Sundays are the days I absolutely do nothing. After the long hard workout on Saturday, I don’t think it’s a good idea to try anything on that day. But on Mondays and Tuesdays, I practice active recovery, which is do a light workout which activates the muscles and gets circulation going to flush out bad stuff and promote healing. It also lets the body know that you’re not going into non-active mode and keeps the body in that place of athletic improvement.
4. Work on neural muscular activation at a minimum if you can’t do a normal workout. Instead of running a normal fartlek workout, I might do track form workouts like strides, kick backs, etc. This stimulates my nervous system but doesn’t stress my aerobic system which hasn’t fully recovered yet. On the bike, I’ll do pedaling efficiency workouts which consist of one legged pedaling drills and high RPM spinning. For swimming, it means form practice drills to improve my form. Proper form in all three sports is super important and it is always possible to practice them in lieu of aerobic workouts.
5. Use physical therapy to help your muscles recover. I know we’re not all pro athletes, but I go to physical therapists every week and they use ART and Graston to take the tension out of muscles, and help scar tissue realign faster. Otherwise, I would need too much time for my muscles to relax and release tension by themselves due to my age. They help me get back to doing a great workout over the second half of the week. I would love to be Dara Torres and have someone work me over after every workout for recovery. Still working on that!
6. Ice is awesome for recovery, especially ice baths. They really help get the bad aerobic by-products flushed out of muscles faster.
7. I have not found anything that helps my aerobic system recover faster though. It just seems like time and rest are the only thing that really get it back on track. I’ll keep looking though.
8. Taking Sportlegs anti-lactic acid capsules also helps to prevent accumulation of lactic acid in your muscles, which increases stiffness and soreness.
The important thing is to acknowledge that we are growing older. We need to be aware of this and accept that we can’t train and recover like when we were 20. But the good thing is that if you do this right, you’ll still get faster. I know I am.