Friday, 14 December 2012

A Riddle in a Mystery Inside Spandex

This, with apologies to Sir Winston Churchill, is an apt description of the older body when it comes to matching training with race performance. Putting it together on race day is the runner's greatest challenge, but why is it often so much more tricky for older athletes? Converting the hard work of training into satisfying race results can be just as challenging for teenaged runners, but this is often due to simple inexperience-- the one thing that typically does not figure in the case of masters runners. Very young and older athletes do share a couple of other things in common-- a body that is changing steadily, but often in fits and starts, and a susceptibility to what we might call "lifestyle lapses"-- but there are some specific reasons why masters runners have a harder time putting it together when they want to.

While the bodies of younger and older runners may respond to the training stimulus in unpredictable ways, due to changes in hormone levels and basic physical structures, the changes that younger runners undergo are typically supportive of training adaptation, at least in the medium term. The energy lost and additional injury risks incurred during growth spurts, for instance, can sometimes lead to flat performance; but, when managed correctly, becoming a little bigger and stronger usually ends up supporting improved performance, all other things being equal. Younger runners will sometimes take longer to show improvement relative to their increased training loads, and will sometimes see apparently unexplained, one-off collapses in performance. Their troubles rarely last longer than a few weeks, however, during which time they rarely go completely into reverse, at least not in the absence of viral illness or iron deficiency. And when younger runners eventually do level out, they often enjoy massive performance improvements as a direct result of the changes their bodies have undergone. In contrast, the changes that the bodies of older runners will typically manifest are, of course, not always supportive of increased performance. Masters runners must deal with sometime sudden bodily changes (such as periodic "tectonic structural shifts", as I called them in a earlier post)that, while not the end of the world as far as performance goes, can lead to sudden and pretty dramatic loss of performance that may last longer than a few weeks. And these changes are often highly idiosyncratic in older runners, whose bodies often seem to operate according to their own rules at times (whereas all younger, growing bodies tend to behave according to a loose script). This is likely because the bodies of older runners, like those of older people in general, have registered effects from a far broader range of biographically specific influences over a much longer period of time than those of younger runners, which are all responding to one degree or another to the same sets of hormonal signals. The bodies of older runners, in other words, are etched in very particular ways by their particular life experiences, making each one its own study.

There are differences in the way that poor lifestyle choices may affect the performances of younger and older runners too. Although they do them for very different reasons, both very young and older runners will often suffer lapses in proper routine that can have very negative short term effects on performance. Younger runners will go on nutritionally dubious binges, stay up all night at "sleepovers", or spend a hot day at the beach with friends without drinking any water in the days before a race. Older runners will sometimes spend a day or two doing unexpectedly strenuous yard work, renovating the house, or socializing late into the night with friends on the eve of a race. One group will do it out of lack of forethought, inexperience, or just the desire to have it all, while the other will do it as a result of "adult responsibilities". Neither, after all, are professional athletes with dire stakes involved (although the risks that some top runners have taken before races might surprise some people). Once again, however, sudden changes in daily routine usually hit older runners far harder and more unpredictably than they do younger ones, who will often get away with simply not improving, rather than taking a step backwards or getting injured. For reasons that remain something of a mystery, older runners can sometimes hit lifetime bests in spite of serious breaches in their race week routine-- breaches that ought to completely undermine race performance-- while other times fall apart abjectly after a single, minor break in their race week routine. This often absurd range of variability sometimes temps older runners to take more take more pre-race risks instead of fewer, even when they have a choice in the matter.

But the deeper reason why the master's body is more unpredictable on race day has to do, I think, with the social and psychological aspects of being older; in particular, it is the typical adult experience of life as "stressful" that produces the wide range of response to training stimuli that in turn cause unpredictable race performance. It is "stress", after all, that impairs recovery--and therefore adaptation to training-- most profoundly.

Most adult runners, and masters runners in particular, like most mature people, experience life as an ever widening circle of responsibilities demanding to be met. Masters athletes, therefore, typically spend much more time than younger athletes do worrying about, and attempting to meet, the many demands (usually real but sometimes only perceived) on their time and emotional energy. In order to build running into their lives, masters athletes frequently have to plan their races weeks or months in advance in order to work around work and family commitments (and one can add to this the need to enter races sometimes months in advance simply in order to get a spot on the line— one of the few downsides of running’s exploding popularity). While younger athletes also experience stress, they seem much better able to compartmentalize it; in younger athletes, outside pressures tend not to coalesce into a kind of permanent condition, as they often do with older runners. In the developed world at least, a condition of permanent stress and worry—a state of constantly managing for the future—is a badge of adult maturity. It is the fluctuation of this constant current of life stress that, I think, more than pure physiological differences (if there can be such a thing), explains the unpredictability of masters race performances as compared with those of young and peak-age athletes. Being more or less constantly under “stress”, older athletes are often not aware when they are particularly subject to it, and therefore likely to race poorly, or somewhat freer of it, and therefore likely to race very well.

Absent some kind of mass cultural sea-change (like an embrace of “minimalist” living), the experience of adulthood as perpetually “stressful” in our part of the world is not likely change any time soon. To mitigate the effects of life stress on race performance for masters athletes, I therefore offer the following suggestions:

1.Never attempt to “train through” races. Masters athletes should always taper to race, which may mean not racing as often as younger athletes.

2.Never attempt to race if your training is not going well. Racing tends to dramatically expose physical weakness, and the effect is magnified in older runners, who seem less able than younger athletes to turn a potentially disastrous performance into a decent one.

3.Don’t attempt to compete while particularly distracted, such as on vacation with family or friends. To race well, masters athletes need almost complete focus on the task.

4.Recognize and except that, for reasons that may not be entirely clear to you, there are times of year when you seem more liable to race well. Plan to race often during those times of year and very little at other times.

5.Go easy on the marathons. Racing and recovering from marathons is an epic physical and psychological ordeal for athletes of any age. For masters athletes, who often have to train for, race, and recover from them without missing a beat in their family and work lives, too many marathons can eventually destroy the ability to race well at shorter distances during the rest of the year (which, along with taking the fun out of running, will also eventually make them worse marathoners).


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