In your 50s and 60s, you’re going to have the money to do neat stuff.
Are you going to have the body?
I propose three goals to guide your training:
Add muscle mass
Maintain sexual function
If you’re still into race performance then bookmark me and come back in a few years.
Because you might be screwing up all three by leaving sustained tempo in your program.
Now, you’re probably thinking that it’s impossible for an older person to add muscle mass.
You might have even resigned yourself to a long, slow decline in personal function.
That’s certainly the way aging was taught to me (by members of your profession).
Are you sure?
An elder surgeon confided in me that “half the stuff I learned in med school, turned out to be false.”
Perhaps a shift in approach could get you a better outcome?
Besides, there is little downside from shifting your program, away from endurance fatigue, towards doing what it takes to add functional strength.
So how might we do that?
During the pandemic, I learned this protocol by accident.
I was locked in my house, with three high-energy kids, and I needed a way to chill out before endless days of Home School.
I turned to weights, a lot of them.
I worked my way through Rob Shaul’s SF45 program. The full program was eight modules and took me 60 weeks to complete.
Total body transformation.
Not only did it transform my body, my wife started having fire fighter fantasies. 😉
I became much better at moving through the mountains.
Rob’s redone the modules and now splits them by age (40, 50, 55 and 60). You can find them under General Fitness Plan Packets on his website.
I’ve taken what I’ve learned from Rob and interpreted into my life as a coach to kids, adults and elders. I use pieces of Rob’s protocols to address specific concerns (balance, fall risk, muscle activation, injury prevention and rehab). I tweet about these on Wednesdays.
I use Rob’s stuff for creating a valuable form of stress on my 53 yo body.
Gaining functional strength
To do neat stuff
With the people I love
For as long as possible
My training schedule is built around placing my key days (my strength-focused days).
I never skip a strength day but… I do delay it when I know it would be counter-productive to stress myself further.
So how to place those key days?
That was my central problem across 2021.
I kept getting run down, I felt old, my mood was crap, I was worried that I was “done” as an athlete.
To be sick of sickness is the only cure
– The Tao Te Ching
Eventually, I committed to do whatever it took to get my recovery on track. If that meant “getting old” then I’d just have to deal with the consequences.
It wasn’t all that complicated. My Garmin watch had be collecting resting heart rate data for years. Data that I had been ignoring because I was scared to recover properly!
To my resting HR data, I added heart rate variability from an Oura Ring. Recently, I added HRV4Training to better see the differences between my acute and chronic movements.
I don’t use the Readiness Scores because I don’t need precision (and have doubts that any of us can predict outcome on a complex system, like the human body).
All I am seeking is a signal from the raw data.
Red – you’d better dial it down
Yellow – no surges, just aerobic maintenance (ie fat burning)
Green – Go For It, Bro!
So when I’m at home, it’s a simple choice each morning.
Strength or Cardio
Strength is whatever plan I’m using from Rob.
Cardio is a bike workout, usually with a 130 bpm cap.
If I’m not “green” for a strength day, then I dial it down, or delay.
If I’m “red” then I spin easy on the bike (HR < 120) and schedule a neighborhood walk for the afternoon.
ZERO anaerobic load on a “red” day.
By waiting for a green signal, I avoid putting myself into a hole, that takes days to clear.
I’d been running this system (morning strength or cardio) for most of the pandemic (2020 & 2021) but was not paying attention to my HR, and didn’t have the HRV data.
With the HRV data, and guidance from Dr Jeff Shilt, I am able to better place the days that make me tired. Doc J shared his traffic light system, which let me create this article I’m offering you.
As we age, how best to define “getting better”?
We will work towards improving the self-confidence that you’ll be able to continue to share outdoor activities with those you love.
We will use a training approach that builds a large physical reserve against the fears we hear from our elders.
Confidence that, while absolute performance is declining, we continue to enjoy the physical side of life.
Confidence that, while we’re all going to “get old” eventually, we will be able to live independently for as long as possible.
This is going to require a shift in focus from “athletic performance” to maintaining “functional performance.”
The very good news is this approach is time efficient.
Yes, the strength days will kick your butt BUT, when they are placed wisely, you will bounce back and end up with more energy across your week.
Last week, I was in Telluride with my buddy, Mark. He asked me a question, very much on point…
Aren’t you afraid you’ll gain weight?
Why yes, I am terrified!
The context was my current “far less than I used to” training program. Sure, I was scared, and that’s why I kept the volume rolling for so many years.
However, like so many fear-based quirks in my life, my fears proved groundless.
Further, creating a lifestyle catered to misplaced fear crowds out a lot of useful work!
Get Off the Wheel of Sugar
AC has been crushing with a series of threads encouraging athletes to improve their stamina and fat burning. The lessons run much, much deeper. Creativity, cognition, and metabolic health – all benefit from working on the low-end of our fitness.
Many of us use training protocol as a way to justify our food choices. With the best intentions, we remove a food group, and end up replacing it with sugar.
Starting to train, we shift our nutrition towards “sports nutrition.”
My buddy, Jonas Colting, calls this getting caught in Gel Hell.
Not a win.
Two tips work here:
Aim to eat more veggies than my vegetarian pals.
Stay below my sugar threshold.
#1 requires a bit of effort, but not too much. My main gig is salads and stir-frys.
#2 can be scary – it implies less total duration, less intensity.
Both these changes nudge us towards sustainable choices and, as we age, reduce the risk of ruin from following a Chronic Endurance lifestyle.
Back in the day, folks used to debate the utility of strength training for endurance athletes. Do y’all still do that?
I’m not into debating, I’d rather use something that works.
Strength Training Works.
There is a conscious, and unconscious, attraction to people who move powerfully – moving well, is attractive.
You want to be more attractive, trust me (see below).
Being attractive improves our self-image, which sets up a virtuous circle in our larger lives.
Trying to change everything at once leaves me feeling scattered and distracted.
It doesn’t work.
Again, here’s what works:
One person, one habit, one pattern, one choice…
Each of us has a habit, relationship or pattern that we can eliminate, for gains.
2 beers before bed
A basket of bread with lunch and dinner
Bread + cheese = pizza 😉
A friend who’s a feeder
Don’t try to do everything.
Don’t think you need to change “forever”.
Simply take a break for 30 days and pay attention.
With all this stuff, letting go of my fears seems daunting.
Let’s close the week with some athletic advice (to myself mainly).
Paradox of Stress => if you want to do something difficult then you will need to reduce other forms of stress to achieve it.
Athletically, in the winter, this usually means considering two opposing goals => reducing fat (vanity) vs increasing lean body mass (victory).
Personally, there’s no contest => as a mountain athlete, constrained by COVID, my big wins will come from improving functional strength and increasing lean body mass.
That said, it’s emotionally challenging to absorb this reality. I carry with me an enduring bias towards weight loss. My internal bias is reinforced by my peers and community.
Missing the opportunity to maintain strength has a cost we don’t see until far into the future. In terms of return on investment, strength training is powerful medicine. I can’t think of many things that work as well with a time investment of only 2-3 hours per week.
What’s your long term goal?
Some quick tips.
Gain Five Pounds – let your weight rise a little, naturally. Adding 3% to my body weight does wonders for my ability to recover.
If you’ve overshot on the weight gain then reduce stress below the point you crave sugar. My cravings, and sleep patterns, are my early-warning system (of impending doom).
How might you reduce unnecessary athletic stress?
1/. Cut your power/pace zones unilaterally and don’t test until spring => I knocked 20% off my bike power zones and reset my season bests effective Nov 1st, 2020. This change did wonders for my mental state.
2/. Ditch the sustained tempo => I wear my HRM to cap my efforts. If you want to challenge yourself then do something useful… commit to a quality winter strength program.
Long term success is all about the streak – there are 3,275 days between today and my 60th birthday.
Next week’s posts will explain how I used the pandemic to carve an extra 10,000 hours out of those days.
Despite an irregular year, my fitness followed a typical pattern with a clear peak around the end of August.
Because of COVID it’s going to be tempting to change things up this winter. I’m not sure that’s a good idea. The earliest I can see a return to racing (other than super-spreader events in soon-to-be-personal-freedom-loving-hotspots) is Q3-2021.
You want to be thinking about multiple base cycles. This season, more than ever, early base is really early… …we’re way out from when you’re going to want to perform.
Here’s some ideas that might help you avoid common pitfalls.
Drop your zones – I spent the last 7 weeks pushing one-rep maxes and climbing mountains. I was either sore or exhausted, and had many days where all I could manage was easy spinning.
The reduced bike load had the effect of drawing down my aerobic bank account. I got my money’s worth and am satisfied with my COVID-summer. Coming back to “real” bike training…
1/ I put in place a 130 bpm HR cap – for this first cycle of the 2021 season. This is just under the top of my “steady” HR zone when I’m fit.
2/ Tested my low-end aerobic fitness (around 120 bpm for me), saw my power had fallen by ~40 watts so pulled 40w out of my FTP estimate and re-calculated my zones.
I could train much more intensely but what would the extra effort buy me?
1/ Know when you want to be fit and the type of fitness you require. My required fitness is sustained endurance, with pack, to guide my family on trails and snow.
At 51, my true goal is pushing out the start of old-age, which implies a large functional strength reserve at 60 years old, and a body in orthopedic shape to use it.
The best choice I made in my athletic career was to avoid choices that would jeopardize this overriding goal for my future self.
2/ Closing out 2020, building mojo gets you more than building fitness. We are going to need a lot of mojo to get ourselves from January to Easter.
The lower zones are a wonderful break from having to get psyched for sustained tempo and generating KJs when tired. If ever there was a good time to let go of chronic endurance then now is that time!
3/ Leave space for COVID disruptions. It could be a hectic winter with random quarantines due to positives at my kids schools.
I’m a lot more patient with my kids, my spouse and the reality of my COVID-life… when I’m a little under-done with my training.
Freshness is a good trade for an improved life experience.
At the back of my mind, I’m remembering that my first “COVID winter” started on March 13th. That’s 20 weeks from now!
Waking up with a foot of snow on the ground (October 26th) I think caution with pacing my season is warranted.
Hope this helps,
Two big 1RM achievements for me in 2020. 135# overhead and 200# bench.
Earlier in the block, I had missed on 205# and found myself pinned under the bar, in my basement, solo, at 5:30am. Eventually, I rolled out and was fine.
Something I do well is back-fit a future goal on top of my present reality. It helps me stay the course.
As you age, what’s it going to be like? I have coached some very special older folks, and paid attention. Here’s what I’m expecting.
More time but less energy — the energy “step down” from 45 onwards was a surprise — the fact that it was happening before I saw it, is something I remind myself as I head towards 60.
You are going to want to delay the inevitable physical decline — there is a lot of good news here — if you start building your physical reserve then you can push the decline WAY WAY out. I’ve been fortunate to watch athletes manage themselves from 60 to 70 and beyond.
The key recommendation for you, if you plan to live past 60 then start strength training now, just a little.
When I was a speedy young man, there was a controversy about strength training. As a coach, I’d be asked “where I stood on the topic.” Sitting here a couple decades down the track, it makes no sense that smart people argued passionately against strength training.
There is a guaranteed large future payoff when you create a strength reserve – against aging, against illness and against injury => aging, illness, injury => unless you’re taken out in an accident, these events are absolutely certain for your future self.
That’s the physical.
For the mental, I see two components:
Humility & Patience – a useful combination if one desires to be seen as a wise old man!
Kindness (towards the ugly) – consider it self-love for my future self 😉
I have a vision for what I’d like to be doing. My daily writing project during the first 20 weeks of COVID was a test run. It went well.
By the way, you can create a personal niche, while learning about favorite topics. The game plan: one classic book per week and choose the best idea inside. Cap yourself at ~450 words for a summary that includes three personal examples. Do that every week for two years. ~45,000 words across 100 good ideas.
A friend sent me Stray Reflections, which gave me the above idea and reminded me… don’t be put off by a lack of experience, rather, make a daily habit of doing what it takes.
How will I know I’ve succeeded? Well, success doesn’t matter.
Freedom matters. Not being owned matters. Personal safety matters. Being engaged in working towards mastery, matters.
I’ve done so much and it’s all in the past. None of my success has stuck with me. If you are a striver then I’m a voice from your future. What stands out in memory are my setbacks and errors. They motivate me to avoid repeating mistakes and iterate towards better. A feeling of moving towards better matters.
Beyond the grave is a sentiment I felt strongly immediately after our third child was born. In 2012, I spent a month writing my kids a book. Now that they are older, I give my kids myself, rather than my work.
In sharing myself, I offer an ethical framework through which my kids can navigate the world.
Lots has changed between the start of the block and the finish.
The biggest change had nothing to do with sport, it was a gradual shift from “temporary” shelter-in-place orders to an ongoing you-must-stay-in-your-home-to-be-a-good-person vibe. Depending on your peers & politics, your mileage may vary.
Back in March, I looked ahead to Session #50. I thought it was a type-o:
When I first used an 80-pound bag for the getups, I’d get pinned (for a while!) before figuring out how to get back up. There’s no prescribed way to get up, so I took relief in my struggles.
The plyometrics were more psychological than physical => a lot of post-workout soreness and a lurking fear of tearing tissue. Once I realized I could keep plugging along, it was a mental game of persisting.
If you’ve ever done step-ups then you probably noticed it is the “down” not the “up” that causes problems. Thousands of step-downs nearly gave me an overuse injury, but I never quite got there.
All in all, a perfectly set plan.
There were a lot of small failures in the last ten weeks, not all athletic:
My psoas getting so tight I thought I was a hip replacement candidate!
My right calf blowing out
Losing patience with the kids
Overcoming the failures provides a deeper appreciation of the victories.
Because choices that made sense when I was younger have been replaced by a lifestyle that’s a better fit for where I want to take myself.
Let’s run though the major adjustments.
You might not want what you think you want: athletics is the best way I have found to keep myself engaged and apply energy. Look around and you can see plenty of examples of middle aged men getting themselves into trouble by not managing their energy.
So I will sign up for a race to keep myself out of trouble? Not so fast…
Engaging in athletic competition is different from being athletic.
Fit for competition is not fit for an engaged life with meaning.
To be the sort of father/husband I want to be, I need to avoid athletic competition.
The requirements of racing well, and my competitive peers, exert an inevitable pull on my life. A pull I enjoy but one that takes me away from where I want to be in 5-10 years time.
There are different ways to define excellence and the traits that ring most true to me don’t have a clock attached to them.
The most specific component of race fitness is the least valuable to my wife and kids.
In your mid-40s you will notice a change in how you respond to training. Specifically, sustained tempo is a lot more fatiguing. This intensive-endurance pace is a core part of training for performance.
As a middle-aged athlete sustained tempo will gobble up your energy and leave you spent for other aspects of your life. If you are in the clutch of negative addictions then this can be a very good choice to make! However, you will have nothing left towards building a life that your future self will value.
This reality was tough for me to face. I know how valuable tempo training is to athletic performance. It was made easier by stopping racing, and reminding myself that I didn’t want the family lives, and marriages, of my competition.
Letting go of deep fatigue enabled me to re-establish consistency, which was being shot to pieces by minor injuries, slow recovery, illnesses and low motivation => all of which stemmed from giving myself more load than I could absorb.
About those injuries… stop hurting yourself.
Somewhere in my recent past, I realized I was constantly managing low-grade calf injuries. At the time, I wasn’t training for a race, or even doing much mileage. There was no reason to endure the constant setbacks.
You’re likely to have similar moments and the performance gurus will encourage you to grind through. I’d encourage you to pause and ask yourself three questions:
Where is this likely to take me? Elective orthopedic surgery?
What is my goal here? Alienate my spouse and estrange myself from my kids?
Is there a better way to achieve my goal? Or perhaps a better goal to achieve!
In my case, I replaced the running with hiking and functional strength training. I can do these before my family wakes up or alongside my family. My best athletic memories of my 50s are shared experiences, in nature, with my family.
With a young wife, and three kids, I’m slowly filling the state of Colorado with happy thoughts. When I’m 70, they can carry the backpack!
Reality is enough for me. If you’re tempted to use drugs then something needs to change.
Shooting your knee up like an NFL lineman, boosting your hormonal profile to beat an athlete who’s spouse just walked out the door, taking health risks to train alongside college kids…
Where is this likely to take me?
What is my goal here?
Is there a better way to achieve my goal?
A focus on athleticism puts me in a continual state of rehabilitation from the process of aging naturally => functional strength, quickness, range of motion and extensive endurance.
Being freed from external requirements lets me do the right thing for my health, year round.
Place a demand on yourself, then recover while working on a project that benefits your larger life.
While expanding your life beyond athletics, remove whatever screws up your sleep patterns. My 4:30am wake-up makes poor choices obvious, immediately.
This approach will enhance your biochemistry naturally and not mask errors.
To learn by iteration, it is essential to physically experience my mistakes.
How are you going to feed that part of your personality that craves recognition, thrives in adversity and wishes to dominate others?
Can you see your desires? Have you considered what is driving your desires?
You might simply be over-scheduled and seeking socially acceptable personal space.
It’s worth looking deeper.
When I looked deeply everything was there, positive and negative. There are many ways to spin our motivators.
Recognition can come from my children, who are hardwired to be impressed by me. I look pretty jacked to a seven-year old.
Personal growth through facing adversity can come from the final few reps of a set (or simply getting out of bed some mornings). My endurance mantra… many people would like the ability to do this right now.
Domination is a tricky one, especially when surrounded by women and children. At my best, I turn it inwards and seek to overcome my negative traits, specifically my urge to resort to force, rather than skillful engagement.
We often let each other off by saying things like.. “everyone is different”, or “you need to find your own way.” I disagree. We are very, very similar within our cultures and wired to follow social proof.
If you want to change your motivation then change your location.
I’m parked in the fittest zipcode in America, training in nature, with a young family, thinking daily about a handful of men who are presenting their best selves to the world.
Finally, remove the friction between your current habits and the life you want to lead.
I have a home gym, I wake up at 4:30am and there aren’t any email/social apps on my phone.
I created a situation where there was nothing for me to do between 5 and 6am in the morning.
So I write, or train => activities that leave me satisfied in hindsight and help my future self.