My recent Irun article discussing the importance of recovery in training sparked remarkable interest amongst readers. I loved reading through all the feedback. One reader asked a very thought-provoking question: to what extent does the recovery process and necessity of rest change in an older runner? My correspondent was a remarkable 65-year-old athlete who recently ran the Boston marathon. Following the event, he pulled up stiff and sore, especially in his hamstring muscles. He explained that even with plenty of therapeutic treatment and stretching, it had still taken him ten weeks to recover. For me, his story raises two questions, does age alter the degree of damage that occurs to the body during intensive exercise and is the recovery rate significantly delayed?
The 2005 World Masters Games attracted over 21,000 competitors, highlighting the flourishing interest in maintaining a high level of physical performance throughout the lifespan (Fell & Williams, 2008). Bringing this closer to home, you only have to look around at a fun run to realize that most of the athletes participating are ‘older’. For this article, I will rely on the work of Pimentel et al. (2003) who suggests that ‘older’ refers to greater than 50-years-old, an age at which he noted rapid decline in physical athletic capacities.
Ageing is accompanied by significant declines in physical functioning capacity. Although regular exercise helps to protect against age-related illnesses, our older runners will notice a decrease in performance and, like my correspondent, often a delay in their recovery following higher intensity efforts. So, why does performance decrease with age and what causes the delay in recovery in older athletes?
Unfortunately a number of physical changes occur as we age that will affect our performance. These include (but are not limited to) changes to skeletal and heart muscle, and glycogen uptake and re-synthesis (Du et al. 2005).
Skeletal muscle is the muscle that generates movement and power as we run and an older runner will undergo greater exercise induced skeletal muscle damage. With advancing age, the muscle’s ability to repair and adapt is diminished. This could be caused by a decrease in muscle capillarization and mitochondrial activity (the power generators in the muscle) (Du et al. 2005); Fell & Williams, 2008). However, the good news is that training in older age can impart a protective effect on skeletal muscle, thus delaying these effects.
This leads us to a discussion about running training in older athletes. The main purpose of training is to unbalance the homeostasis of an individual’s functional systems, and the natural consequence of this is some degree of fatigue (Fell & Williams 2008; Smith & Norris 2002). If the body is allowed to recover with effective rest and nutrition, this should lead to adaptations that will prepare the individual for future physical demands and preferably, increased performance. However, does this process of insult and enhancement differ with age?
Below is a diagram taken from a paper by Fell & Williams, 2008, who adapted the model from Smith & Norris, 2002. In the diagram they propose that following an equal training stimulus, older athletes will experience greater damage and fatigue which delays the recovery response. That is, an older runner is likely to feel more sore, more tired and take longer to recover.
(Fell & Williams, 2008)
Below is another diagram presented by Fell & Williams. Figure 2 proposes that if a younger athlete and a veteran athlete move through the exact same training cycle involving regular training stimulus’ followed by a period of recovery, the younger athlete will enhance their performance whilst the older athlete will begin to show a decrease in performance. As we discussed earlier, the veteran athlete requires a longer recovery period than the younger athlete, and this should be accounted for in the training program. Of concern is that continued training without adequate rest actually results in progressive overreaching.
Here I will refer to my dear old coach Max Cherry who passed away in 2008. Max always used to say that for every 10km we race, we must allow one week to recover. This meant that following a marathon, I would allow myself four weeks to return to full strength before I began hard training again. I was just 20-years-old at the time. This theory has never failed me and is thoroughly supported in the scientific literature (Smith & Norris 2002). If we take into account the two diagrams above, an older runner might be looking for at least five to six weeks gentle recovery before jumping back into a higher intensity program.
A discussion on recovery would not be complete without mentioning nutrition. The literature shows that older adults should consume adequate carbohydrates during endurance training (6-8g/kg/day) and may benefit from the provision of carbohydrate and protein in the early recovery phase following endurance exercise to maximize glycogen re-synthesis in the muscles. There is no suggestion in the literature that fluid intake needs to differ with increasing age (Tarnopolsky 2008).
This has been a long article that has raised many valid points for consideration when conceptualizing training programs for veteran runners. The most important concept that I have ascertained from my research is that runners greater than 50-years should allow for an increased quantity of recovery following high-intensity efforts due to the increased muscle damage. Nutrition should focus on protein to assist in the muscle repair process and carbohydrates to increase glycogen re-synthesis. Finally, if in doubt, err on the side of safety and have an extra rest or recovery day - any training that you are doing is imparting a protective effect on your muscle and heart, and warding off age-related problems.
Du, N, Bai, S, Oguri, K, Kato, Y, Matsumoto, I, Kawase, H & Matsuoka, T 2005, 'Heart rate recovery after exercise and neural regulation of heart rate variability in 30-40 year old female marathon runners', Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, vol. 4, pp. 9-17.
Fell, J & Williams, AD 2008, 'The effect of aging on skeletal muscle recovery from exercise: possible implications for the aging athlete', Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 97-115.
Pimentel, AE, Gentile, CL, Tanaka, H, Seals, DR & Gates, PE 2003, 'Greater rate of decline in maximal aerobic capacity with age in endurance-trained than in sedentary men', Journal of Applied Physiology, vol. 94, no. 6, pp. 2406-13.
Smith, D & Norris, S 2002, 'Training load and monitoring an athlete’s tolerance for endurance training', Enhancing recovery, preventing underperformance in athletes. Champaign (IL): Human Kinetics, pp. 81-101.
Tarnopolsky, MA 2008, 'Nutritional consideration in the aging athlete', Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, vol. 18, no. 6, p. 531.
I am sure many of us have had to stop running for a period of time. In desperation to maintain our fitness we find ourselves delving into the garage to pull out that old rusty bike. Perhaps the novelty of running training everyday has begun to waiver and in a moment of weakness you are walking away from the bike shop with a shiny new machine? Or are you like myself who sometimes migrates into the gym when the temperatures plunge and the thought of another day with cold, wooden fingers is just too unappealing? The purpose of this article was to broach the difficult topic of cross-training for athletic performance and to review the literature to determine if cycle training impedes or supports our running.
Despite strong attempts to uncover the most recent research on the crossover between cycling and running, very little appears to have been conducted in this area. The most significant information discusses the need to balance swimming, cycling and running for optimal triathlon performance. For example, Millet et. al. (2002) tried to determine the extent of specificity between disciplinary training in triathletes. They concluded that swimming appears to be a highly specific activity, which does not gain nor provide benefits from, or to, the other disciplines. This is also supported by Tanaka (1994) who suggested that swimming training may result in minimum transfer of training effects, especially on the cardiovascular system. However, Millet et. al. did determine that cross-training effects do occur between cycle training and running performance in the elite triathletes.
In a later study, Millet et. al. (2009) conducted a synopsis of the literature to determine what the physiological differences are between cycling and running. They compared physiological variables such as maximal oxygen consumption (VO2max) and heart rate variances in triathletes, cyclists and runners. At the conclusion of their comparisons they determined that runners and cyclists can achieve similar VO2max results in their specialized disciples but not if they attempt to conduct the test in their non-targeted sport. A triathlete who specializes in both disciplines may achieve equal results on a treadmill and a cycle ergometer. Within the literature they also found an increased rate and level of fatigue in runners than in cyclists that caused a decrease in maximal strength. Perhaps due to this, there were significant differences in heart rate training zones for runners and cyclists. Therefore, they concluded that running places the body under greater demands and that there is more physiological training transfer from running to cycling than visa versa. Tanaka et. al. (1994) supports this be stating, ‘the nonspecific training effects seem to be more noticeable when running is performed as a cross-training mode’.
Foster et. al. (1995) suggested that cycle cross-training can create positive muscular changes to aid running performance but not to the same degree as increasing one’s specific training. More recently, Smith (2012) conducted a study of cross-training benefits on the cardiovascular system of thirteen athletics athletes over six weeks. He concluded that his subjects displayed no significant differences in their running economy or VO2max results post cycle training. ‘Cross-training effects never exceed those induced by the sport-specific training mode… the principles of specificity of training tend to have greatest significance in the highly trained athlete.’ (Foster et. al., 1995)
White et. al. (2003) conducted a study to examine whether substituting 50% of run training volume with cycle cross-training would maintain the competitiveness of female distance runners over a five week recuperation phases. They noted that although there was a slight decrease in their 3000m times, there was no actual loss of aerobic performance.
Therefore, for the elite runners, this discussion of the most relevant literature suggests that nothing beats the specificity of running to run. During the height of the season and in the lead up to major races, it would be preferable that cycle cross-training is not used as a substitute to running training. The most positive effects of cycle training could be during the off-peak time or following injury. During these periods, cycle training may maintain previous aerobic performance up to around six weeks. Following this, a decrease in running function may occur.
So far we have focussed on the training effects in the elite athlete but what significance does this hold for us mere mortals? After all, cross-training is a widely used approach for structuring a training programme. For the general population, evidence suggests that cross-training may be highly beneficial in improving overall fitness. Similarly, cross-training may be an appropriate supplement when beginning running and during periods of overtraining or psychological fatigue, such as during periods of high intensity employment (Tanaka, 1994). Finding the right balance of cross-training to running is a matter of working through your goals and determining the importance of running outcomes. A good coach should be able to assist you with this.
Finally, if cycling is your main sport, the nature of the increased physical demands of running may actually lead to a positive effect on cycle performance.
Foster, C., Hector, L.L., Welsh, R., Schrager, M., Green, M.A., & Snyder, A.C. (1995). Effect of specific versus cross-training on running performance. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology. 70(4), 367-372, DOI: 10.1007/BF00865035
Millet, G.P., Candau, R.B., Barbier, B., Busson, T., Rouillon, J.D., & Chatard, J.C. (2002). Modelling the transfers of training effects on performance in elite triathletes. International Journal of Sports Medicine. 23(1), 55-63. DOI: 10.1055/2-2002-19276
Millet, G.P., Vleck, V.E. & Bentley, D.J. 2009. Physiological differences between cycling and running: Lessons from triathletes. Sports Medicine; 39(3), 179-206
Smith, A. 2012. Effect of independent crank cycling training on running economy in collegiate distance runners (unpublished work).
Tanaka, H. (1994). Effects of cross-training. Transfer of training effects on VO2max between cycling, running and swimming. Sports Medicine 18(5), 330-339.
White, L.J., Dressendorfer, R.H., Muller, S.M., & Ferguson, M.A. 2003. Effectiveness of cycle cross-training between competitive seasons in female distance runners. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 17(2)
These articles are a collection of my writing. If you have feedback or questions, would love to hear from you!