Published on March 3, 2013
Welcome to the next chapter in Part 1 of Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance Health & Life…
If you missed any previous chapters, then have no worries, because I've got links to all previous chapters at the bottom of this post.
In today's chapter, I pose this question: can endurance exercise actually make you age faster?
And what can you expect when you're 40, 50 or 60+ years old after a lifetime of cycling, marathoning or triathlon?
The truth is in the following tale of two triathletes – in which you learn how even in the same sport, two very different styles of training, eating and living can result in a shocking contrast in the later years of life…
…be sure to leave your personal thoughts, comments, feedback, proposed edits and other constructive criticism below this article…
A Tale Of Two Triathletes
Chad has been a triathlete for 22 years.
At the age of 58, he has amassed 12 Ironman triathlons, and also done handfuls of Sprint, Olympic and Half-Ironman triathlons.
Like many of his triathlete peers, Chad is type A, successful, and has lived a fast-paced life as an employee, manager, and now CFO of a Fortune 500 company. He travels at least one weekend every month, and endurance exercise is the one thing that seems to keep him sane and focused during his stressful days sitting at work – plus he absolutely loves the endorphin high derived from his exercising and racing. Chad is married and is also a father of three boys.
Chad's routine has been the same every since he started doing Ironman. He swims Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with a master's swim group for 60 minutes, and when he's getting closer to his big races, sometimes throws in an extra pool or open water swim on the weekends, in which he swims at a steady, aerobic pace for an hour or so.
He rides his bike twice a week for 60-90 minutes, sometimes on the trainer and sometimes outside – usually mixing things up with some tempo or interval training, and occasionally a spin class. Most weekends, he goes out solo or joins a handful of friends for a 3-4 hour aerobic ride, which sometimes goes as long as 5-6 hours when an Ironman is approaching. Often, these long runs are followed up with a short to mid-distance run of 20-60 minutes. Squeezing in these long rides gets a bit boring in the winter, since Chad is usually just sitting on his indoor trainer and watching movie after movie as he spins away.
Chad has never really enjoyed running that much, but considers it a necessary evil for getting him through triathlons, and he typically heads out on 45-60 minute morning or lunchtime runs 3-4 days per week. Most of the time, these runs are done at a steady pace, without much interval or speedwork, which just seems annoying to Chad to try and fit in. Beginning several months out from an Ironman, Chad also does long weekend “death-marches”, typically slow runs of 2-3 hours in duration that tend to leave him exhausted and drained, but mentally confident about being able to handle the Ironman marathon.
Chad hits the gym for cross training occasionally, but without much structure. Sometimes he does a Pilates or yoga class, sometimes he does some kind of core workout, sometimes he gets on some weight machines or uses dumbbells for just enough sets and reps to make his muscles really burn, and occasionally he'll even throw in extra endurance work with an elliptical trainer or rowing machine.
Chad's diet is pretty consistent. Most weekday mornings he has a multivitamin, a couple cups of coffee, a bowl of cereal or a few pieces of whole grain toast with peanut butter, and for his morning workouts, some kind of sports drink mix. For lunch, he typically has a sandwich or yogurt at work, often with an energy bar or protein bar thrown in, and another cup of coffee, or a diet soda. He usually has a piece of fruit or some trail mix in the afternoon, and dinner is fish, chicken or steak with some kind of pasta or rice, often with beer or a glass of wine. After dinner, especially on weekends, Chad's appetite often spirals out of control and he'll eat ice cream, some mini-candy bars or chocolate, lots of nuts, or another energy bar or two. On the weekends, he throws in extra recovery shakes, smoothies, energy bars or gels and salt pills to fuel his additional training – trying to use the same kind of fuel and calorie intake as he uses during races.
For over two decades, this has been Chad's life.
Eat, swim, bike, run.
Rinse, wash, repeat.
Now, at 58 years old, Chad certainly feels as through the training has taken a toll on his body.
His joints ache on many mornings, and especially at night after long training weekends – but it's usually nothing that an advil or ibuprofen doesn't seem to fix. Nonetheless, just about every month Chad gets frustrated dealing with one injury or another – sometimes pain on the outside of his knee that threatens to lock up his knees if he pushes too hard, sometimes plantar fasciitis, achilles tendonitis, or some other kind of foot or ankle issue, and sometimes nagging pain on the front of his shoulder. Most issues clear up if he just modifies his training or skips a swim, bike or run here and there, but he does get sharp pain on the outside of his hip almost every time he runs now, and this makes him a little bit nervous about whether he might need some kind of joint replacement surgery soon. It even aches sometimes when he's sleeping.
And that's another thing: sleeping.
It's more difficult now.
With his fast-paced life, Chad has always slept no more than about about 6-7 hours a night, and sometimes less than that when he's in the throes of Ironman training – but now it seems to take longer and longer to fall asleep, he often wakes up during the night, and just feels tired and sluggish during the day, which often makes it hard to be productive at work, or makes him easily annoyed and grumpy around his family.
It's also been awhile since Chad has had good sex. Most of the time, this doesn't matter, because it's been a long time since he's had much libido anyway – and it's always seemed to be a sore topic between him and his wife. Even when he does have sex, he has an increasingly difficult time maintaining or keeping an erection, and often wonders if maybe has low testosterone or some kind of hormone issue. However, his doctor just does a standard annual physical and usually doesn't test for that kind of stuff, so Chad doesn't know for sure, and he's usually too tired by the end of the day to care much about sex anyway.
Finally, there are the stomach issues. It seems that more and more these days, Chad has to pop an antacid medication with dinner to shut down the inevitable heartburn and acid reflux, especially at the end of a big training day that includes lots of fueling. And even though he's always had gas and bloating issues (sometimes to the extent that it really hampers his long runs and has constantly haunted him during half-Ironman and Ironman races), it seems to have gotten worse, now with occasional bouts of constipation or diarrhea. It just seems like something is not quite right with his gut.
But Chad still has a nice body.
Aside from his dry, wrinkled skin (despite slathering on lots of sunscreen every time he goes out for a long ride or run) Chad is pretty proud of the way he looks. He's fit. He's trim. He has a low body fat percentage. Most guys his age are fat and dumpy and sit on the couch a lot, but Chad actually feels like he looks pretty damn good. Sometimes he wishes he could do more with his body, like try playing basketball, or tennis, or golf, or skiing – but life gets way to busy, especially when he's trying to squeeze in Ironman training. Besides – by the time he finishes work, swimming, cycling and running, he is too fatigued, too worn out, too sleepy and doesn't have the time for extracurricular stuff like that.
Also, with so much on the line training for and racing Ironman, why even risk getting hurt with extra sports? This has been a concern for a long time for Chad, who often feels a little bit fragile, like if he steps the wrong way or starts into other sports that make him move too quickly he'll easily strain or sprain something – and it's just not worth missing his triathlon training with a sprained ankle or shoulder from group sports.
Chad sometimes resents that he never really got into any other hobbies, like extra sports, or cooking, or playing a musical instrument, or reading more books, but at the same time, he also takes pride in the triathlon medals, plaques and finisher photos that line the wall of his office. The other guys don't have those kind of bragging rights.
And speaking of resentment, Chad also gets a gnawing feeling sometimes that maybe he never spent enough time with his kids, who he doesn't seem to really have a close relationship with. While juggling the long hours of swimming, cycling and running while also creating a successful career, Chad spent much of his childrens' formative years either working or training, and wonders if he missed too much of their childhood. But relationships have never been Chad's specialty anyway – he has very few close friends, and not a lot of time for social events, parties, or reunions. Most of his socializing is done in between swim sets in the pool or on a bike saddle.
But despite his training buddies, Chad still sometimes feels lonely.
And despite his success, he still sometimes feels unfulfilled.
It will be a couple more years before Chad suffers his first “heart flutter” while out on a bike ride.
And it will be another year after that before Chad is forced to stop running because of the gnawing pain in his hip that explodes in full-blown arthritis.
For several months, Chad will try to bike, swim, aqua-jog, elliptical and lift weights through the pain, before he gets extremely frustrated and begins to develop depression, insomnia, a “skinny-fat” look and chronic fatigue that makes it hard to even get out of bed in the morning anymore.
-hampered fat metabolism and a pre-diabetic condition from excessive sugar, starch, carbohydrate and high-glycemic index carbohydrate intake…
-chronically elevated cortisol hormone levels, systemic inflammation and blood vessel and nerve damage from oxidative stress and free radical production…
-skin, joint and connective tissue breakdown from hormone depletion and high levels of inflammatory markers like HS-CRP, fibrinogen and interleukins…
-rock-bottom vitamin D, depleted omega-3 anti-inflammatory fatty acids and plummeting testosterone levels from a low-fat diet combined with energy depletion from overexercise…
-a leaky intestinal wall, fungus overgrowth in the gastrointestinal tract and severe neurotransmitter and sleep imbalances related to a broken gut…
-depletion of elements crucial to the heart's electrical activity, such magnesium and trace minerals, combined with excessive levels of oxidized cholesterol and plaque formation…
Kirsten is also a triathlete.
Like Chad, she's been a big fan of triathlon for as long as she can remember, and every year she does a handful of shorter races, and usually an Ironman too – completing her 14th Ironman this year at the age of 53.
Kirsten owns her own small business, a graphic design firm, and each week she juggles dozens of projects and hundreds of e-mails while managing her team of independent contractors and employees. She's been married for 30 years and she and her husband raised twin girls and one boy, who have all moved on to college.
Perhaps it is from her college days as a rower, but Kirsten's always been a fan of interval training. Her Ironman training routine consists of short dips into intense heart rate zones, followed by long periods of rest, recovery, and light physical activity at her standing desk, in her garden, walking the dog, or even commuting on her bike to the grocery store and library. She's a firm believer that her ancestors didn't ramp up their heart rates significantly for several stressful hours each day “running from a lion” and neither should she. Kirsten instead tries to mirror a hunter-gatherer approach to training – living at a very low level of exertion and light physical activity, relying primarily upon stored fats as a fuel, and then injecting occasional brief spurts of intense activity or heavy lifting.
For swimming, Kirsten has always found the Master's swim classes to be long and exhausting. She instead makes it a point to get into the water at least couple times a week for a quick “tune-up” bout of 20-30 minutes year-round, and in her final couple months leading into Ironman, she exposes her body a a few “big” swim workouts, such as a 30 one hundred meter efforts at race pace. But these kind of monster swim sessions are few and far between, and she focuses instead on simply maintaining swim efficiency, economy, and “feel for the water”. She also juggles her frequent swims by always combining her swim workouts with something else she may be doing at the gym, such as a strength training session or quick treadmill jaunt.
Kirsten gets most of her biking done when she's commuting around town, and for her once-per-week structured bike workouts, usually bikes indoors. She finds that cycling can involve dressing, prepping tires, getting gloves or toe warmers, filling water bottles, meeting with a group and other activities that suck up 15-20 minutes of her time before she's even on the road training. And once she's finally out there, traffic lights and stop signs significantly detract from the time efficiency of her workouts. So to maximize her cycling bang for the buck, she does hard intense 60-90 minute interval workouts during her triathlon race season, and does just two or three long outdoor days in the last 8 weeks leading up to her Ironman. In the winter, when most of her triathlon friends are spending long Saturday mornings indoors on a bike trainer, she instead simply heads outdoors to ski, snowshoe or just traipse around in the fresh air.
Just like Chad, Kirsten has never really enjoyed long runs, as they felt unnatural and always seemed to take a very long time to recover from. But unlike Chad, she gave up long ago on “forcing” the long, weekly death-march run, or the hour long lunch-time slogs. Instead, two times a week, she simply hops on the treadmill or heads out to the hill behind her house for brief, intense 20-30 minute bursts of interval training. During race season, Kirsten works up to 90 minutes of run intervals at her Ironman intensity, and only does just one long 18-20 mile run about a month before her big race. Even with this minimal amount of running, she still feels as though running beats her up more than anything else, so she tries to run only on soft surfaces like trails and treadmills, and also implements weekly post-run recovery techniques like foam rolling, ice baths, compression gear and other little tricks to help her bounce back as quickly as possible. And she never forces herself through a run session if she's sore or her legs are heavy. Instead, Kirsten listens to her body and if anything doesn't feel right, she just does an easy swim, a little bit of yoga, or some light walking.
Finally, at least a couple times a week, Kirsten works all her muscle groups with dynamic strength training sessions, in which she simply follows one rule: lift heavy stuff. She finds that avoiding light weights and machines, and instead challenging her body with barbells, dumbbells or even kettlebells not only helps her maintain lean muscle and a nice body shape, but also helps her avoid nagging shoulder, knee and hip pain, feel more powerful when she's riding a bike or running, and get a big thumbs up from her physician every time she's gone in for a preventive bone density scan. This type of weight bearing activity also helps to increase her natural growth hormone production and insulin sensitivity, keeping her body lean and metabolically efficient. Every Sunday, Kirsten takes a yoga class, which helps her maintain good mobility and low levels of stress, and then she incorporates movements from that class in a short daily morning routine into which she incorporates meditation, deep breathing techniques and stress control.
So even though Kirsten has spent many years in endurance sports, she doesn't devote her entire life to swimming, cycling and running – and actually only does structured triathlon training about 8-10 hours each week. Unlike many of her training friends, she's always simply focused on being on her feet and engaging in light levels of physical activity throughout the day, and not trying to “train away stress” after long, sedentary 8 hour days of sitting in an office chair.
Similar to her approach to physical activity, Kirsten has always made every attempt to eat as naturally as possible. She has a small garden in her backyard where she and her husband spend time during the spring and summer planting and growing nutrient-rich vegetables and fruits like kale, spinach, raspberries and watermelon, and detoxifying herbs like parsley and cilantro. She buys most of her foods from local farms and farmer's market, and even during her workouts, she has always tried to avoid processed fuels in favor of simply eating real food. To fuel her light levels of fat-burning physical activity during the day, Kirsten eats hormone-supporting, fatty-acid rich foods like eggs, fish, olives and avocados, and tends to stay far away from sugar and carbohydrates unless she's right in the middle of a workouts. Even then she tries to keep things as natural as possible by eating dried fruits, sweet potatoes, yams, white rice and natural sources of carbohydrates as an alternative to sports drinks and gels.
Once a year, Kirsten also tests her body for levels of crucial elements like magnesium, anti-oxidants, Vitamin D, and hormones, and rather than using large levels of cheap multivitamins or trendy supplements, she simply takes a few supplements that target specific nutrients that she is deficient in or tends to deplete more quickly due to her unnaturally high levels of physical activity. While she'll be the first to admit that Ironman training does require some extra help with this kind of nutrition supplementation, she's still very careful about what she puts into her body, and relies on real, recognizable food for the majority of her nutrients.
Compared to most of her endurance athlete friends, Kirsten is toned and curvaceous with glowing skin and a fantastic complexion. Because she's always controlled her sugar and carbohydrate intake, Kirsten's skin and hair hasn't been affected by the breakdown of sugars, called glycation, that damages the collagen which keeps connective tissue smooth and firm. Controlling her level of stress from excessive exercise has also helped keep her inflammation low, reducing spikes in cortisol and inflammatory damage that can also accelerate the aging process. It has probably also helped that Kirsten has always been careful about using harsh chemicals on her body or to clean her home, relying instead on natural beauty products and essential oils. And Kirsten's healthy habit of functional strength training a couple times a week while avoiding too much “chronic cardio” has helped her to maintain lean muscle mass, avoid a “skinny-fat” look as she ages, and support supple skin and natural curves.
Kirsten's sex life and libido is also good. Because she's always been careful to limit her exposure to excessive estrogens from the environment, diet and stress, she never really experienced unpleasant hot flashes, sexual disinterest, or discomfort. Her focus on healthy fats and adequate protein, combined with avoidance of hormone depleting activities like a sugary diet or excessive training, have kept her from needing hormone replacement therapy like many of her friends.
Kirsten has happily led an active social life, as she's well aware that connections and relationships are the a leading anti-aging tactic among every population on the face of the planet. So even though most of her triathlon training sessions are alone, focused and intense, she's always had the time left over to simply hang out with her friends, her children and her husband – and she has no regrets about neglecting important relationships or fun social opportunities. She's still been able to devote time volunteering for local charities, practicing piano to keep her mind young, and witness the birth of her first grandchild.
In just a few years, at the ripe age of 57, Kirsten will qualify for Ironman Hawaii for the third time, and head to the big island of Kona to race in the Ironman World Championships. That same year, she's able to put in 3 solid months of Saturday morning driving for her local Meals on Wheels delivery service, teach her two grandchildren how to play the piano, and even win an award as a local leading businesswoman.
She continues to pay attention to her body and her health, and goes above and beyond her simple yearly physical to ensure that her preventive practice of eating healthy, engaging in a broad range of physical activity, detoxing her diet and house, and living an active, stress-free life is continuing to pay off. And rather than her tests revealing low bone density, depleted hormones, gut issues, or impending arthritis, she continues to have healthy lab numbers – above and beyond even the healthiest of her peers.
Kirsten has a tough time imaging life without triathlon, and feels as though swimming, cycling, running and racing are a part of her life, and one of the ways that she defines herself. She'll even be the first to admit that she is probably addicted to the endorphins and the positive feeling she gets from exercising. But even though she loves endurance sports with a passion, Kirsten has never let herself get stuck in a training rut, or let her exercise and focus on fitness become so time-consuming or selfish that it detracts from her health, her hobbies, her career, her family and her friends.
Life is good.
As you can see, despite participating in the identical sport, Chad and Kirsten had two very different approaches to training, eating and living that resulted in a shocking contrast in their later years of life.
Chad beat up his body with excessive training in the “grey zone” – long tempo sessions consisting primarily of junk miles – while also implementing a standard endurance athlete diet, de-prioritizing sleep, recovery and relaxation, and ignoring holistic health concepts such as hormone balance and gut integrity. While there certainly is a correct way to train 20-30 hours per week (which you'll learn about in this book), Chad took the all-too-common approach of digging himself deeper and deeper into an overtraining hole from which he never was able to climb out.
In contrast, Kirsten went beyond training, implemented many of the concepts you'll find within this book, and found the optimal balance between her endurance, her health and her life. She tested and listened to her body, and engaged in smart exercise, nutrition and healthy living strategies that primed her body to maximally absorb every last drop of her training. And while this book will show how she certainly could have also found success by implementing a vegetarian or vegan diet or training longer hours in a smart way, her omnivorous eating combined with high intensity interval training and an ancestral approach to healthy living allowed Kirsten to find lasting success in both performance life.
So now it's your turn.
Do you have questions, comments or feedback about this tale of two triathletes, or how endurance exercise can make you age faster? Did I leave out crucial information you would have liked to see added, or was anything I talked about confusing or hard to understand?
Leave your valuable thoughts below!
Links To Previous Chapters of “Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health & Life”
Part 1 – Introduction
-Part 1 – Preface: Are Endurance Sports Unhealthy?