What over-50 athletes can teach us about fitness

Baby boomers are redefining what it means to act one's age. They're pushing the boundaries of convention, and for the most part that's a good thing.

But the crew born between 1946 and 1964 is also giving the rest of us some clues about what's possible, and what's not such a good idea, as we train hard into old age.

More people aged between 51 and 70 than any previous generation are engaged in regular physical exercise, and particularly in endurance events like marathon and ultra-marathon running. In the US, about 20 per cent of all ultra-distance race finishers last year were 50 and over.

Try telling these folks to slow down and they'll challenge you to a race to the finish line, be it of a running race, a triathlon, a long-distance swim event or a cycling tour. Such events are crammed with people simply not prepared to fall for the ageist propaganda about growing old gracefully and walking sedately along a beach, chinos rolled up, hand in hand with their partner.

Indeed, in in a recent , University of Minnesota Medical School medical professor and marathon medical director William Roberts described ageing as a "use-it-or-lose-it proposition". "Continued exercise throughout a lifetime will reduce the rate of loss of strength and endurance, likely improve quality of life and help maintain balance, which reduces falls."

Road warriors who are taking on these big endurance challenges later in life should see a cardiologist.

Anthony Freeman

Train smarter, not harder

But staying fit into your fifth and sixth decades and beyond needs to be managed smartly. Put simply, your head and your heart can be at odds – and you might not be aware of it. It's one thing to think you can do anything, but the physiological reality might be different. Especially when it comes to gruelling endurance events.

Sydney cardiologist Anthony Freeman is a former triathlete who swims and cycles, the latter including this year's 750km Tour of New Zealand.

He understands the drive to go hard, but he's also more frequently being stopped on his morning rides to check on other cyclists who are "feeling crook".

"I strongly believe that road warriors who are taking on these big endurance challenges later in life should see a cardiologist – or at the very least have a good physical examination, ECG and stress test in a controlled environment – because there are some warning signs that may come out in your history," he says.

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"We are only just starting to realise that the so called athlete's heart which is an adaptive event to endurance training, can in some people can cause very nasty problems."

The heart of the matter

Plus, Freeman says, the risk of heart arrhythmias such as atrial flutter and atrial fibrillation occurring increases as we age, and especially in the presence of risk factors including hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes,a history of smoking, and heavy drinking.

Markers of underlying heart conditions can be as innocuous as suddenly not being able to keep up when riding, or feeling unusually breathless and tired. "It doesn't have to be something overt like a pain in the chest," says Freeman.

"We screen for things like breast and colon cancer, but cardiovascular disease is the commonest cause of death in Australia.

"It's in the last kilometre of an event that athletes tend to drop dead. Perhaps the extra adrenaline means they're pushing that extra bit harder, and if something is going to be triggered, it'll happen at the end of the race.

"The other issue I feel fairly strongly about is guys who go out to dinner and drink one-and-a-half bottles of red wine then get up at 5am and go hard [at training] from the moment they start. That's not a good idea because alcohol is a bit of a toxin on the heart and it is possible, especially with a binge amount of alcohol, to trigger a cardiac event."

Monitor your training

Freeman says a slow heart rate can be a warning sign rather than something to boast about. "It could be a marker of someone who already has significant electrical disease of the heart that might require a pacemaker later on and may be aggravated by endurance training."

He says there are different ways to manage a heart condition diagnosis. These can include doing high intensity training instead of spending hours on the road, giving yourself plenty of deconditioning time, and wearing a heart-rate monitor.

"The reality is that when doing endurance training as you get older you have to adjust a bit. You have more risks of not only musculoskeletal injury but if there is propensity for cardiac issues to arise.

"While this growth in everyone getting fit and feeling great and defying their age is well and good, there still has to be a sensible approach to the fact of the physical reality. You're not 21 any more."

Do you have any training tips for exercising long in life? Let us know in the comments below.

Pip Coates is a running tragic who knows the euphoria of training for and completing a major race, but also the heartbreak of injury and every bend in the long road back. In between runs she is also the deputy editor of the Australian Financial Review Magazine.

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