Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

Old Olympic athletes defy expectations – so can you!

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Meb Keflighi                                      Kristin Armstrong

OK, I admit that my obsession with Olympians continues, even after the Olympics are over for this year. I’d like to feature the oldest and most accomplished Olympians, because even though I have the utmost respect for the skill and confidence that the youngest Olympian, 13 year old  Nepalese swimmer Gaurika Singh possesses, her body is still on the upward trajectory toward her peak performance. On the other hand, the myriad 2016 Olympians who are past 35, reaching all the way to 61, are much more impressive, for, well, being so old and still so competitive at this level. Some remarkable Olympians on this roster are US track and field athlete Meb Keflezighi at 41; Kristin Armstrong, just shy of 43, Great Britain’s Jo Pavey, a track and field athlete, who is 42, and Oksana Chusovitina, the gymnast from Uzbekistan at 41.

At 61, the equestrian Mary Hanna from Australia is the oldest 2016 Olympian.  It’s notable that the average age of Olympian competitors has risen from 25 years in 1988 to 27 years old in 2016.

We all know and most of have personally experienced the changes that come with age; the stiffness, creakiness, slower reflexes, intermittent and inexplicable aches and pains, that have become just part of everyday existence. Imagine going out there on the world stage, and competing with the best athletes in the world with the older body?  Some older athletes like the age-defying Chusovitina, the 41-year-old gymnast has competed in every Olympics since 1992, when she won a gold medal.  She remains an anomaly as the oldest gymnast who has ever qualified and competed with people wh0 are less than half her age. She claims that she has no pain, and really doesn’t know how she stays fit, despite having a 16 year old son. Others, like cyclist Kristin Armstrong became the Olympic gold medalist for the third time in the driving rain a day before her 43rd birthday.  Armstrong has a full time other job and still manages to not only compete, but beat others in her field in one of the most demanding cardio sports.   Meb  Keflezighi , the marathon runner is another example of an “aged” athlete who competes in another of the most demanding sports, marathon running. Even Kerry Walsh-Jennings, the volleyball gold medalist who won bronze this year at the advanced age of 38 is an icon and a wonder.

How do these older athletes do it? And more importantly, what can we learn from them?For Meb Keflighi, it’s not going the extra mile.”As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to go one mile less,” Keflezighi explained. “[What’s important is] staying healthy and being consistent.”A friend of Meb’s said that after “he finishes his workout, he immediately gets a protein shake, and then go sit in an ice bath or the creek,”. Then he’d get massaged and stretched and do core workouts. Then he’d take a nap and do it again.”  The Eritrean native, who emigrated to the U.S. as a boy, figures luck has played a role, helping him avoid serious injury as he looks forward to his 24th career marathon in Rio.  Not an obvious medal favorite, Keflezighi remains a threat if only because of his experience. His successes have ranged from a silver medal at the 2004 Athens Games to a fourth-place finish at the 2012 London Games and a victory at the 2014 Boston Marathon.


Bernard Lagat, another 41 year old marathon runner agrees with Meb that allowing ample time and purposeful recovery techniques are essential for staying healthy. Kristin Armstrong, the irrepressible 42 year old cyclist, was trailing a much younger cyclist when she just decided that she could and would win.  She went all out for the last stretch, to win the gold medal against others who were blown away by her strength and stamina. She believes that the major advantage older athletes have is what’s “between their ears”, namely,  their belief system about their abilities.

There are well researched physiological factors that decline with age.  Small studies in mostly sedentary people have found that skeletal muscle starts to decrease by about 1 percent a year after age 40, and about 2 percent per year after 50. Nerves fire a tiny bit more slowly. And the heart, which is a muscle, loses some power with age. The amount of work that we can do in any given minute — which is a factor of how much blood the heart can kick out and how fast it can kick it out — does reduce with age as well.

The good news is that it can be counteracted with training and exercise. There are a few crucial advantages that come with age, a major one being the wisdom that comes from experience. For starters, older athletes have had plenty of time to get to know their bodies and their limits.”An older athlete may learn how to train smarter, which helps them to avoid injury,” says Chodzko-Zajko, an exercise scientist at University of Illinois.  “They may show more wisdom in strategy and tactics, and those can actually help them with respect to performance.”

Also, injuries are diagnosed sooner and treated more effectively. “I just think we’ve come a long way with knowledge,” the undefeated until this year, volleyball star Kerry Walsh- Jennings said. “People are training smarter and eating better.”

The final piece of the puzzle might be psychological. Karen Cogan, a USOC psychologist, uses the history of the mile race as an example. For decades, people thought the “four-minute barrier” would never be broken, but after Roger Bannister did it in 1954, the record was lowered numerous times in ensuing years. Now, every athlete who competes into his or her 40s is changing the mind-set in sports. “It comes down to expectations,” Cogan said. “If someone does it, it becomes possible.

Another tangible factor is that with corporate sponsors, part-time job programs and Olympic training centers such as the one in Chula Vista helping with expenses, athletes can continue training while leading reasonably comfortable lives. Now potential Olympians can train as their full time job, with support, both financial and psychological.  Check out to learn more.

The training involved in becoming an Olympian ranges from the usual strength training to intensely focused, sport specific practice. Shooting is an excellent example of a sport where experience and composure trump youth much of the time. Witness the medalists in this category- the highest percentage (36%) of Olympic shooting athletes were in the 31-40 year age range.

Most Olympians train for several hours a day, show extreme discipline and consistency in their routines, and have a passion for their sport. The older Olympians emphasize quality over quantity, the mental part of game, muscle memory through practice,  prior Olympic experience and an exhibit an excellent sense of perspective.

The take-away?

  • You can overcome age-related losses of strength and speed, to an extent with training
  • practice will induce muscle memory to take over when cognition may not
  • better nutrition of whole foods, including proteins, healthy carbs and fats are an essential part of staying healthy and strong
  • consistency, without overtraining is key
  • recovery is essential to avoid injury and allow muscles to regenerate
  • Pain must be heeded, to avoid injury and get early and appropriate treatment
  • Finding your passion of an activity will keep you coming back and enjoying it into your older years
  • Knowing your limits and respecting them will keep you exercising LONGER, into your older years, as opposed to exercising as HARD as you can- exercise smarter, not harder.

That being said, a major limiting factor to our  health and fitness may be our own beliefs about what’s possible. Ask Kristin Armstrong, one of my role models,  why she continues to compete.  She’ll reply, “Because I can”.  So can you!

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