Dear Running Doc:
Last spring I hit my mid-40s, and one of the things I’ve decided to finally do for myself is start a regular workout program. But after a long layoff at my age, I’m wondering what I need to do — after getting medical clearance from my doctor.
Robert A., Syosset, N.Y.
Thanks for this very important question, Robert. Today, more and more patients in their 40s, 50s, and beyond are walking through the doors of my sports medicine practice, looking for advice on how to start a program that they know will help their blood pressure, cholesterol, heart and libido.
Like you, they know a doctor’s OK is always the first step. But after that? What can they do to get the fastest results without taking chances? Here are the suggestions I always give them:
– Keep your “growth” to 10 percent. A study reported in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that older runners get injured less often, even though they take longer to heal. Smart training is one reason. So any time you want to boost your mileage or intensity, do it by no more than 10 percent per week.
– Add massage therapy to your workout program. Massage, if done by a certified sports massage therapist, does improve circulation to the muscles as well as preventing adhesions in tendons and ligaments that can shrink your range of motion.
– Start weight training. We used to think only impact exercises built up our bones. Now we know weight training does, too. A runner who also works with weights will avoid having stronger bones below, weaker ones above. Weight training also helps strengthen the muscles that support you in your sport.
– Have a maximal exercise stress test. No, not just to find out your VO2max, an obsession of so many athletes. This is to be sure you have no underlying heart disease. It’s a good idea for anyone over 40.
– Experiment with different exercise loads. When older athletes don’t feel as good after exercising as they used to, they usually blame age and try harder. Re¬search for my book on the exercise high showed that everyone has an optimal weekly exercise volume that produces the best glow. It’s at the top of a mood/exercise curve that can actually be plotted, and many athletes have simply fallen off the curve, exercising too much or too little. Make adjustments.
– Don’t mistake arthritis for an injury, or vice-versa. We now know that exercise does not trigger arthritis and that it can reduce symptoms. But it’s never safe to assume a painful joint is either arthritis that will subside, or an injury that will go away. One condition called osteochondritis dessicans, for example, is the result of a series of what seem like nuisance ankle sprains. It’s really a complication of the sprains, an atrophying of the bone and cartilage, and leaving it untreated can lead to an excruciating type of arthritis. Always see someone for unexplained joint pain.
– Train in more than one sport. It generally takes about 48 hours for someone over 35 to recover from a hard day. But that’s in one sport. Don’t run hard Monday and again on Tuesday, but you could beat yourself up on the track the first day, and swim hard on the second.
And finally, congratulations. As you’ve found, the future belongs to the fit.
Enjoy the ride!
* * *
Lewis G. Maharam, MD, FACSM is one of the world’s most extensively credentialed and well-known sports health experts. Better known as Running Doc™, Maharam is author of Running Doc’s Guide to Healthy Running and past medical director of the NYC Marathon and Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon series. He is also past president of the New York Chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine. Learn more at runningdoc.com.