We swallow greedily any lie that flatters us, but we sip only little by little at a truth we find bitter.
Denis Diderot

It is so much more difficult to live with one’s body than with one’s soul. One’s body is so much more exacting: what it won’t have it won’t have, and nothing can make bitter into sweet.
D. H. Lawrence

I spent most of my youngest days growing up in Kansas. I remember little of my education there except the almost endless days of sitting at a tight wooden desk watching the window and what beckoned outside. I do remember one fall day that was dedicated to learning about our state and, while much seemed mundane and only marginally interesting, I was both fascinated and irritated by the state’s motto: Ad astra per aspera.

To the stars through difficulty. What a disappointment. As a motto it didn’t seem particularly inspiring, and why give difficulty such a prominent, assumed role in such an otherwise noble aspiration?

But then, of course, I grew up. Thinking back on that motto I have a new appreciation for not only its sentiments but for its unwavering truth. What I’ve wanted to achieve, whatever distant illumination I might have aspired to, resided across a chasm of difficulty.

I don’t want to belabor this personal disappointment. Many of you have understood it well before I and have had either the wisdom or stern discipline to do what I’ve too often rebelled at undertaking.

Which brings me oddly enough to exercise.

I’ve loved exercising, for sport and pleasure, but mostly for pleasure. I’ve loved long ambling runs on high mountain trails and bike rides that floated across endless plains.

But as I’ve aged those indulgences have come at a higher price. A two-hour run, when I can still attempt it, risks injury and necessitates days of recovery while long bike rides likewise demand a certain amount of preparation, to say nothing of long recovery naps.

The commitment and consistency and the volume of effort needed to sustain even a basic level of athleticism seems to be slipping farther away each day. I’m resigned to that fact, that difficulty.

Yet it seems that within this difficulty itself there is a partial and admittedly temporary solution. According to an increasing amount of research, most recently advanced by the esteemed Mayo Clinic, there is a way of still seeing the starlight. But as you may have suspected that view requires what many will be reluctant to provide.

I’m talking, as you probably guessed, about HIIT, which stands for high intensity interval training. Pronounced ‘hit’ this form of exercise strips activity of all its leisurely affections and lays bare what is required to slow down the processes of aging while dramatically improving physiology and athletic performance.

The rub? Well, it’s not much fun. In fact, it works in direct linear proportion to how willing you are to make it difficult, really difficult. Before you stop reading and hurry off in search of an easier prescription, let me just say there is some good news.

You can gradually increase the difficulty and I can attest with some hard won experience that your body, probably much like mine, is a crazy thing. After some acclimation, which is both wise and necessary, your body, if not your mind, may begin to actually crave this high-spirited if short-lived exuberance. Or, maybe it won’t.

But if you can cajole your body to try, and then tease it to stay with it, magic happens, or at least as close to legal athletic and age reversal magic as we can currently get.

Yesterday I talked with 36 year old Matthew Robinson PhD, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Oregon State University and a former Mayo Clinic researcher. As a Colorado State University undergrad he was a competitive mountain biker who became intrigued with what happens to muscles as they age. “I wanted to have a better understanding of how muscles change and what are some of the metabolic consequences of aging,” he told me.

Teaming up with noted Mayo endocrinologist K. Sreekumaran Nair M.D., PhD, he authored an acclaimed study that recently appeared in Cell Metabolism. You will no doubt be hearing a lot about their findings, which are already making waves in academic and athletic circles. (The New York Times finally woke up to this story after you read about it here first.)

While the gist of the study is fairly straightforward it’s their conclusions which require some parsing, particularly if you aren’t a bio-gerontologist or have a degree in biochemistry.

The researchers assembled 72 non-athletically trained adults and divided them into two age groups, a young group (18-30) and an older group (65-78) with a median age of 69. It’s this older group that we are, of course, most interested in.

Each group took part in one of three different exercise protocols for a 12-week period. One group did strength training with weights, another group did a combined strength-training and cycling regimen and the last group did high intensity cycling.

The high intensity cyclers only worked out for three days a week. After a warm-up they rode hard for four minutes and then had a three minute recovery. They did this four times for a total high-intensity workload of only 16 minutes per workout.

“I was most interested in how muscles renew themselves,” said Robinson. “One of the theories of muscle aging is that as muscles get older their proteins accumulate damage as part of normal cellular processes.” This damage he said is like rust on a car. The big question he wanted to answer is, can intense exercise figuratively remove some of this rust and improve the protein turnover process?

The short answer is yes. But what was most surprising is how much the older group improved and the significance of those improvements. “What was most striking was how robustly the older group responded to the exercise interventions,” said Robinson. Improvements were seen across the board with all three exercise protocols but the high intensity exercisers saw the greatest benefits by far. “We anticipated they would have gains but we thought it would be a blunted response,” he said. Instead the older exercisers had similar gains in a number of variables, mirroring those experienced by the younger people.

This study, as have others, demonstrated that muscles continue to adapt well to exercise. What this study demonstrated is that this improvement can be tied to ribosomal protein enhancement leading to strengthened mitochondrial function. I didn’t understand the significance of that until Robinson explained, “Mitochondia are important contributors to supplying muscular energy. They play an important role in aerobic performance.” Our mitochondria lose their robustness as we age and this loss of functioning contribute to a lack of strength and athletic performance.

In essence, what was discovered is that this kind of training provokes a strong anti-aging response. Consider that for a moment. There are currently no valid, clinically proven anti-aging compounds that you can safely take. None that I’m aware of. But by undertaking a high intensity exercise program you can literally turn back the clock on a number of core metabolic functions.

The older exercisers improved functioning in these areas by 69 percent. According to Robinson this put them, by the end of the study, at the same level as were the 18-30-year olds before they began exercising. “The exercise training was able to normalize mitochondrial function to a younger age. These exercises increased the body’s machinery for making new proteins. And this is very beneficial for aging,” he said. You should also note that the less vigorous exercisers demonstrated far fewer benefits.

Now here’s a scary bit of news. A control group, which did no exercise for 12 weeks was also monitored and the testing was done with such a high degree of clinical accuracy that they could measure how this group had aged during that time. So the saying, use it or lose it, was quite literally true.

The older groups also increased lean muscle mass by nearly a kilogram (2.2 pounds) over this short time period, which is also significant because as you know we start losing muscle mass in our 30s, a process called sarcopenia that accelerates as we age. The gain in muscle was “quite remarkable” according to Robinson.

According to Dr. Nair, combining HIIT training with two or three days of strength training may be an ideal way to slow down the effects of aging.

Coach and author Joe Friel, in his book Fast after 50: How to Race Strong for the Rest of Your Life, offers similar prescriptions and cites a number of older athletes who have maintained stellar levels of performance, to say nothing of V02max, by incorporating interval training.

What this study does is really two fold. It points to some of the most vital metabolic processes that govern aging and limit athletic performance. It furthers demonstrates how they are affected by intense exercise and it suggests that as athletes we can benefit by increasing our dosage.

The concern, for me and my older friends, is that such intensity may lead to injury. “It’s true that as intensity increases the risk of injury goes up,” says Robinson, “so you really need to consult with your physician before undertaking anything like this.” It’s telling, however, that none of the study participants, who all eased into the training, suffered any injuries. And while intensity is going up, volume, or the amount of total time spent exercising dramatically goes down. That’s where my friends, who not only enjoy being fit, but crave being out for an extended period of time, could get into trouble.

One last thing: The HIIT group saw significant improvements in insulin sensitivity, which could lower diabetes risk and help facilitate weight loss.

So I wonder, if they could create a pill that would do away with the difficulty, would you take it?

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Chris Carmichael, 56, out of the saddle and climbing strong. Photo by John Segesta.

Long before Chris Carmichael became Lance Armstrong’s coach and friend he was an accomplished professional cyclist and a successful and sought-after coach.

In 1984 Carmichael made the Olympic Team and in 1986 he was part of the first American team to ride in the Tour de France. And then in 1992 and again in 1996 he was the U.S. Olympic coach.

But it was his association with Lance Armstrong, perhaps the sports’ greatest talent that brought Carmichael to an even larger international stage. As Lance’s coach he played a significant, if at times disputed role in Lance’s success. And when Lance confessed that he had been taking performance enhancing drugs Lance’s reputation and career came to an abrupt if not tragic end.

Carmichael survived those dark times. As a cyclist he was used to bumpy roads and taking spills, sometimes at high speeds. And while there may have been some road burn, like the professional, like the champion he is, he was able to get up and ride strong again.

Today, Carmichael Training Systems is a world-leader in endurance athletic performance development. The company’s coaches are among the best anywhere and its coaching philosophy and methodology are cutting-edge.

If it weren’t, top performers like Greg Daniel, the 2016 U.S. Pro Road Race Champion and Mara Abbott, a 2016 U.S. Cycling Olympian as well as Katerina Nash, a three-time Olympian and World Cyclocross Bronze medalist would not be working with the company.

And let’s not forget client Kaci Lickteig, the 2016 Western States Endurance Run Champion, of one of the toughest and most prestigious ultra’s in the world. Kaci, by the way, was also the 2016 Ultrarunner of the Year.

Craig Alexander the two-time Ironman World Champion was a client. And the list goes on and on.

I first met Chris and interviewed him years ago for a local magazine and it was a privilege to interview him again. The timing was good too. He and co-author Jim Rutberg, an acclaimed coach and one of Carmichael Training Systems early employees, were on the eve of releasing the third edition of The Time Crunched Cyclist.

Well, I just got my copy today and I’ve already poured over the ultra-distance cycling event training programs. I thought I knew what I was doing, (I’m training to do the Triple Bypass) but it looks like I’ve still got a few things to learn.

I’m also signing up for Carmichael’s very generous offer of an essentially free month of world-class coaching. It costs a buck. If you want to give it a try, I mean, for a buck why not? Then here’s the link. The Coupon Code is: STRONGER1

In this interview Chris and I cover a variety of topics from what’s new in The Time Crunched Cyclist to special considerations for recovery by older athletes to some good and disappointing news for people who like to eat, on body weight and performance.

If nothing else, listen to Chris’ harrowing story of being attacked by ‘ponies with teeth’ i.e. two large dogs while out for a mountain bike ride. It’s right at the beginning of the podcast.

As always I really appreciate your listening and support. If you like what you hear please leave a review on iTunes. As a new podcast doing that is a huge, I mean HUGE help in getting the word out.

I’d also love to hear what you think about the site and podcasts. If you have any topics that you’d like covered, or any inspiring athletes, coaches, trainers or researchers you’d like interviewed please let me know, here or on Twitter.

Thanks in advance and remember to help each other age stronger.



Show Notes & Resources

Age Stronger special: one month of Carmichael Training Systems for just $1.00. Use coupon code STRONGER1 (btw in case you are wondering, I don’t receive anything for this recommendation. I’m just happy to do it.)

Being knocked off bike and attacked by ‘ponies with teeth’

Why come out with a new edition of The Time Crunched Cyclist and what’s been updated?

New nutritional information and recipes from cycling chefs Michael Chiarello and Matt Accarrino

New time crunched ultra-cycling distance training plans for events like Leadville 100 and the Breck Epic

Tips for doing an ultra event with just 6 to 8 hours of weekly training and how to deal with time limitations.

How does the Time Crunched Cyclist help athletes who are already doing lactate threshold training?

How can the nutrition plan take you to the next level?

The impact of weight loss, even just 10 pounds, on endurance fitness.

What more to do if you are already eating healthy?

How the ‘time crunched’ approach applies to older athletes

Arrhythmias in older athletes.

Knowing when to call it a day, a good day.

The importance of proper recovery.

Normatech Compression Boots and how they work.

What Chris puts in his homemade recovery drink.

Importance of skin care for older athletes.

Challenges of coming back from injury.

Unavoidable injuries and those we inflict on ourselves.

Exercising while sick.

Robert Marchand, setting a new world record at age 105.

Wait… we’re all going to die?

Choosing to be an athlete as you age.

Professional cyclists pushing the age barrier.

Joop Zoetemelk, winner of the 1985 UCI Road World Championship at age 40.

We’re all athletes, some of us are in training, some of us aren’t.

Thoughts on future performance gains by aging athletes.

Chris’ new bike, the Pinarello F10

What does a time crunched cyclist read? Some of Chris’ current reads: Jim Harrison, Rick Bass, Cormick McCarthy, For inspiration: Bill Walton’s Back from the Dead

Changing his mind about the New England Patriots.

The Lance Armstrong question.

Why drug enforcement won’t truly solve the problem.

To learn more about Chris and his company Carmichael Training Systems

The Mavic Haute Route Rockies

 

Robert Marchand, 105 sets new world record bicycling 14 miles

Robert Marchand, 105, sets new world bicycling record.

The French not only know how to live. Some of them are world-class at aging, both gracefully and vigorously.

On January 5, 2017 Robert Marchand, at the amazing age of 105 set a new world record and demonstrated something even more amazing. As if that were possible. He proved that you can actually improve exercise performance as you age.

This is startling because we’ve all been told, and have indeed experienced, how age slows us down, robs us of muscle, stamina and speed. But it appears that under certain circumstances, and with the right kind of training, the effects of age can be forestalled and even overturned, at least temporarily.

Marchand, after setting the one-hour record when he was 101 underwent a series of tests by Veronique Billat and her exercise science colleagues at the University of Evry-Val d’Essonne in France. Their tests created a benchmark against which they could measure subsequent performances. The results of these fascinating tests and subsequent follow-up were published as Case Studies in Physiology: Maximal Oxygen Consumption and Performance in a Centenarian Cyclist in The Journal of Applied Physiology. Clicking will link you to the abstract. If you are a fitness nerd (like me) you can access the full report via Google Scholar.

So Marchand sets a world record at 101 and then at the age of 103, just two years later, he set another world hour record, averaging 17 miles per hour, a performance improvement of 11 percent.

For those two years he trained 5,000 km per year (about 3,100 miles). About 80 percent of his riding was done at what was referred to as a “light” effort, a 12 on a scale of 1-20 with 20 representing an all-out effort. The rest of the time he trained at a considerably more vigorous pace, a 15 on the same perceived exertion scale. His cadence was measured at a rate of 50 to 70 revolutions per minute.

Over this period his body mass did not change, i.e. he did not gain weight or add muscle yet his VO2max increased by 13 percent. This is a fitness measure commonly thought to steadily decline after the age of 50. Peak power output also increased from 90 to 125 watts, an increase of around 39 percent. This was attributed not so much to his ability to pedal harder but to an increase in maximal pedaling frequency, which he boosted to a range of 69 to 90.

His maximal heart rate of 137 also did not change, which by most theories on aging should have declined. It remained steady while maximal ventilation increased from 57 to 70 liters per minute, an increase of 23 percent. Respiratory frequency increased 8 percent. So it appears the increased amount of intense exercise allowed him to consistently take in more oxygen and at a higher rate.

The scientists were as amazed as anyone to see that it was possible for someone so old to increase performance and VO2max simply by changing training protocol to include higher intensity work.

And for his record on January 5, at the age of 105 he managed to pedal at a pace of 14 miles per hour. I’ve been riding for years and there are many days when I would have been happy to have averaged 14 miles an hour.

After his world record he said he was disappointed with his time and feels that with a little more training he could do better. Spoken with the spirit of a true athlete.

Looking at the photos of him on the track I think one thing that could help is to have a major cycling brand sponsor his effort and get him an actual time trial bike along with some more aerodynamic gear like helmet, etc.

Maybe Marchand is truly a once in a generation phenomenon. But maybe not. There are a number of older, very talented athletes pushing age and performance barriers every year. Marchand may be just the beginning of a new era of human endurance and performance.