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Fast After 50: a review

About a year ago Glyn G4CFS conducted an informal poll of the age of the average SOTA operator (or at least the ones who visit this reflector). The results indicated that a large majority (74%) were over 51. Without getting into a detailed breakdown of how representative these numbers might be of the SOTA community at large I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to assume that this is pretty accurate, at least qualitatively.

It’s also not much of a stretch to understand the health benefits that come from walking around in the hills/mountains/parks, with or without a radio, but history has shown that those who maintain a regular exercise routine will be able to go faster, higher, and longer well into their twilight years. So, with that in mind, I’d like to present the following review of Joe Friel’s book Fast After 50: How to Race Strong for the Rest of Your Life.

Joe Friel first came to prominence in the athletic community when he wrote the first edition of the Triathlete’s Training Bible, which quickly became a best selling book with four subsequent revisions. It is still considered the authoritative text on things like periodization and aerobic performance. Since then Joe (who holds a masters in sports medicine) has published more than a dozen titles on training for different disciplines, but when he crossed the threshold of 70 he began to study the effects of aging on sport performance in earnest. This produced Fast After 50, which was aimed primarily at older athletes but contains enough information to be useful to nearly anyone. The following are some of his observations and recommendations.

There are three major factors in athletic success, be it climbing a mountain or running a marathon, and they are 1) aerobic capacity, 2) lactate threshold and 3) economy. As people age their economy tends to remain fairly stable, but aerobic capacity (measured as VO2 max, or the maximum amount of oxygen that a person can utilize during physical exercise) drops the most. Lactate threshold (the maximum intensity that a person can maintain for an extended period of time) also declines, but less slowly than aerobic capacity. In addition, older athletes are more susceptible to a loss of muscle mass and an increase in body fat percentage. Both these factors that will have a negative impact on health and performance.

At least part of the reason for this performance loss is a reduction of high intensity training and activity. As much as climbing mountains is a profoundly aerobic pursuit, it will only go so far towards preserving performance for older participants. To remedy this deficiency the gradual introduction (or re-introduction) of short bursts of high intensity work in a controlled and well planned manner is needed. The additional stress has been shown to boost VO2 max, as well as increase lactate threshold. Even as a younger athlete I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of this kind of training and the increase in performance that it brings (you can read about some of it here).

However, due to the increase in stress it’s important to emphasize that it should be included only as part of a broader training routine. Things like strength training, basic aerobic conditioning and adequate recovery are also important components of a well rounded plan.

A high intensity workout for a relative beginner might look something like this:

Benson, a 60 year old CW enthusiast and recently retired software developer, arrives at his local community center for a workout after resting the day before and a low intensity/high volume workout the day before that. This puts him several days away from his last weight training session, and he is feeling quite energetic and limber. Benson warms up by walking on the treadmill for a few minutes, then does some dynamic stretching and light calisthenics to make sure that his heart rate is up and his muscles have enough fluid in them to be flexible and elastic. He feels a bit sweaty, but not exhausted. Next, Benson hops on a stationary bike for the main part of the workout: high intensity intervals. He starts on a light resistance for a couple of minutes then gradually increases it to a moderate resistance. At this point he is ready to begin the workout. For the next 12 minutes Benson will increase the RPM/resistance of his stationary bike so that he feels like he’s giving a 9 out of 10 effort, but this will only last for 15 seconds out of every minute. The other 45 seconds will be an active recovery, where Benson will reduce the RPM and/or the resistance so that he is giving no more than a 6 out of 10 effort but he won’t stop completely. This will be repeated 12 times, or until Benson can’t safely perform at high intensity anymore. Once he’s finished he’ll cool down for 5 minutes before getting off the bike and finishing with some static stretching to complete the workout.

Why would a hill walker/mountaineer ever bother with a stationary bike, you might ask? The answer is because the purpose of the training is to benefit your circulatory and respiratory systems, the stationary bike is just a low impact and low risk method of stimulating those systems.

If this all seems a bit daunting or you’ve never had a structured training plan before, don’t worry, Joe gets into more detail in the book. There are sections on nutrition, recovery, cross-training, and strength training. Joe also includes sections on the most efficient ways to reduce body fat and retain muscle density while avoiding over training and injuries.

So if you’re hoping to keep up your SOTA adventures well past retirement, or want to increase your performance and prevent injuries at any age, then it’s worth taking a look at Fast After 50.