Masters runner Pete Magill outsprints a competitor a third his age at a 2013 cross-country invitational in Fullerton, California. All photos by Diana Hernandez.
“The answer in fitness is never to acquiesce to outdated ideas about aging. The answer is to explore the limits of your fitness capacity at any age,” says California-based Pete Magill, co-author of the recently released “Build Your Running Body” and fastest-ever American distance runner over age 50 in the 5K and 10K. “The answer is to stop comparing what you can do now to what you did in the past or might do in the future. The answer is to immerse yourself—body, mind, and spirit—into the fitness goals you can accomplish now. Right now.”
Magill describes the human body as an incredibly complex biological machine, with thousands of working parts. A good fitness program, at any age, has to target them all. “That means a multi-dimensional approach to training that includes everything from endurance training to resistance training to plyometrics, drills, hills, balance work, injury prevention exercises, and more,” he says. “The secret, if there was one, is that we have to do it all.”
We caught up with Magill to see just how he suggests aging athletes do it all—and still live a normal life. What advice do you have for active folks planning a long-term strategy to stay in shape? The absolute, No. 1 piece of advice I’d give to anyone looking to maintain lifelong—or at least long-term—fitness is to make sure your program is fun and sustainable. If it’s not fun, you’ll eventually quit. If you aren’t looking forward to your workouts at least most of the time, because no one looks forward to every single workout every single time, then you’ll eventually come to resent them. And you’ll quit. And it has to be sustainable. If your training schedule puts you in conflict with your other commitments, with your family or your career or your social and community obligations, your training schedule will lose. Training should be a part of your lifestyle, not an addendum to it, not something that dislodges other plans or has to be put on hold because you ran out of day. Your fitness program should slide neatly into each day’s itinerary right alongside breakfast, the trips to and from work, and brushing your teeth before bedtime. It should be a habit, not a hardship.
Women continue to run competitively at all ages in the masters category at the 2013 National Club Championships. What was the most surprising thing you uncovered while researching the book? I’d pick learning that lactic acid doesn’t exist in our muscles—ever. Lactic acid has been the boogeyman. But it turns out that our muscles don’t produce it. Instead, we produce lactate, which is an energy source, and hydrogen ions, which can cause acidosis [excessive acid] in our muscles—something we used to blame on lactic acid—but which plays only a very small role in fatigue. Fatigue, that was another surprise—discovering that we really have no idea what causes it. The prevailing theory on fatigue, the Theory of the Central Governor, is that fatigue is nothing more than an emotion generated by our brains to protect us from training too hard. So remember that the next time your eyes are bleeding and your lungs are burning and your gut is clenching near the end of a hard race—you’re just having an emotional catharsis.
The “lunge clock” and wobble ball are two excellent exercises for staying strong and keeping delicate foot and ankle muscles balanced. What are a couple at-home exercises that can translate to all active people? The lunge clock is probably the best all-around single exercise for strength training. In the lunge clock, you lunge forward, then forward and to the side, then to the side, than backward and to the side, and etcetera until you’ve lunged in every direction possible—around the clock, so to speak. I’d also suggest wobble board training. No single tool is better at preventing lower leg injuries—from ankle sprains to Achilles tendinosis to shin splints—than the wobble board. Wobble forward and backward, side-to-side, around the clock. You’ll wobble your way to the healthiest pair of legs possible.
As we age, how does nutrition start to play a larger part in keeping us fit? If you’re a masters age athlete—age 40 and over—and you’re leaning on a multi-vitamin for your nutrition, you’re in trouble. Basically, we older athletes need “real food”—food that still resembles the form in which it existed when it was pulled from the ground or a tree or a vine or wherever. Processed foods strip real food of its nutrients, nutrients that are then, in a marketing move that baffles the mind, labeled “supplements” and sold back to us at exorbitant prices. Nutrition also includes ignoring fad diet ideas like low-carb, low-fat, or anything else that ignores the evolutionary role of all three food energy substrates. For example, runners need carbs. They supply from 50 percent to 100 percent of the energy we burn when training, depending upon our intensity. And we need healthy fats. Studies have shown that women on low-fat diets get injured 250 percent more than those getting at least 35 percent of their calories from fat. And, of course, we need protein, because that’s the building block of our cells.
If you had to pick three forms of fuel for the rest of your running career, what would they be? I’d have to broaden my answer a little to include types of food, rather than just three specific foods. When it comes to healthy fueling, variety is pretty important. So I’d start with pasta, obviously, for the carbs. And then add fruit, because it’s also carb-heavy and chock full of vitamins, enzymes, phytonutrients, and antioxidants. And then include a healthy fat—nuts or avocados—or better yet, a nice fillet of salmon, which gives you both proteins and healthy fats. Proving age may not limit athletes as much as they think, a fit middle-aged runner graces the pages of Magill’s informative “Building Your Running Body” book.
What are a few of your favorite pieces of apparel or accessories that give you an edge as you age? I often tell my athletes that no one in their right mind would run repetitions and long hill repeats if your brand of shoes or an energy drink could provide the same fitness boost. The only way to get an edge as we age is to train correctly. That said, a nice pair of compression sleeves can do wonders to relieve swollen calves after a long day sitting at a desk.
What are a few of your favorite tips from elite athletes featured in the book? My absolute favorite quote of the book comes from biology Ph.D. and [running club] Club Northwest coach Tom Cotner, who says, “If you don’t take planned breaks, you find yourself taking unplanned breaks.” The truth is that too many athletes in all sports have the hard training part down pat but completely fail on the recovery part of training. The fact is that we don’t get better when we’re training. We get better when we’re recovering. That’s when our bodies repair all the damage done during training and lay down the improvements that will allow us to train and compete harder in the future. Shortchange recovery, and your body can’t make those repairs. Eventually, you break down without ever having achieved your top potential fitness.