Sunday, October 26, 2014

Crossfit at Any Age - Lindsay Berra

Lindsay Berra (2014)

The sport of fitness may seem like the playground for the young, but as anyone who's walked into a box knows, athletes of all ages are throwing down on the daily. Still, the body changes as it ages, and the smart athlete is the one who pays attention, learns, and adapts . . .

Don't you dare complain. Don't you dare quit. Don't you dare back off for even a second. That's what every athlete slogging through a brutal chipper workout at CrossFit Hell's Kitchen on a 92-degree, thick-as-pea-soup July day in New York City is telling themselves. The workout is dubbed the 'Jacinto Storm' in honor of Hell's Kitchen's oldest member, Jacinto Bonilla, who happens to be turning 75 on this very day. The WOD: 75 double-unders, 75 air squats, 75 pushups, 75 pullups, 75 wall balls, 75 kettlebell swings, 75 deadlifts, 75 double-unders. If you're fast, you can do it sub-30. For most, it's more in the 40- to 50-minute range. But no one wants to slack off because a rule is a rule. The white-bearded Bonilla is grinding away along with everyone else, and if the relentless septuagenarian beats you, a 75-burpee penalty will be assessed.

Jacinto Bonilla

 Bonilla, no doubt, is inspiring. He began CrossFitting in 2008, despite rotator cuff tears in his shoulders and a herniated disk in his lower back that he's had since "sometime in the late '70s." Now, the oldest-ever CrossFit Games competitor has a 400 pound deadlift and an engine - and bodyfat percentage - that puts a lot of teenagers to shame.

He's motivated by the same things that motivate nearly every CrossFitter: He wants to continue to get stronger and faster, and he wants to be healthy. "People my age, they have canes," he says. "I see my friends getting older and I see their big guts and say to myself, 'I am never going to be like that.'"

Now, not everyone can be Jacinto Bonilla, and as amazing as he is, even Bonilla isn't the same athlete - or the same human - he was 30, 40 or 50 years ago. Like the rest of us, Bonilla remembers a time when he could eat whatever he wanted, sleep little, work out twice a day and never be worse for the wear. But as he's aged, he's had to battle the degeneration of his tissues, an increase in dehydration, and a decrease in mobility, metabolism and hormone levels. Sure, Bonilla still cheats with some rice and beans every now and then, but he's managed it all like a champ. With a little knowledge, so can you.

 -- "Mobility issues in the older athlete are one of the reasons muscle-ups are not part of the 55-and-older WODs in the CrossFit Games. It's smart to adjust movements and WODs based on mobility issues that stem from injury or age-related problems. The bottom line is to assess mobility. Document previous mobility-related problems and educate the athletes on how to make the necessary modifications.
Bob Lefavi, 55, Rincon Athletic Crossfit in Georgia.


"At no point in your life is it OK to lose range of motion," says Kelly Starrett, CrossFit's mobility guru and author of Becoming a Supple Leopard: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance. "There are normal ranges that everyone, no matter their age, should maintain." 

 But certainly, as we get older, that becomes more and more difficult. Nearly every athlete in their 40's suffers from injuries like a rotator cuff tear, a herniated disk or some degree of spinal stenosis. Or all three.

With age also comes the onset of global hypomobility; the normal movement of joints will decrease and tissues will become stiffer. The cumulative effect of everyday life - like sitting in a chair from 9 to 5 - makes it even worse.

Every CrossFitter loves their foam roller and lacrosse ball, but the aging athlete must have a much greater focus on tissue quality and must devote much more than the obligatory five-minute post WOD to maintain it.

If you're sticking to a CrossFit training model, which is mechanical and consistent, you can avoid getting into slumps of immobility. But if you move improperly, your bones will adapt. Load them too little and they'll become weaker; load them too much and they'll become thicker. Tissues also become too tight or too loose based on poor movement patterns. And once you lose mobility, fascia can take upward of seven months to remodel, while bony changes can take 18 months. Still, there's always a way back. "Our muscles are like obedient dogs," Starrett says. "There is no point at which you can't reclaim normal function."

It doesn't matter whether you can't do a pistol, but barring any major structural limitations, you should be able to get into the bottom position to maintain the mobility of the ankle joint. And you should do it often. Kettlebell swings would go overhead. Sure, everyone can do a Russian swing, but in rel life if the pasta bowl is on the top shelf or that light bulb needs to be changed, you need to be able to extend your arm straight overhead. "Training consistently to full range of motion is important," Starrett says. "These are normal, physiological ranges everyone should have throughout life."

 -- "I don't believe that getting older means I should slow down or even stop working out. It does mean that I've just become a little smarter about it. I work out on a 3-on, 1-off schedule, and I've noticed since about the age of 35 how important scheduling rest into my week is. I always feel rejuvenated and excited about my training. Those rest days have kept me injury-free since I started Crossfit."
Wendy Reo, 40, CrossFit Nutley in New Jersey.        


As a CrossFitter, you think you're doing everything right by eating Paleo, right? Well, maybe not, at least when it comes to hydration. If your postworkout meal is a sweet potato mash with some grilled chicken, chances are you're missing out on the sodium your body needs to help it absorb water. Sodium is the most important of electrolytes, and it helps to regulate the amount of water that's in and around your cells. Without enough electrolytes, the water we drink just runs right through us; that's why so many people who hit their goal of drinking 2 liters a day of water are running to the bathroom every five minutes.

Hyponatremia occurs when the level of sodium in the blood is abnormally low, which will prevent the proper absorption of fluid. CrossFitters get away with mild cases because met-cons rarely run longer than 20 minutes.

List of CrossFit Acronyms and Abbreviations:

"The real issue, though, is that poor hydration creates brittle tissues that are more susceptible to injury," Starrett says. Even young athletes with dehydration issues will see more cartilage damage, tissue friability (the condition of being easily crumbled or pulverized), tendinopathy and greater stiffness problems, but because the body naturally dehydrates over time, older athletes must pay even more attention to their fluid/electrolyte balance. Dehydration also causes a decrease in the production of synovial fluid, which lubricates the joints, and a decrease in the fluid level in our spinal disks, which can lead to spinal and nerve problems that can affect muscle activation in the entire body.

To aid in hydration, Starrett recommends adding a pinch of sea salt or a low-sugar electrolyte supplement such as a Nuun tablet to your water bottle. Or simply get some salt in your food and drink some water when you eat.

 - - "Eat like when I was 20? No way! I don't work out like when I was 20, either. So I take more rest and have to pay close attention to what I eat. Now that I'm 40, it's the quality and not the quantity of food I eat that has proven to be the dominant factor in how fit I am and how I look at any given time. For me, excluding sugars, alcohol and complex carbohydrates and increasing healthy fats and lean proteins works best to increase performance and aesthetics." 
 -- Greg Arsenuk, Guerilla Fitness Crossfit Montclair in New Jersey.


It's infuriating to older folks. The young CrossFitter comes into the box on a Saturday morning, bragging about the whole pepperoni pizza and the case of beer he demolished the night before, then blows through the WOD no worse for wear. But sooner or later, things catch up.

"Every athlete at every age needs, at the very least, the proper amount of micronutrients, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D to recover properly," says Dr. Rick Cohen of Core 4 Nutrition in Santa Barbara, California.  "It's just that the younger fellows haven't drained the pot yet and have a greater ability to recover without it. Older athletes need to keep the reservoir higher.  

Essential to the 30- and 40-year-old athlete is a good level of nitric oxide, which is found in vegetables like beets, spinach and kale. Cohen calls it "the K-factor for the aging athlete" because it can increase recovery rates, energy and endurance. 

As athletes enter their 50s, coenzyme Q10, found in meats, fish, beans nuts and seeds, becomes more important for the support of mitochondrial efficiency or energy production within their cells.

Once athletes reach their 60s and 70s, good nutrition is critical. "If you're an aging athlete and still pushing hard in the gym, you'd better be paying attention to everything," Cohen says. "If not, a deficit in one of those areas will get you."

But how do you know whether you're getting enough? Normal blood tests done at a physical won't cover it, but there are several companies that offer assessments through the mail, including Core4, WellnessFX and Genova Diagnostics. "Get some tests and figure out what your body needs, as opposed to following blanket recommendations," Cohen says. "If you optimize your nutritional your nutritional levels, really good things happen and your decline will be slower."

Another nutritional nugget for older CrossFitters is to pay attention to how the body uses protein. Many will notice that as they age, they don't digest protein as well. If your protein powder or skirt steaks are running right through you, your amino-acid levels will decline. Cohen suggests taking a digestive enzyme supplement when you eat protein or mixing an essential amino-acid blend into your water bottle. 


When you drop body fat, good things happen. But as you age, your metabolism naturally slows down, which causes the body to more easily store fat. The fitter the heart, the easier it is to maintain a faster metabolism. And to keep the heart fit, you have to train aerobically.

"CrossFitters pound themselves with interval training and can overdo it at 80 to 85 percent of their max heart rate," says Eric Cressey of Cressey Sports Performance in Hudson, Massachusetts. "As we age, we can benefit from lower lows and higher highs." That means hopping on the rower or going for a jog a few times per week, with the heart rate at around 60 percent of its maximum.

But how can you tell whether you need this type of training? Cressey recommends simply monitoring your resting heart rate. Check your pulse rate first thing in the morning before getting out of bed. If you're reasonably fit, it should be below 60 beats per minute. If not, you are someone who would likely benefit from the addition of some lower-intensity aerobic exercise.

An elevated resting heart rate also speaks to recovery. When we exercise, metabolites build up in the bloodstream. As the metabolites increase, your average heart rate will rise. If your body is fully recovered from a workout and the metabolites have cleared from the bloodstream, the heart rate will normalize. So if your resting heart rate is elevated in the days following a workout, odds are you could use an extra day off.

-- "It's become very helpful for me to get a thorough warm-up. The days of walking in and throwing down are gone. I spend time doing mobility, some basic flossing and then some sort of active warm-up before I start any kind of training, even on days I'm only doing strength. The shorter the workout, the longer the warm-up. [Floss Bands are an essential performance tool and should be a staple in the gym bag of every athlete looking to improve range, restore joint mechanics, or unglue matted down or previously injured tissue.  Compression tack and flossing works on many levels; including re-perfusing tissues that have become stiff or gone cold after injury, and by compressing swelling out of tissues and joints.]
Ryan Southern, 35, North Plano Crossfit in Texas.

Flossing Primers:

 -- "I had major hip surgery when I was 30, and I have to work to maintain mobility. That means taking lots of fish oil, warming up thoroughly and before I work out, stretching and rolling out after workouts, being diligent about movements to maintain range of motion and doing yoga a few times per week. It also means I have to listen to my body more. There is no shame in dumping a back squat, using lees weight or modifying a workout in some way if it will prevent a spasm or further injury and keep me moving."
Lindsay Berra, 36, CrossFit Nutley in New Jersey

Warm Up

 You know it because you hear it all the time, usually in the form of a metaphor related to an automobile. The engine has to be warm before you rev the car. You cannot expect to go from zero to 60 without getting injured. It makes perfect sense, but so many CrossFitters ignore the logic and jump right into a WOD without a proper warmup. Again, this is something you might be able to get away with when you're 20, bet even then, it's a bad idea to push a cold muscle. And as you age, a bad idea can turn catastrophic.

The science is clear. When you're relaxed, lounging on the couch or sitting at your desk, most of the small blood vessels, or capillaries, are closed, with very little blood flow going to your muscles. After 10 minutes of warming up, the capillaries are open and blood flow to the muscles increases dramatically. With better blood flow comes an increase in temperature. At higher temperatures, the hemoglobin in your blood releases more oxygen and muscles can contract and nerves can transmit faster, leading to maximum efficiency. And when muscles,tendons and ligaments are warm and supple, they're much less likely to be forced into a dangerous position. "It's pretty simple," Starrett says. "Not warming up is a barrier to performance."

When you're young, you at least want to crack a sweat before you begin to really push or stretch your muscles. As you age, your warmup needs to be more substantial. "We expect our older athletes to warm up for a lot longer," Starrett says. "Before our CrossFit classes, we want everyone to have been there for 20 minutes and be hot and sweaty before we start."

Cool-Down and Recovery

On the other side of the WOD, a cool-down is equally as important, especially for the older athlete whose heart is already less efficient than his or her younger counterpart's. Another automobile analogy: If you run an engine hot, then suddenly stop it, it can backfire. This is the CrossFit equivalent of finishing "Filthy 50" (see link below) then flopping on the filthy floor.   

When we work out, blood is preferentially directed to the large muscles used for exercise with less return to the brain, heart and lungs. When you're done working out, a cool-down period helps return blood to the heart and the body to its resting state.

Skipping a cool-down also can cause lactic acid to build up more quickly in the muscles and blood, causing fatigue and soreness to set in faster. This can be especially frustrating for older athletes for whom recovery is already going to be slower.

As we age, our hormonal levels decrease (see below), which causes cellular turnover to happen at a slower rate, which means it takes muscle tissue longer to heal after it is broken down. Sleep becomes more and more important; a minimum of eight hours per night is recommended for adequate recovery.

 -- "I train hard, but recovery is key. If I feel tired, then I know I need to give myself a rest. mabe it's just bringing down the intensity or going through the motions that day. It may be an active rest day of a hike, swim or surf. Something fun! More fun than a workout. Or maybe it's just complete relaxation and just doing nothing. Okay, honestly, that doesn't happen much. But when it does it's really nice."
Bill Grundler, 45, CrossFit Inferno in California. 


As we age, growth-hormone levels, along with other hormone levels, decrease, which means recovery at the cellular level takes longer. After the age of 20, growth-hormone levels decrease rapidly until around age 60, with the sharpest decline between ages 40 and 60. 

"The decline of testosterone and growth hormone in men directly affects stamina and recovery time," orthopedist Dr. Michael Kelly says. "Normal aging does not prohibit an athlete from making gains in endurance and strength, but they will happen at a slower rate. In women, the hormonal decline has similar effects on muscle changes and endurance but less of an effect on overall athletic performance. As we age, we also develop a greater percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers, which causes a decrease in speed and explosive power. But, in both sexes, weight training can mitigate the decline."

Lifting heavy loads counters the loss of bone density and stimulates testosterone release. While women have just 5% of the testosterone that men have, the hormone is crucial to both sexes for metabolism, recovery and maintaining bone density, tissue elasticity and energy levels. 

While many aging athletes will feel compelled to increase the duration of their workouts at the expense of intensity, workouts about 80% intensity better stimulate testosterone release and help to maintain muscle mass. That's not to say all workouts should be that intense. As discussed above, workouts at a lower intensity can also be very beneficial. 

When it comes to hormones, women have more of a time clock, while men see a more gradual decline. Women want to keep their estrogen levels low and their progesterone levels high, and the balance is even more important as they approach menopause. Estrogen plays a crucial role in bone density, fat deposition and regulation of the cardiovascular system. While it's difficult to increase progesterone with diet, foods rich in vitamins B-6 and C, zinc and magnesium can help.

Men have an easier time boosting testosterone levels through the consumption of healthy fats. While young men may never think about it, it's not a bad idea to pay attention to testosterone levels early on so there's a baseline to revert back to over time.

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