3 Crucial elements for Vitality in the Aging Athlete

Accomplished mountaineer and Vail Vitality Center endurance coach, Ellen Miller, is 56 years old, and she works with a lot of athletes ages 50 through 60, and beyond, incorporating discussions on how the aging process has started to impact their physical performance and overall lifestyle.

She explains how those who have been athletes throughout their lives — especially high, competitive levels, like many who live and train in Vail — have a keen sense of body awareness.

“So I think that heightened body awareness, we have been able to determine — pretty much 100 percent across the board — how it simply takes us longer to recover,” Miller says of the impact of athletic endeavors. “Whether it’s from muscle soreness, or general recovery after a hard effort.”

This is something that younger coaches, trainers and athletes won’t really understand until they get there, Miller adds.

“And I don’t know how many times I have said to people in their sixties, ‘Hey, you’re not 40 years old anymore,’ and they always smile, laugh and nod,” she shares.

Movement 

As important as it is for athletes to be aware of an extended recovery time after their hard workouts, Miller says that the efforts can still be full on.

“They can work out as hard as the younger people, in many cases,” says Miller. “So the workout load can be very powerful, very strong. It can be high intensity, or a longer, endurance type workout, but the recovery is what I find to be the biggest thing that differentiates younger people from aging athletes.”

She says these athletes need to give themselves the time needed to recover — maybe it’s an extra day, maybe it’s an extra week — depending on the event.

Make clean eating and sleep a priority, Miller says, and be sure to prioritize a lower stress lifestyle.

Miller has had both of her hips replaced, and she is fully able to move herself up and down Vail Mountain very quickly, every day. She says she works with people who have knee and hip surgeries planned, supporting them before, during and after the process.

She encourages people to be in really good shape before these surgeries, which means being the proper weight, creating a good space mentally and emotionally, and having the right support team in place.

“I typically start working with people way before the surgery, so we focus on general fitness, nutrition and work with their physicians to make sure that everything is in good order,” she says. “I have an ongoing dialog with them, right up to when they are done and through the rehab program, because I have been there, twice.”

Miller’s coaching style is compassion-based, she explains, and incorporates a lot of work with choosing positive perspectives.

“We are lucky to be able to get our hips fixed,” she says. “A lot of people in the world would give anything to have an artificial knew or an artificial hip, and then would be able to move on with life,” she says. “I do not let people complain about the situation a whole lot, because it is a miracle and it is a blessing, and it should be treated as such.”

Nutrition 

“Even as we age, we want to continue to perform,” explains Penny Wilson, certified dietician and nutritionist at the Vitality Center. “To do that, we need to be conscious about managing inflammation, oxidative stress and keeping our gut happy.”

Wilson says that what people eat can help them to reduce inflammation, and eating fruits and veggies is always a good choice.

“The polyphenols in fruits and vegetables and Omega-3 fats can actually block the same pathways that the medications called COX (Cyclooxygenase) inhibitors block,” shares Wilson. “I’m not saying to stop taking your medications, but being mindful of what you’re eating to reduce inflammation can make a difference.”

Wilson says the same compounds in fruits and vegetables also help to tame free radicals — those molecules that damage cells and that can permanently damage DNA.

“When we have more free radicals than molecules that can tame them,” she says, “we get oxidative stress.”

Don’t make fitting in more fruits and vegetables an added stress. As Wilson suggests, if you’re scrambling eggs, for example, add in some spinach, garlic and tomatoes. Have a baseball-sized piece of fruit and breakfast, and another later in the day.

“Remember, for every serving of fruit, our need two to three servings of vegetables, preferably non-starchy vegetables,” she explains. “A serving is one cup raw or a half cup cooked, so, it really isn’t as much as we initially think.”

Meditation 

Karen Anderson is a certified yoga and meditation instructor at the Vitality Center. She says that meditation is a de-aging process, in itself.

“If you see photos of folks pre and post-meditation retreat, they look younger,” Anderson explains. “This is because stress is a primary influence on aging of both the body and the mind, and meditation relieves stress from both the body and the mind.”

Meditation shrinks the amygdala, which is the mind’s center for fear conditioning, she adds.

“When we modulate fear, we take the mind and body out of a fight-or-flight response — the sympathetic nervous system — into a rest-and-digest state — the parasympathetic nervous system,” Anderson explains.

A daily meditation practice create the conditions for ongoing healing and rejuvenation in the body, which is helpful for physical recovery of any kind.

“It has been proven in studies that mindfulness meditation speeds healing time after surgery,” she says.

The practice also strengthens the prefrontal cortex, which is the mind’s center for rational thinking. Anderson explains how a clear and calm mind is able to make skillful decisions toward overall health, and to override impulses toward behaviors that might be detrimental.

“Ultimately, meditation cultivates vitality,” she said. “Vital energies in the body are awakened with the combination of relaxation, concentration and clarity. This is a truth that yogis have known for thousands of years — access to inner vitality is available to everyone.”

Kim Fuller is a freelance writer based in the Vail Valley.