Today my pal Brad from bradkearns.com will discuss how you can evolve your fitness goals to age gracefully, preserve health, and pursue peak performance with passion throughout life.
An Athlete Through the Years
It feels as though I’ve had two distinct and disparate athletic careers in my lifetime. Many years ago I was an endurance athlete. It started with distance running in high school (mile and 2-mile in track and 3-mile cross country course) and progressed into a nine-year career as a professional triathlete. I competed primarily at the standard Olympic Games distance of 1.5-kilometer (0.9-mile) swim, 40-kilometer (24.8-mile) bike, and 10-kilometer (6.2-mile run). This event takes under two hours. I particularly enjoyed the occasional “sprint” event around half the aforementioned distances. I also competed at long and ultra-distance. I was 5th in the World Long Distance Championships in France in ’88 (~6 hour race) and I still hold the USA age 24&under record at Hawaii Ironman (~9 hour race) from ’89. Inside the triathlon bubble, we’d distinguish between a short course specialist with more “speed” and a long course specialist with more endurance.
Technically, any triathlon, even a so-called sprint race, is an extreme endurance event from a physiological perspective. Endurance training guru Dr. Phil Maffetone cites exercise physiology research that 98% of the energy for two-hour competition comes from the aerobic system. Amazingly, even the mile run is predominantly aerobic, and the cutoff point for an all-out performance that’s half aerobic and half anaerobic is an effort of just one-minute, fifteen seconds!
Long retired from the professional circuit (27 years!), I’ve become more focused on a broader approach to fitness and pursuing competitive goals that are brief and explosive in nature. In 2018 at age 53, I broke the Guinness World Record in Speedgolf for the fastest single hole of golf ever played (must be minimum length of 500 yards), an all-out sprint (while golfing!) that took 1 minute, 38 seconds. After many years of recreational high jumping, I finally got on the board in 2020 with an official jump that was #1 ranked in the USA Masters Track&Field age 55-59 division. I’m recently over 5’1” (1.54m) at age 57 and will continue to raise the bar in my best attempt to age gracefully.
My obsession with high jumping is strange in that the sport’s objective takes around four seconds—a three second approach and one second from takeoff to landing (okay, Barshim might be in the air a bit longer than that.) That’s a pretty dramatic difference from racing triathlon for hours! I’m clearly less genetically adapted for high jumping than I was for endurance, but the important thing is I have a tremendous passion for the event and for personal improvement regardless of my genetic predispositions. When I achieve a good clearance over the bar in an empty high school stadium, I scream with delight like it’s the Olympic finals. In the most every important way, my satisfaction of success from this later-in-life folly is just as powerful as winning a race on the pro circuit with ESPN cameras and prize checks involved.
Regarding genetics, former Olympic 400-meter runner Andrew Steele made an important point on episode 56 of the Primal Blueprint Podcast years ago that genetic markers are only a sliver of the entire package compromising one’s athletic potential, with one’s natural competitive interest being the most prominent. This idea counters today’s over-pressurized approach to youth sports, and a potential obsession with genetic testing to identify prodigies and immerse them into the correct sport. Steele, a former principal at the DNA Fit genetic testing operation, was shocked to discover that he had predominantly endurance genetics in his muscle fiber composition—despite being one of the fastest 400-meter sprinters in the world (he was an Olympic bronze medalist in the 4 x 400m relay and individual semi-finalist in Beijing 2008, with a best of 44.94.) For Steele, this revelation suggested that he train for his favorite event with relatively more endurance stimulation than explosive stimulation—as might be the best choice for a more genetically explosive athlete.
How to Keep Pursing Fitness with Passion
My healthy competitive intensity aligns with my most compelling message and mission: to pursue peak performance with passion throughout life. Granted, it’s essential to continually recalibrate your goals to align gracefully with your age and lifestyle circumstances, and be supportive of health and longevity rather than compromise them. During a decade of my youth, my extreme devotion to triathlon training, competing and global jet travel challenged my health in many ways, and literally accelerated aging in many ways. When I retired at age 30, my body and my spirit felt like I was 80. I was fried. Today, I believe my sensible, time efficient fitness regimen and healthy competitive intensity support general health and longevity instead of compromise them. Doing something you love is arguably the most important element of your fitness and competitive direction. Take strength training legend Mark Smelly Bell, who enthusiastically integrates long distance running into his fitness regimen! I propose many of us are capable of more enjoyment and better health outcomes when we pursue fitness goals appropriately.
One awakening I’ve had recently is to reframe my perspective about steady-state cardiovascular exercise. Any form of exercise delivers an excellent cardiovascular training effect, however, sometimes the typical approach to steady state cardio can easily become health destructive. When we engage in a recurring pattern of medium-to-difficult intensity, steady-state cardiovascular workouts we can experience a chronic overproduction of stress hormones that lead to breakdown, burnout, illness and injury. Therefore, when it comes to cardio, I acknowledge that walking and general everyday movement offer great cardio benefits, that it’s easy to overdo it, and that the more extreme you get (marathon, ultras, half-iron and iron-distance triathlon), the more you put your health at risk.
I discussed these concepts in detail in an important two-part piece titled, “Don’t Jog, It’s Too Dangerous Part 1” and “Don’t Job, It’s Too Dangerous Part 2“. My passion for jumping and becoming more a resilient, injury-resistant athlete in general led me to revise my typical morning jog. I created a more interesting, varied, and challenging outing (as noted in this Jogging 2.0 video) that delivers all the cardiovascular benefits of a steady-state jog but brings in elements of balance, mobility, flexibility and explosiveness along the way.
Here is a suggested protocol to help you continue your journey to peak performance into the older age groups:
Daily Morning Flexibility/Mobility/Strengthening Routine
I have a five-year streak of doing a custom-designed, morning exercise routine every day, and it’s been truly life-changing. It’s become the centerpiece of preserving broad-based fitness competency as I age. The older we get, the more we need to work hard to establish a healthy baseline from which all formal workouts are launched. My 24-year-old son might be able to pull into a parking lot and jump right into a pickup basketball game after a few toe touches, but my margin for error in everything I do is much thinner these days. I assert the importance of maintaining a strong foundation after being sidelined from jumping and sprinting for six months with a minor knee injury, which actually turned out to be a muscle weakness/imbalance injury instead of a joint injury. Do something every day to stay mobile, strong and flexible. Also, seek expert attention when injured from athletic-minded progressive practitioners (chiropractic, massage, sports physical therapy.)
I am so enthusiastic about my morning exercise routine that I’ll claim it’s virtually mandatory for any fitness enthusiast over age 50. Whatever you do with your formal workouts (and hopefully micro-workouts), make a commitment to spending at least a few minutes getting the machine oiled as soon as you wake up. Seriously, if you only have six minutes to spare, that’s fine. But integrate a morning movement routine into habit so you can get the maximum benefit and minimal risk you’re your workouts. Visit BradKearns.com for details on how to design your own custom morning exercise routine.
Extensive Low-Level Movement
Strive to increase all forms of general every day movement. Take quick breaks for micro-workouts during the workday, walk whenever and wherever you can, utilize a standup desk—strive to move more in general as a top fitness priority. My Day In The Life video features a ton of different ideas for workplace variation and micro-workouts. If you are fan of steady-state cardio, be sure to conduct the vast majority of your sessions at or below the MAF heart rate of “180 minus age” in beats per minute.
Regular Resistance Training
The most anti-aging benefits come from putting your body under resistance load on a regular basis. Do whatever you enjoy most but do something where you load the muscles and perform brief, high intensity efforts. From a bread and butter of a proper 30-minute session at the gym throwing around weights or doing a machine circuit, you can sprinkle in micro-workouts such as 20 air squats at your desk, or a few sets of bodyweight exercise (pushups, pull-ups, squats, planks). I’m a big fan of the variable resistance training offered by the X3 Bar and Stretch Cordz, and also the all-around benefits offered by the hex bar deadlift.
Don’t overdo it with high intensity exercise. Workouts need never last more than 30 minutes (unless you have high level competitive goals) and all efforts should be performed with impeccable form and maximum explosiveness. Leave the “struggle and suffer” mentality behind and perform crisp, powerful workouts. End the workout if you notice your form and power falling off even a bit. Realize that a sprinkling of explosive effort here and there during a busy week can add up to tremendous fitness progress over time.
I’ve drifted away from doing big sessions at the gym in favor of doing shorter sessions: With all these fitness opportunities in view at home. I might combine 10 minutes with X3 bar, a few minutes of Stretch Cordz, a few sets of dead lifts, and a few sets of pull-ups. This gives me a tremendous total body workout without the risk of breakdown and extended recovery time that might happen from lots of today’s group fitness programming that tends to extends people too far. This includes CrossFit sessions, guided 1:1 or small group sessions with a trainer, or even going through the machines or barbell work with too many sets to the point of exhaustion and depletion. It’s up to you to respect your current fitness limitations, end workouts when form falters or fatigue accumulates, and stay in that sweet spot of performing regular explosive efforts without breaking down.
Brief, explosive all-out efforts are the ultimate primal strategy for anti-aging, fat reduction and hormone optimization. A little goes a long way in this area, and research validates the idea that brief sprints deliver more fitness benefits than steady-state cardio sessions lasting much longer. For most people, one well designed sprint workout a week is plenty.
It’s very important to design a sprint workout correctly. First, include an extensive cardiovascular warmup to get your heart rate and respiration up and break a light sweat. Next comes dynamic stretching, technique drills, and wind sprints. The main set of sprints should almost always follow these guidelines: 4-10 reps of lasting between 10 and 20 seconds. Recovery is six times longer than the sprint, so one to two minutes between efforts. This will enable repeat explosive efforts of consistent quality—same time and level of perceived exertion and preserving excellent technique. If technique falters or more effort is required to achieve the same performance standard (e.g., 20 seconds for an 80-meter sprint), it’s time to end the workout.
In this article on sprinting and jumping, I present a detailed step-by-step protocol for my template workouts. These are scalable for all fitness levels, so please tiptoe into the world of explosive sprinting and jumping and strive to build competency over time in this all-important aspect of all-around fitness. If you are enjoying your sprinting and/or jumping endeavors, you can pair a weekly formal session with another downscaled session consisting of drills and skills. These are not as strenuous as a signature session, but still challenging, and definitely helpful to adapt to the more difficult sessions.
Many fitness enthusiasts are interested in how sprinting and jumping trigger the genetic signaling for fat loss. The penalty for carrying excess body fat when leaving the ground or running at full speed is so severe that your body will adapt very quickly by shedding excess weight. In contrast, there is minimal penalty for carrying excess body fat on a 100-mile bicycle ride or even a slow-paced marathon, which is why these impressive fitness accomplishments don’t necessarily support fat reduction.
Remember: Mornings, Movement, Muscles and Sprinting
If you aren’t current locked in on the objective of pursuing peak performance with passion throughout life, let’s not get overwhelmed with to-do list items. Keep it simple and focus on the four tips covered here: Get a morning exercise routine going of any kind and any duration. Start small, celebrate incremental progress, and build your commitment naturally over time. Resolve to move more in everyday life, especially taking frequent short breaks from prolonged periods of stillness. If you are into steady-state cardio, make sure the vast majority of your mileage is at MAF heart rate or below.
Put your body under some form of resistance load on a regular basis, no matter who you are. In December of 2021, my 85-year-old mother started Dr. John Jacquish’s lauded Osteostrong program—a simple once-a-week strength training session consisting of four, full-body compound movements and lasting only 10 minutes. Seniors can progress faster than any other age group in strength and bone density, so starting at any age can be a life saver or at least a quality of life enhancer! It’s best to get professional instruction before you get into serious resistance exercise, but if you want to get started gently then try doing a set of squats and pushups (with whatever modifications you need to align with your current capabilities) each day. Finally, get out there and sprint once a week—use it or lose it with all levels of metabolic, musculoskeletal, and hormonal function. If you aren’t yet ready to handle the impact of running sprints on flat ground, you can get started sprinting on a stationary bike or other cardio machine.
Thanks for considering these four suggestions, and remember to get started at any level of commitment no matter what. Even a few minutes a week of intense exercise is sufficient to significantly boost your strength and overall metabolic health.