Learning From Olympians

Olympic gold medalist Arlene Limas demonstrates elements from her fitness routine that can be used in an everyday workout. Video by Atkinson & Co.
By Howard Schneider and Vicky Hallett
Tuesday, August 12, 2008

It was probably no surprise to the Limas household in Chicago that daughter Arlene grew up to be a fighter.

Being raised in a house with four brothers, she said, was like living in a carnival funhouse: You never knew what would spring from around the next corner. The ability to duck or punch or roll was part of the lifestyle.

But holding your own against a gang of siblings is one thing. Winning Olympic gold is another. Limas traveled to Seoul in 1988 and captured the women's welterweight title in the martial art of taekwondo, South Korea's national sport. She went on to win two world championships in the sport and top honors in the Pan American Games, and she retired undefeated from international competition in the early 1990s.

Today she runs her own dojang, Power Kix in Stafford, a spacious studio where she both trains young athletes and poses a challenge to some of our notions about middle age and fitness.

If "aging gracefully" is one goal, perhaps Limas can add a dimension: Aging with power.

At 42, she remains lightning quick, with a thunderous side kick. When she does a flying kick alongside the high school students and young adults she trains for national competition, she matches them inch for inch off the ground.

Limas now sprinkles softball and flag football into her palette of activity and recognizes that she needs more rest and recovery than she did back in the days of eight-hour training and sparring sessions.

"I want to feel invincible," she said, "but I had to say to myself, 'It's okay being fit and being in better shape than most 42-year-olds.' "

She does it largely by continuing to practice and share with others a discipline she has been studying in various forms since she was 5. Taekwondo is known for its powerful arsenal of kicks, and during a recent workout at her gym, Limas discussed how the principles she uses to train black belts can help us all maintain speed, strength and balance as we get older.

For many of us, exercise involves an activity done at a fairly steady speed for a certain amount of time. We run five miles at a 10-minute-per-mile pace; do our half-hour on the elliptical; ride a bike for couple of hours on the weekend.

That's great for the heart and great for some of our muscle -- the slow-twitch fibers that are wired and built for endurance activities.

But we are born with a different type of muscle as well: the fast-twitch fibers that are activated by a different type of neuron and play a different role in our physiology. If you think about what most of us do for exercise, those fibers probably don't get enough attention (and may as a result be the likeliest to atrophy as we age).

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