Olympic athletes: Dara Torres

Every 40-something human is on a downward curve in certain key physical categories, according to experts who study aging.The key question for each person is, how far down? Swimmer Dara Torres, 45, and her team are trying to postpone the slide and take advantage of the one major benefit of being the oldest person in the pool. Read the article, see how Olympic athletes break down by age or see more in this series on speed.

Torres's fix: To retain muscle and flexibility most efficiently, Torres does sets of complex, high-velocity exercises designed by O'Brien to work many joints and muscles simultaneously. He believes that besides working the muscle tissue she already has, these exercises flood the brain with sensory information that stimulates muscle-building hormones.

Wisdom with age

wisdom

The human brain isn't finished developing until a person's late 20s or early 30s. Older athletes know their bodies better and are able to train smarter and use tactics that will give them an advantage over a younger person with a similar physiology, said Wojtek J. Chodzko-Zajko, head of the kinesiology department at the University of Illinois.

Torres's advantage: At 45, Torres's brain is at its decision-making peak, and it contains wisdom gleaned from decades of competitive international experience.

Heart less efficient

wisdom

"V02 max" is shorthand for a measure of how efficiently a body uses oxygen during exercise. An aging heart pumps less blood, lungs work less vigorously and muscles' ability to draw oxygen out of blood decreases. Decrease in V02 max hampers the ability to sustain a hard effort, a problem for endurance athletes.

Torres's fix: Top athletes use oxygen very efficiently already, and VO2 max is less of a concern for sprinters such as Torres, said her trainer, Andy O'Brien.

Less lean muscle

wisdom

Aging muscles conform closely to the principle of "use it or lose it." An average person loses one percent of lean muscle mass per year after about age 40. But the average person sits around a lot. If an athlete who has already built up muscle continues to work those muscles, she likely will lose very little—until she stops.

Flexibility declines

wisdom

Fibers that make up young muscles, tendons and ligaments are long, parallel and pliable. After decades of accumulated damage, the fibers become more jumbled and less elastic. This wear and tear, plus older bodies' naturally lower water content, mean muscles and connective tissue aren't as supple as they once were.

Longer recovery

wisdom

Hormones regulate everything from metabolism to digestion, reproduction and healing. When a young body is stressed in one way or another, various hormones return it to normal pretty quickly. Older bodies don't regulate hormones as easily, so recovery after a tough workout takes longer.

Torres's fix: She swims less, sleeps more and spaces hard workouts further apart. She uses electrical muscle stimulation and dietary supplements to try to compensate for inconsistent hormones.

Sources: Dara Torres; Jay Dicharry, director of the Center for Endurance Sport at the University of Virginia; Wojtek J. Chodzko-Zajko, head of the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois; Andy O'Brien of Body by O'Brien, Torres's trainer; Jeoff Drobot, medical director of the Calgary Centre for Naturopathic Medicine.
By Bonnie Berkowitz, AJ Chavar, Evelio Contreras and Todd Lindeman. Published May 17, 2012.

Article: Speed for the ages

Torres

Everyone slows down as they get older, but why? Understanding the answers has enabled Dara Torres, 45, to compete with women swimmers half her age.

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Series: Profiles in Speed

Profiles in Speed

Speed will be a defining theme of the 2012 Olympic Games. How do athletes continue to get faster? What are the keys to speed, and increasing it?