Is training dangerous?

Let me start by stating that I am not a medical professional and what I’m about to say is based on my opinion as well as articles written by qualified folks covering the subject.  

If you’re like me, you’ve probably had well meaning friends or family members express concern over how much or how hard you train.  “You’re not 25 anymore.  You need to be very careful.”  I’ve heard that many times.  And for ammunition, these folks love to discuss the high profile deaths or health scares that have happened to some seriously fit athletes.

My husband  (who is actually very supportive, but it’s a running joke between us) likes to refer to Jim Fixx, famed author of “The Complete Book of Running” which was a huge bestseller back in the late 70’s.  Jim Fixx is often credited with jump starting the recreational exercise movement and popularized the idea of the “runner’s high”.   He made public appearances on TV shows during which he extolled the virtues of running and how physical exercise could increase life expectancy.  He went on to write three more books, all focused on the benefits of exercise and healthy living.  Unfortunately, Jim Fixx died in 1984 when he was only 52.  His death occurred during his daily run and shocked the fitness community.  How could a man so vibrant and fit die so young?  And from a heart attack?  Isn’t cardiovascular exercise supposed to make your heart stronger?

More recently, Bob Harper, a young-looking, 55 year old, super-fit trainer and health expert best known for his role as coach on “The Biggest Loser”, suffered a massive heart attack.  Apparently he technically died before being saved by some fast-acting doctors who happened to be on site.  The doctors used CPR and defibrillators before paramedics arrived.  Harper is now recovering well after being in a coma for two days.

So, what’s up?  How is it that super fit people can suffer from heart attacks or even die at a young age?  Are our friends and family correct?  Do we need to back off of our training to avoid these consequences?  When you dig beneath the headlines, you’ll quickly discover that the answer is no.  Training is good for you and incredibly important, especially as we age.

Let’s go back to the Jim Fixx story.   Fixx started running in 1967 when he was 35.  He was overweight and a heavy smoker, smoking 2 packs per day.  By the time “The Complete Book of Running” was published, he’d quit smoking and lost 60 pounds.  Fixx’s heart attack was a result of severe atherosclerosis and his autopsy showed he had one coronary artery that was blocked 95%, one that was blocked 85% and a third that was blocked 70%.  In 1986 an exercise physiologist, Kenneth Cooper, published an inventory of the risk factors that might have contributed to Fixx’s death.  After extensive review of his autopsy results and medical records and after interviewing friends and family, Cooper concluded that Fixx was genetically predisposed to heart disease.  His father had died of a heart attack at 43 after suffering an initial one at 35.  Jim Fixx had a congenitally enlarged heart and prior to taking on a more healthy lifestyle, he was quite unhealthy

Bob Harper suffered a heart attack commonly known as a “widow-maker” – a blockage of the left coronary artery which is responsible for supplying blood to large areas of the heart.  A blockage of this artery often results in a massive attack that can lead to very sudden death.  Survival rates are low.   Similar to Jim Fixx, it appears that Harper may have been genetically predisposed to heart disease as he says his mother died from a heart attack at a relatively young age.   Unfortunately, Harper also says that he ignored some important warning signs, including fainting during a workout, leading up to the attack.

Now let’s go back to the original question.  Is training dangerous for us as we age?  The answer appears to be no.  Study after study shows that physical exercise improves cardiovascular health and prolongs life.  Even if you have a genetic risk, exercise and maintaining a level of fitness can help lower your risk and your ability to recover well should something happen.  Doctors believe that Bob Harper’s level of fitness helped him to survive what would’ve killed many other people.  And while no amount of exercise and healthy living can guarantee a disease free existence, there are countless examples of doctors stating that their patients have been able to more effectively fight through traumatic diseases such as Cancer and Diabetes because they were strong and healthy as a result of their lifestyle.

The bottom line is, keep on training!  But be smart about it.  Find out as much as possible about your genetics and family history.   If you can, get tested for all basic health markers and especially heart health.   Remember that nutrition, stress management and recovery are a huge part of overall health.  And most importantly, don’t be hard headed and ignore the warning signs.  Listen to your body.  Bob Harper says he is kicking himself for ignoring signs which he now realizes were pretty obviously pointing towards trouble.  We all want to be savage but we also need to be realistic.  Here are some of the more common early signs of heart trouble:

  • Chest pain or a full or squeezing sensation
  • Pain or discomfort in other parts of the upper body (one or both arms, back, neck, jaw…)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness
  • Vomiting
  • Upper middle abdomen discomfort (usually more of a heaviness than sharp pain)
  • Heartburn or indigestion
  • Upper back pain

Train smart and stay savage!

A setback?  How to get your savage back.

I know, I know.  We are Savage Masters.  We crush goals.  But what happens when we have one of those days or weeks or months when we don’t crush our goals?  What happens when our goals crush us?

I’ve been less than stellar on the nutrition front this week.  Partially because I’m experimenting a little, verifying my guesses as to what works for me and what doesn’t, and partially because every now and then I just loosen up a little more than I should.  I continue to be amazed at how a poor day of eating for me turns into instant crappiness in the gym.  Instant.  Like the next day.  Apparently, gone are the days when I could eat a ton of sugar and then feel fine and go kill a workout.  It just doesn’t work for me.  So after having too much sugar yesterday, I sucked during a workout today.  Sucked.  Doing movements I know I can do.  More on that later…

I like to play around online and here is a small sample of some of the setbacks I’ve seen folks posting about just this week:

  • I’ve worked so hard for so long in Crossfit and my Open workout results were just not what I’d expected.
  • I trained like crazy and bombed out during my powerlifting meet.  Couldn’t even lift what I thought were my easy opening weights.
  • My goal was to break 28 minutes during my 5k and couldn’t even break 30 minutes today.
  • I thought my shoulder had healed but I tried to snatch today and it hurt so much.

So, what do we do?

1.  Spend a little time trying to figure out what happened.  Don’t dwell on it and don’t sit there and rhyme off a litany of excuses, but be honest with yourself and think through some questions, such as:

  • Was my goal realistic? Really?
  • Was I truly prepared to be at my best today?  Did I sleep well?  Did I eat well? Had I recovered from my latest workout?  Am I under a lot of stress?  Did I warm up properly?  It’s not always obvious, but seemingly little things can affect us in ways we’d never though possible.
  • Did I “get in my head” and throw myself off of my game?
  • Am I trying to come back too quickly from injury?
  • Was I too wrapped up in what everyone else was doing?
  • Was everything okay, but it was just not my day?

2.  Once you’ve been completely honest with yourself you can begin to move on.

  • If your goal wasn’t realistic, adjust it.
  • If you feel your goal was solid, check into your plan.  Have you been doing the right things to get there?
  • If you realize that you weren’t well prepared on this particular day, think about how you can better improve your nutrition, sleep, warm up, or whatever area you think messed you up.
  • If you were too ‘in your head’, or too wrapped up in what everyone else was doing, give yourself a smack in the face!  Just kidding (kind of).  It happens to everyone.  Give yourself a pep talk and if it’s a recurring issue for you, read one of the awesome articles out there about stepping up your mental game. *
  • If you simply just had a bad day, and this happens to everybody, don’t make adjustments, just stick to your plan and…

3.  Move on!  Put it behind you and get back to training!

Back to my story.  I don’t have a lot of issues with being honest with myself.  I think it’s one of the gifts of age and maturity.  I can own it and I know that I ate like crap and therefore I performed like crap.  Shocker!  Lesson learned.  Again.  Moving on.  With better food this time. And you know what?  I still got out there and trained.  Better than sitting on the couch.

Stay savage, y’all!

*some good resources on the mental side of training can be found at:;

Exercising?  It’s time to start training.

Ok, hear me out on this one.  My Coach turned me on to this concept many months ago and I’ve been on my soapbox about it ever since.  In my opinion, it’s extremely important for athletes – even recreational, masters athletes – to train and not just to exercise.  I’ll explain why, but first let’s start by looking at the differences between the two:

Exercising is generally defined as “activity requiring physical effort, carried out especially to sustain or improve health and fitness”.  Basically, exercise means getting up and moving in some way that burns calories.   If you walk your dog, go for a run, head to the gym and throw some weights around – all of it is exercising, and that’s great.  If you show up for the same cardio boxing class each Saturday just to sweat it out, you’re exercising.  If you go to the gym without a plan and decide what you’ll do when you arrive, you’re exercising.

Training however adds in a few elements, specifically:

1.  A specific longer term performance goal or goals.

This is the fun part.  Pick a goal or even multiple goals – examples could include wanting to hit 20 pull ups by June 30th; finishing the local sprint triathlon under a specific time, rowing 500m under 1:45 by the end of May, qualifying for the Boston Marathon in 2018, or even being able to do 25 kettlebell swings in a row with a 50lb kettlebell by the end of the summer.  Just pick one or more goals that will motivate you.  I’m a big fan of the SMART rules of goal setting.  For maximum effectiveness, the goals need to be:

  • Specific – row 500m in under 1 minute, 45 seconds.  Not “get faster at rowing”.
  • Measurable – 25 kettlebell swings, unbroken, 50 lb kettlebell, by August 30th.  Easy to measure.
  • Achievable – this is sometimes tough – pick something that will challenge you but will also be possibly within reach in the given timeline.  Sometimes a coach or training partner can help you think through this.
  • Relevant – pick something that’s important to you or you won’t be motivated to focus on it.
  • Time-bound – pick a specific date.

2.  A process and a specific plan to reach those goals.

Training is very much about the process.  This means you will need a plan that incorporates all that is needed to propel you towards your goal.  This means tough days, recovery days, accessory work and periodic testing along the way.  I am a huge fan of following a very specific plan, and if you can do it, a coach can also be extremely helpful.  You’ll want someone who understands what it is you’re trying to accomplish and who can program, or help program, the various steps you need to get you there.  If you don’t have access to a live coach, the internet can be a wealth of information for things like this.  There are a ton of programs available for running, cycling, triathlon training, weightlifting programs, etc., all available at your fingertips.  Make sure you do your research though, and make sure that the author of the program has some legitimate experience and a history of success.  Try to dig up reviews from folks who have tried out the particular program before you jump right in.

3.  Measurements and testing throughout the process.

Another key part of training – you need to be able to measure progress and results.  If you’ve picked SMART goals, this shouldn’t be too difficult.  Remember though, that the process is often not linear.  You’ll have setbacks along the way – planned ones, where you’ve maxed out and are just tired, and unplanned ones where your body is just tired or under a lot of stress and not primed for a day or two.  This is why the process is so important.  A good plan works in the peaks and valleys and ensures that you’re ready for the target date you’ve chosen.

4.  Exposure and focus on improving weaknesses.

This is hugely important – and this can also make some people nervous to commit to training.  Training is hard.  There’s risk.  You’ll need to focus on the areas where you are less comfortable.  If you want to improve your marathon time, you’ll need to do some speedwork on the track instead of constantly running comfortable 9 minute miles.  If you want to do more pull ups, you’ll need to identify where you are weak and work on it.  If you want to improve your clean and jerk, you may have to back off on the weight and focus your work on technique for a while.  It’s not always fun, and training means you won’t always be doing the things that make you look like a beast in the gym.  You’ll need to get comfortable with failing.  A lot.

5.  An all around effort that will go beyond the physical exercise.

Committing yourself to training means your efforts don’t end with your gym sessions.  Recovery, sleep, and nutrition are all very important parts of any effective training plan.  You may need to invest a little in some new equipment or gear or a membership at a gym.  Training means making constant choices and asking yourself “is this taking me closer to or further away from my goal?”   Of course, I’m not saying we all need to stop having any fun at all and go to bed each night at 8pm.  But think about how you can best prepare yourself to meet your goal.  Maybe this means that you go from having a beer every night so just having a couple on the weekend.  Maybe you decide to cut out sugar because you can feel that it’s hurting your performance in the gym.  Maybe it’s as simple as making a consistent effort to eat something healthy before your training sessions.  It’s up to you, but if you’re serious about reaching specific and challenging goals, you need to have a look at all aspects of your life and figure out what you need to do.

So, why should we train?  There are a lot of reasons, but here are some key ones that come to mind for me:

  • Training gives you a “why”.  Having goals and specific plans to reach your goals can give you the necessary motivation to keep going, even when you don’t feel like it.  Crappy weather?  Get out there or I won’t progress.  Tempted by a pan full of brownies (Me. Tonight).  Well, I know if I have too much sugar, I will feel terrible and my performance in the gym will suffer so I’ll skip the brownie for now.  Bar hopping?  If I have a key workout planned at 8am tomorrow, I’ll have a beer and then switch to something non-alcoholic for the rest of the night.
  • The discipline from training can spill over into the rest of your life.  When I’m training, I find that I’m disciplined in the rest of my life.  To make time to train, I need to be on top of all aspects of my day – I have to do my work efficiently, I need to plan my meals properly, I need to get to sleep at a decent time.  Trust me, I’m still living my life, but having a training plan makes me a more organized person in general.
  • It’s fun!  Anyone who’s trained hard for something and reached their goal, knows that the sense of accomplishment is incredible.

Ready to take the plunge?  Some thoughts on how to start:

  • Set those goals!  As you can see above, I currently have a bunch of them – some specific training goals as well as a defined competition that is coming up.  I’ve typed them onto a picture and keep them as the screensaver on my phone so they’re always top of mind.
  • Figure out a plan to get you there.  Find a coach or find a program that details the steps you need to follow to reach your goals.  Be realistic.  Can you do what’s needed to stick to the plan?  Will it work with your schedule?  With your family commitments?  Reach for the stars and push yourself but do your homework to set some goals and a find plan that will work best for you.  If you find a plan that requires you to drive an hour each way to workouts for the next 9 months, think about whether you will realistically be able to keep that up for the long term.
  • Work that plan.  Get going!  And enjoy the journey.

Stay Savage!

Maintaining your Edge: Recovery for Savage Masters

As I wrote when starting this community, this is a place for those of us who are no longer teenagers.  But despite the fact that we are aging, we want to continue to push ourselves to new limits – in the gym or wherever we train, and in life.  That’s all great but we need to be realistic and ensure that proper recovery is an extremely important part of our training plans.

This past weekend I competed in the NorCal Masters Crossfit competition.  I had an incredible two days and left very energized, with a whole new set of goals to chase over the next few months.  I fell asleep pretty early Sunday night and Monday morning I woke up feeling…sore.  My mind wanted to get into the gym, and I’m sure I could have gone in and done something, but I made myself skip it (and my coach is great and careful and wouldn’t have let me do much anyway) and my only workout that day was to take our dog on a nice, long walk.  Why?  Because I knew that pushing myself would not allow my body to recover the way it needed and the rest of my week would’ve been filled with crappy workouts or worse, injury.   And guess what?  As I write this it’s Tuesday and this morning we had a running workout programmed.  Nothing crazy – run a mile, rest four minutes, run 800m, rest three minutes and then run 400m.  I was so excited to get back at it until a few steps into the mile and my legs felt like lead.  Ugh.  So frustrating.  Turns out I’m still not completely recovered from the weekend.  So I had to back it off a bit.  It sucks, but for me this is part of growing up.  Listening to my body (and my coach) and overruling the teenager in my head who wants to go out and push push push.  And eat cookies.  Ok sometimes that teenager in my head wins, but I’m working on that.

Hopefully it’s not news that recovery is important for any athlete, but it becomes even more important as we age.  Why?  As much as we may not want to admit it, as we age a number of changes occur in our bones, cartilages, tendons, muscles and ligaments that can make us more susceptible to sports-related injuries.   If we don’t take the time to properly rest and recover, we’ll quickly notice the typical signs of overtraining and eventually our bodies will shut us down through illness or injury.  One or two rest days now can save us from being forced to take a much longer break later.

So, what are some of the signs that rest is needed?

  • Feeling excessively fatigued or sore
  • ‘Heavy’ feeling in arms and/or legs (Me. Today.)
  • Poor concentration
  • Poor technique
  • Inability to complete simple exercises comfortably
  • Irritability or lack of enthusiasm for the planned training

And, as the symptoms further progress into the land of the overtrained:

  • Increased resting heart rate and increased time to recover from elevated heart rate during training
  • Poor sleep patterns
  • Lack of appetite
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Lethargy

All of the above is bad news for anyone trying to crush their training goals.  So, what do we do to help our bodies recover and come back stronger than ever?


  • EAT!  Nutrition is important all the time but we sometimes forget about that on rest days.  While we may be tempted to eat less since we aren’t burning as many calories, now is the time to ensure we give our bodies all that is needed for proper repair.  This includes replenishing carbs, consuming high quality protein and balancing with some fats.
  • Hydrate.  Make sure you are taking in a lot of water and not overdoing it on alcohol or you’ll counteract your goal of coming back rested and more energized.  You may not feel thirsty, but your body needs hydration or your training will very definitely suffer.
  • If you feel up to it, try some active recovery.  Very low intensity movements like walking, light rowing, swimming, a slow jog can help remove lactic acid and stretch you out a bit.  Resist the urge to go hard (I’m talking to myself here)!
  • Stretch, massage, foam roll, roll with lacrosse balls, whatever you need to do to help relax those muscles and keep them limber.  Consider an epsom salt bath if you’re feeling a little bit tight.
  • Sleep. Sleep is amazingly restorative.  Go to bed early if you can.  Take a nap.  Close those eyes and let your body heal and get stronger.

Now, I also want to mention mobility work.  I am one of the least flexible people on earth and it very definitely affects my athletic performance.  To me, mobility and recovery go hand in hand, and while I’ve been focusing this discussion on taking actual recovery or rest days, it’s also extremely important that we take time each day as part of our training plans to work on recovery and mobility.  It’s something I neglect too often, so maybe by confessing publicly, I’ll take my own advice!

“All human beings should be able to perform basic maintenance on themselves.”

– Kelly Starrett

Kelly Starrett is the author of “The Supple Leopard” and founder of MobilityWOD.  He is at the forefront of focusing on the basics of efficient movement so that we can all perform better as athletes, but also so that we can function more effectively as human beings in our day to day lives.  Mobility work is the key to improving those basic movements we are doing wrong and may have already caused us injury, but it is also important for us to maintain our ability to move well as we age.  His site features a ton of videos and “how-to’s” to help with specific issues we may have.  There is a cost for some of these items, but he has also made a lot of videos available for free on YouTube.

Bottom line?  This isn’t likely new information for most of you.  But as masters athletes who thrive on pushing limits, we sometimes need to be reminded about the importance of rest.  We have all set very tough goals for ourselves, but we can’t be savage if our bodies are broken.  Treat your body right and it will reward you with results!

Sources and for more information:

  1. Reaburn, Peter. “Chapter 13.” The Masters Athlete: Improve Your Performance, Improve Your Fitness, Improve Your Life. Mackay, Qld.: Info, 2009. N. pag. Print.
  2. Starrett, Kelly. “Mobility|WOD.” MobilityWOD. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.