|Rick Rycroft/Associated Press Olga Kotelko competing in the Masters Games in 2009. She holds 26 world records.|
I just read an astonishing article about a 94-year-old woman athlete -- who didn't take up track and field until she was 77. Attempts to define what's special about her that could help others retain and improve their fitness reveal it's not diet or genes that keep her from injury; it's interoception, a practiced attunement to the body that allows her to keep improving as she gets older!
This is what we're practicing in Constructive Rest: Taking time to pause, wait, observe, tune in. See what author Bruce Grierson says in What Makes Olga Run:
Many masters athletes pop anti-inflammatories like candy. Olga doesn’t. Anti-inflammatories mask pain so that athletes feel they can then push on, often into the damage zone. But if you’re alive to the first stirrings that there’s a problem—it may be a problem of technique, or a muscle imbalance, or just overuse—you can step away before you start shaving away the cartilage, creating more inflammation, compounding the problem, and eventually hobbling home on your new titanium knee (or rolling home with your new titanium hip). By stepping away and resting, she leaves the repair work to nature, which has had a few million years to get it right. “The body,” she says frequently, “is built to heal itself.”
When something starts to feel a bit off, Olga stops doing it. When she senses she’s being overtaxed, she withdraws from the tipping-point event. She doesn’t owe anybody anything— not some sponsor, not meet organizers, not fans. The buck stops with her. Her position reminds me of that of Kenyan Patrick Makau Musyoki, the world-record holder in the marathon (2:03:38). Like Olga, Makau is coachless. That way, “you can listen to your own body and take time to recover after training,” he told a reporter recently. “Sometimes a coach pushes too much.”
There is a name for this faculty of superattunement for what’s going on inside your body. It’s called interoception. To be interoceptive is like being introspective, but to sensations rather than emotions or thoughts.
Receptors throughout the body are continuously recording information. They track changes in cardiac output, hormonal and metabolic activity, even immune-system activation—the level to which we are “run-down.” There are receptors scattered all through the fascia—the network of connective tissue that wraps every organ and every muscle and connects to every ligament—and they are hair-trigger transmitters of “tensional strain” anywhere in the body.
All this information goes into the brain. And here differences between people emerge. Some of us are better than others at picking up those faint signals and dredging them into consciousness.
There are signs that Olga is adept at this. She says she can feel a cold coming on, and when she does she takes a baby aspirin to “get out in front of it.” She’s conscious of what to eat, and how much, and when. She has a great line of communication with her gut.
Killer attunement to your body’s signals is a fine thing to have if you’re an athlete—and not just because you can stop before you cause an injury. Studies have found that it actually boosts performance. Elite marathoners pay close attention to their internal landscape—breathing, heart rate, cadence, how the muscles feel—while nonelite marathoners do just the opposite: they try to distract themselves from the pain. Some evidence suggests that tuning in, rather than dropping out, could have other benefits, including healthy longevity.