Maclean's Magazine: Older Faster and Way Stronger

Can you get fitter at 50 than you’ve ever been in your life?

What if it were possible to restore the body to peak physical condition? Author Margaret Webb finds out

Julia McKinnell

This year, some 275,000 Canadian women will turn 50. How many of them will, like author Margaret Webb, grimace at the sight of themselves in the mirror, or avoid looking in one at all? Webb is a former varsity athlete who, over time, “starched” on the pounds, despite training for a half-marathon in her early 40s. At 49, she still smoked. And then there was the menace of menopause. “Nouns started dropping out of my sentences as fast as estrogen was leaking from my brain,” she writes in her new book, Older, Faster, Stronger. On one occasion, she forgot the word for bottle and asked someone to “pass the thing that holds wine.” A writer who forgets nouns? That didn’t augur well, and Webb still had goals for her career.


But what if it were possible to restore the body to peak physical condition? The question became the impetus for a year-long journey toward super-fitness in which she submitted to gruelling fitness tests, pushed herself physically to the limit, and talked to 80- and 90-year-old female track stars, all the while documenting it in her book, which suggests turning back the hands of time by 20 or 30 years is physiologically possible.

One stop in her journey was a visit to Greg Wells, assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Toronto. Wells coaches elite athletes and is an expert in the field of extreme human performance. Webb wanted to know whether her goal to get fitter in her 50s than she’s ever been in her life was insane. Not at all, said Wells. “If we had a drug that did what exercise did, it would be the biggest revolution ever, and would be promoted all over the world as the greatest accomplishment of humankind.”

Indeed, countless experts told Webb that 70 per cent of the effects of aging are preventable. “By moving faster, we slow aging,” she writes, citing facts about DHEA, a naturally produced steroid known to protect women from muscle loss and increased risk of dementia, even after estrogen production stops. Exercise can pull off the same benefits as hormone replacement. “Stress the body,” she says, “and I mean push the pace; pump up the weights, pour out the sweat—and, at any age, the body gets the signal that you want to live, you need to live.”

But can a menopausal couch potato—someone with years of inactivity—whip herself into marathon-running shape? Webb responds, “Can you go from zero to running a marathon? If carrying a lot of weight hasn’t resulted in some disability that makes running impossible, then yes, I would say for sure.” It’s widely believed that women, in particular, have advantages that enable them to beat men in endurance races, such as the 217-km Badwater Ultramarathon, won twice by American Pam Reed.

Webb admits she was terrified at first that lifting her knees too high and pounding too hard on her flat feet would cripple her for life, but experience and research disabused her of that worry. “People say running ruins your knees. No, no, no, no!” she corrects. “Carrying extra weight ruins your knees!”

Webb’s nutritionist, Kristen Bedard, put her on a version of the paleo diet, dubbed by Webb the “cave-ma’am diet,” consisting of vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, a little cheese, but no bread, pasta or sugar. In nine weeks, Webb lost 11 lb. and gained more energy than she’s ever had.

“Set a massive goal” is her advice to older women. “People are capable of so much more than they believe.” In Webb’s super-fit year, she got faster and stronger at age 50 than she was in her 30s. Her book is rich with the stories of super-fit older women, such as Vancouver’s 87-year-old Betty Jean McHugh, a marathoner who’s broken more than 30 world records and didn’t start running until she was 50.

Webb’s running group consists of five women. “Women like us have discovered that it is as easy to socialize during runs as it is over martinis.” As for the hard hill climbs and speed work, she’s started to crave them. “The brain pumps out those feel-good endorphins; I can cruise on a runner’s high for hours.” Webb ends with a warning. “If you’re not working out, depression and mood challenges are going to be pretty huge. Our bodies are meant to move.”

Posted on November 7, 2014 .

Get Out There Magazine: From Illness to Ironman

  Want to get better?  Take it one step at a time.  Big strides or small, every step makes us better, stronger, healthier.  Dream-set and start moving!

This summer I found myself staring out of a bus window looking at the mountains outside of Whistler BC on my way to the start line of Ironman Canada. Normally I'd be pretty psyched at that point in time. What's not to like about hours and hours of endurance based pain and suffering? This time was different. I was thinking about dying. No not the holy crap I’m running up a hill and I’m dying but actually dying. I know - not the best psyche-up routine. But nonetheless it was going through my head. Funny enough I had the same thoughts 12 months before lying in an emergency room.

Read more at Get Out There Magazine!

Posted on November 2, 2013 .

Get Out There Magazine: Cardiac Risk for Endurance Athletes

I normally think of marathon running as a wonderful, positive event where thousands of people come together to test their training and to accomplish something that they will remember for the rest of their lives. Sadly, for some people, marathon running can be one of the most tragic events imaginable. At the recent Toronto Marathon 18 year old Emma van Nostrand collapsed 3 kilometers from the finish line and later died in hospital. This seems to happen far too often in marathons around the world.  

Read the complete article in Get Out There by clicking on the image to the left. 

Posted on August 10, 2013 .

Get Out There Magazine: How to stay healthy

Most international-level athletes train 20 to 30 hours a week over 10 or more years for a chance to compete on the world’s stage. Imagine you’ve trained tirelessly for more than a decade. You’ve thought of everything
and prepared endlessly to make sure you have the best chance of reaching your potential. Then, on the plane to your event, you pick up a virus and
get sick. Even an infection as simple as the common cold can disrupt
your performance and end your dreams.

Read the full article in Get Out There by clicking on the image to the left. 

Posted on August 10, 2013 .

Get Out There Magazine: How our bodies function in the extreme cold

Ray Zahab could be called a little crazy.  And so are his friends.  Which suits me just fine.  Here’s why: in order to study the effects of extreme conditions on the human body, I have to find people who push their bodies to the limit.  Ray fits this requirement perfectly.  So does his close friend Kevin Vallely, who Ray says is “the only person I trust to go on extreme expeditions with.” 

What have these two done that makes them perfect subjects for my research?  A ton.  Like a self-supported, 1,100km speed trek from Hercules Inlet, Antarctica, to the Geographic South Pole in a record time of: 33 days, 23 hours and 55 minutes.

Read the complete article in Get Out There Magazine by clicking on the image to the left.

Posted on August 10, 2013 .

U of Toronto Magazine: Faster, Higher Stronger

You don’t need an Olympic training regimen to get healthy through exercise.

Most of the athletes competing at the Olympic Games this summer will have spent years training to get their shot at a medal. Greg Wells, a professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, studies high-performance athletes. He spoke recently with U of T Magazine about how they train – and the health lessons for the rest of us.

What has changed in recent years about how high-performance athletes train?
Previously, the focus was fitting in as much training as possible. Recovery was not an issue. The focus now has shifted to achieving higher level levels of performance during practice. For example, Canadian kayaker Adam van Koeverden broke the world record in practice on several occasions before winning a gold medal at the Athens Olympics. We’re pushing people to do higher-quality training more often, while also allowing more time for rest and recovery.

You recently worked with an extreme athlete who was running two marathons a day through the Andes Mountains. What did you learn about how the body adapts under such tough conditions?
The athlete, Ray Zahab, has the unusual ability to recover very quickly. We measured his blood glucose levels in the morning, afternoon and evening. By the evening, after a strenuous day, his blood glucose levels were extremely low, bordering on diabetic. But by the next morning they would be normal again. An average athlete might be expected to take several days to recover from that level of exertion. Ray is also able to operate at very close to his maximum capacity for up to an hour without having his body produce waste products, such as lactic acid. This is similar to other great athletes, such as five-time Tour de France champion Miguel Indurain. Average athletes can perform at this level for only a few minutes.

Kevin Vallely, who is Ray’s running mate, badly injured his foot on the second day of the expedition. Interestingly, he was able to heal himself as he ran a marathon a day across South America. Seeing his foot heal so quickly – despite the fact he kept running significant distances – was quite unexpected. This was one of those little things that you see when you’re doing science in the field that makes you wish you had a full lab with you. How he did it will unfortunately remain a mystery for now.

Is recovery time something we can work on ourselves?
To train and perform at a high level consistently throughout the year, people need to sleep well, eat nutritious food, use exercise to charge up their brains, stretch and get massages. The idea is to work hard, then recover well, and work hard again. I call this “work cycling.” If we apply the same recovery principles that athletes use to our own lives I believe that it can improve our health and performance tremendously.

Are Ray’s unique abilities a result of training, or are they genetic?
Ray, who is in his early 40s, was a two-pack-a-day smoker not very long ago. He quit smoking, started running and became very successful at it, so he seems to have a genetic predisposition to athletic success. But he also runs and trains almost every single day.

Does Ray’s experience offer any lessons for how to approach exercise as we age?
We used to believe that our bodies inevitably deteriorate. But the thinking now is that people deteriorate mainly because they become inactive. Studies have demonstrated that you can change the way your body ages by incorporating exercise and great nutrition into your life. One recent study provided a specific example of how exercise protects DNA. On the end of DNA strands are telomeres, which act like shoelace caps to stop DNA from fraying. Exercise seems to protect these telomeres. That’s why the DNA of someone who’s been exercising for 30 years is very similar to a young person’s, whereas people who don’t exercise exhibit greater damage to their DNA.

Are there are any greater health benefits or risks to intense training versus light exercise?
The critical factor for improved health seems to be the total volume of physical activity. Having said that, research has shown that intense exercise is important as well. The analogy I like to use is children in a park. They walk around, they sit down, and every once in a while they sprint. That’s what we need to do: mix brief spurts of high-intensity exercise with more low-intensity activities. The number one international health challenge right now is obesity – partly because we lead sedentary lives. If people can find ways of getting movement into their day, even if they have a desk job, that’s critical. My rule is 20-20. For every 20 minutes of sitting, stretch or move for 20 seconds.

Over time, exercise itself can put a strain on the body. What’s the best way to protect yourself against injury and ensure that you can keep exercising as you get older?
It comes down to leading a healthy lifestyle. This means exercising every day ideally for up to six hours a week – and doing different kinds of exercise: cardiovascular training such as running, cycling or swimming; strength training and flexibility training, such as yoga. It means supporting all of these by eating foods that are high in nutrients and low in calories. Exercise and good nutrition are both beneficial, but the combination of the two is more powerful than either one alone. Everyone is going to sustain an injury from time to time. The challenge is to manage that against a background of exercise and nutrition.

We have heard a lot recently about people collapsing during marathons and sometimes dying. What precautions, if any, should people take if they are planning to get involved in high-performance or extreme sports?
People should always check with their physician first. A small percentage of the population has a genetic problem with the heart that can cause a sudden cardiac death while doing intense exercise, such as running a marathon. This is different from cardiovascular disease, which is associated with inactivity, smoking and bad nutrition. With the genetic problem, you can usually track it through your family history. The person or a close family member will probably have previously experienced fainting or dizziness during exercise. A short questionnaire screens for it and a family doctor can do an electrocardiogram to test for it. For more information on sudden cardiac death, visit

Will you be commentating at the London Olympics?
Yes. We’ve done 12 pre-recorded segments that analyze the sport science behind a particular event, such as gymnastics, track and field, soccer, volleyball and basketball. I’ll also be doing live analysis on the prime time show with CTV’s Brian Williams every day.

Any predictions for the London Games?
We may see the first Paralympian to complete in the Olympics. Oscar Pistorius from South Africa is very close to qualifying for the 400-metre event, despite the fact that he runs on prostheses. If he does qualify, this destroys the concept of disability. There are also some great young Canadians who may do well, such as Mark Oldershaw in canoeing and Tera VanBeilen, who is second in the world in the 200-metre breast stroke right now.

How important is mental preparation for success in a top international competition?
Once you’re fit and trained and you arrive at the Olympics, mental preparation really is the differentiating factor between those who succeed and those who don’t. Athletes who stay calm under intense pressure are the ones who perform best. I recommend The Inside Edge, a book by Peter Jensen, for people interested in learning how to apply this on their own life.

Greg Wells is the author of Superbodies: Peak Performance Tips from the World’s Best Athletes.



Posted on August 10, 2013 .

Canadian Running: Recipes for Runners

Just like training, you need to change what you eat in each part of your season.

By Alison Dunn

Most runners are familiar with this concept of “periodization,” which involves structuring your training into discrete blocks that progress toward a specific end goal.  The idea is that a runner will achieve his or her top performance at a particular race, instead of peaking a month before (or a month after) the big day. But lately, top coaches, scientists and elite athletes have been taking periodization a step further, to include other ingredients like nutrition and recovery.

Greg Wells, a physiologist who works with elite athletes and teaches at the University of Toronto. “It’s being rewritten to allow people to train at a higher level far more often than they ever have in the past.” Here’s how you can maximize your fitness by adjusting your nutrition and recovery depending on where you are in your training cycle. 

Posted on August 10, 2013 .

Golf Canada Magazine: How to Exercise Safely in the Heat

Get out and play. But take the proper precautions when out in the summer heat.

When it comes to the game of golf, the environment plays a big role in determining performance outcome. Environmental factors such as heat, cold and travel stresses such as jet lag have powerful impacts on the human body, including the muscles, blood, nerves, heart and lungs. Fortunately,  well-educated and properly prepared players can cope with stressful environments like playing in the summer heat.

To read the article in Golf Canada Magazine click on the image to the left.  

Posted on August 10, 2013 .

Golf Canada Magazine: Head games: Regular exercise can make your brain healthier and in turn lower your score

The arrival of a new golf seasonis a great excuse to get back in shape, and improve your brain.

Yes – improve your brain. I’ve seen how exercise can positively impact your brain. This new area of research has me very excited about what exercise can in turn do for your golf performance, and what golfing can do for your body and, more importantly, your brain.

To read the article in Golf Canada Magazine click on the image to the left. 

Posted on August 10, 2013 .

Breakout Magazine: Mix it up! Adding complexity to your workout.

With the new season starting, it’s time to re-evaluate your workout plan. In the off season, players should concentrate on building up their physical abilities like cardiovascular fitness, strength, speed and agility. But what should you be doing now that the season has started? At this point you still need to do off-ice physcial training, but it should not be so stressful that it compromises your performance on the ice. So I suggest adding exercises that engage many muscle groups at the same time, and require less resistance while still stimulating the body’s muscles to adapt. Here are 2 examples of how to make simple exercises more complex.

Click here to read the full article in Breakout Magazine. 

Posted on August 9, 2013 .

Wired Magazine: The Next Sports Performance-Enhancement Fad? Blood Pressure Cuffs

Forget illicit drugs and questionable supplements. New research suggests that a small, constrictive band that wraps around an athlete’s arms or legs may lead the next wave of performance-enhancing fads in competitive sports.

A study published this month in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise demonstrated that highly trained swimmers that used a blood pressure cuff to restrict blood flow to their arms a few minutes before maximum-effort time trials improved their performance in a 100-meter race by 0.7 seconds. The study team was led by Greg Wells and Andrew Redington at the the University of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

Read the full story in Wired Magazine here. 

Posted on August 9, 2013 .

Golf Canada Magazine: Training Day: Canada's National Golf Team Gets A Physical Workout

On this chilly November day, players will spend the morning with Dr. Greg Wells, an exercise physiologist, who will test the players in various aspects of fitness before they visit Dr. Dana Sinclair, who assesses their mental management of the game.  While it’s up to the players to maintain a high standard of fitness, the RCGA is focused on steering them in the right direction to maximize their potential through customized programs for both the fitness and mental management aspects of the game.

Click here to read the full article in Golf Canada Magazine. 

Posted on August 9, 2013 .

Golf Canada Magazine: Team spirit–Are you ready to work out with team Canada?

It’s no secret that Canada has an obesity epidemic going on right now and golf represents an enormous remedy to that problem.  Golf is great for you.  Flexibility is important.  Cardiovascular fitness is a big part of the game.  There is a strength aspect and a whole mental relaxation component that you have to work on.  Golf is actually a phenomenal sport for health purposes.

Click here to read the full article in Golf Canada Magazine. 

Posted on August 9, 2013 .