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If I Worked Out as a Teen, That Totally Banks Itself for When I’m an Adult, Right?

I didn’t suffer through all those pushups in gym class only to do them all over again at 32

My wife had been conclusively finished with her swimming career for nearly seven full years before I finally managed to pull her out of retirement. It was only for a fun little masters swimming meet, but that didn’t stop her from coming perilously close to cursing me out when she reviewed the heat sheets and became incensed. “I haven’t been in the water in years!” she screamed. “That’s a world-class time for a masters swimmer! I can’t swim that fast anymore!”

Here I was, thinking I’d insulted her by providing her with a seed time several seconds slower than her lifetime best (she’s a former NCAA All-American), and she was still upset. She was so concerned about publicly underperforming that she personally called the meet official and “corrected” my entry times for her.

On the day of the meet, after spending only a couple minutes in the water loosening up, my wife obliterated two active NCAA swimmers in the 50-meter freestyle on the way to crushing the original seed time I’d provided her with. Somehow, she was nearly as fast as she’d ever been despite not training at all.

“Okayyyy…,” she conceded, while sporting a beaming smile in the cool-down area after her race. “I guess you were right. I’m still fast.”

On the one hand, I was thrilled for her. On the other hand, I was overcome by both jealousy and annoyance. How was it possible that she could still be so fast when I had to struggle mightily, training several times a week, to even have times within hailing distance of hers?

Is she just a natural?

Yes, but that’s only a small fraction of it.

By that point, my wife had spent the better part of her life training regularly — usually two or three times a day for many laborious hours, and despite the fact that we’ve been preaching “use it or lose it” for decades with respect to muscle mass and strength, we now realize the correct saying is probably closer to “use it or go get it out of the storage shed.” 

It turns out that if you’ve ever trained really hard and reached a high level of fitness, you can never really lose it completely.

You mean if I become really big and strong I’ll always have the ability to tap into it again?

For the most part, yes, but you need to be careful not to raise that thinking to an extreme level.

Realistically, if you have the endurance level of an elite distance runner, that’s obviously a valuable reservoir of fitness potential to tap into at a later date. If you decide to take time off and then return to train for a marathon, your body will probably re-adapt to the rigors of running with relative ease. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be able to match or exceed your peak performances of prior years, because you’re still subject to the deterioration caused by aging. What it does mean is that you may be seen as annoyingly fast in the eyes of people who trained diligently during the years you were taking it easy, only for you to surpass them by capitalizing on what they’ll perceive to be natural talent. They won’t so readily take into account the long stretches of time from many years prior when you annihilated your body for the sake of your sport.

Also, the fact that you have a stockpile of stamina to draw from doesn’t mean an accumulation of adipose tissue all over your body won’t do real damage, as will the invisible issues that accompany unhealthy behaviors. Just because you can take it off quickly doesn’t mean you won’t do irreparable damage through the act of piling it on.

What’s the science behind this magic?

Your muscles produce myonuclei when they’re trained — essential nuclei exclusive to your muscle tissue — and your body retains them even when your later training levels go through periods of abatement. Thus, when you return to training later on, these myonuclei spring to life and rush your muscles back to their once vast vitality at a rapid rate.

So, yes, you do have a bank of brawn that you can make a withdrawal from, provided you’ve made adequate deposits to it during significant stages of your life. Don’t take this resource for granted though, because it’s one investment account that doesn’t enjoy the benefits of compounding interest. Also, don’t wait too long to check your account balance, or you may find yourself at risk of an overdraft in the form of a physical breakdown during an inopportune moment.

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