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How Older or Injured Athletes Make Exercise Work

By Rachel Bachman


The fitness market has responded to demand from people past their competitive primes. More products are popping up to help older or oft-injured athletes make workouts more comfortable, safer — or simply more fun.

The Wall Street Journal conducted an unscientific poll of older and injured athletes, specialty stores and fitness professionals to select a handful of popular or promising exercise products for this crowd. Athletes say the tools help alleviate some of the aches and pains of exercise they may start experiencing as early as their late 30s.

Pillow-Soft Shoes

First adopted by ultramarathoners, Hoka One One shoes have become popular among older runners. They have twice the cushioning of many standard running shoes, and the cushioning is softer and more forgiving than that in many other shoes.  Mark Plaatjes is a 53-year-old physical therapist in Boulder, Colo., who owned a running-specialty store for 18 years before selling it earlier this year. While training for last spring’s Boston Marathon, Mr. Plaatjes alternated using Hokas with a more conventional running shoe.

With the Hokas, he says, “the difference in my recovery and how my legs felt and how quick I got over the long runs was just spectacular.” He says he recommends Hokas to his patients with problem hips and knees.  Hokas are surprisingly light given their bulky silhouette: A men’s size 9 of Hoka’s top-selling Clifton model weighs about half a pound, less than many traditional shoes. The downsides: Some runners find Hokas unstable, and some experts recommend shoes with minimal cushioning.

No-Impact Running Machine

The Zero Runner, a machine that made its debut this year, has extra joints so that knees and hips bend more than they might on elliptical machines. Those joints make the machine feel less like an elliptical and more like running down the road.

Tom Riggs is a 56-year-old artist and longtime marathoner in Fort Collins, Colo., whose numerous surgeries prompted doctors to advise him to quit running. He gave it up in April, but a few months ago bought a Zero Runner. “It’s as close to the actual running motion as I’ve ever gotten,” Mr. Riggs says. He runs 40 to 50 miles a week on the machine — about what he had been doing on the ground, he says.

The Zero Runner isn’t motorized, so it is “virtually silent,” says Tim Porth, co-founder of Octane Fitness, which makes it. He aims to develop a version of the machine for health clubs and rehabilitation facilities. But he also bills it as a way for younger runners to minimize pounding on their bodies.  The Zero Runner is relatively new and thus not tested by the masses, and it comes with a $3,299 price tag. It is available on the company website and at specialty fitness retailers.

Underwater Headphones

Alleta Baltes of Riverton, Wyo., 54, says her iPod Shuffle and headphones by Underwater Audio keep her in the pool longer and make water aerobics more interesting. Waterproof headphones have existed for several years, but improved technology is producing better customer reviews.

“It also blocks out all that kid noise,” says Ms. Baltes, an elementary-school principal who swims at the district aquatic center. “The students think you’re really cool that you have an underwater iPod.”  Scott Walker, co-owner of Corvallis, Ore.-based Underwater Audio, says the company’s average customers are in their 40s or 50s. “My dad is 51 and he listens to audiobooks when he swims,” Mr. Walker says. “We have customers who listen to comedy shows and laugh in mid-stroke and swallow a ton of water.”

Underwater Audio’s Swimbuds Sport bundle, which includes upgraded headphones with four types of earbuds to help with fit, comes with swimming tips and a 30- minute workout narrated by U.S. Olympic swimmer Rebecca Soni.

Comfier Road Bikes

An expanding category of road bikes is being adopted by riders who no longer want to hunch over handlebars as if they’re retrieving a quarter from the sidewalk.

Called endurance bikes, these cycles have slightly higher handlebars than traditional road bikes and a shorter top tube, putting the rider in a more upright position. The top tube also slopes downward toward the back wheel rather than running straight across, so there is less need for a yoga regimen just to climb aboard.  Scott’s Solace line of endurance bikes, including three models for women, have frames that are flexible on the upper half for comfort and stiff on the bottom half for hard-cranking responsiveness.

Jay Webler, a 62-year-old private music teacher in Lilburn, Ga., says he has been riding a Felt Z85 endurance bike for about 2 1/2 years and says many of the riders he knows own similar bikes. The higher handlebars mean he doesn’t have to bend over as much to ride. “I’ve had no back problems on this thing,” Mr. Webler says.

Leather bike seats

Of the three contact points on a bike — handlebars, pedals and seat — none can produce misery like an ill-fitting seat. Many long-distance and older riders are returning to an old standard to stay on their bikes longer: leather. It forms to one’s anatomy over time, like a broken-in baseball glove.

Jim Halay, a 62-year-old pizza-shop owner in Eden, Utah, bought a used leather saddle by Selle Anatomica online and used it on a 120-mile ride the next day without soreness. “That has made a huge difference in my cycling,” Mr. Halay says. One of his bikes also has a leather saddle by Rivet Cycle Works, a Sacramento-based company owned by long-distance cyclist Debra Banks.

Leather saddles, as cyclists call them, fell out of favor with some riders because they weigh more than synthetic seats. But many riders find leather more comfortable than gel-filled seats. On long rides, the gel can wind up pressing on a person’s soft-tissue areas and cause soreness, says Elton Pope-Lance of Harris Cyclery in Newton, Mass.

The popular B17 saddle from century-old English manufacturer Brooks runs $145. But as the company’s catalog says, “We strongly advise you not to adopt a miserly attitude in choosing this most important interface between you and your new machine.”



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