When, bent by the heat, I shuffled into Alex Astilean’s new Speedfit studio off Newtown Lane in East Hampton the other day — the hottest of the summer — he asked me if I thought I was fit.
I replied that while I played tennis doubles twice a week and took Pilates and stretching classes at the East Hampton Y.M.C.A. RECenter, I didn’t really think so. Looking over at his treadmills, I allowed as how I hadn’t run in years, knee replacements in my 60s having persuaded me to give it up.
“If I’d met you when you were in your 40s you wouldn’t have had to get those surgeries,” said the personable Rumanian-born trainer who insists that the short, low-impact workouts of his devising — no longer, say, than 10 minutes at a time — are all that’s needed to achieve an optimum level of fitness.
Astilean, once the world’s seventh-ranked collegiate decathlete, came to the United States in 1990 and worked for about a decade with Radu, his fellow countryman, on the South Fork before opening his own studios, first in Bridgehampton and then in East Hampton. He is especially interested in working with the elderly, which is to say with most of East Hampton’s population.
While running a six-minute mile (which I did at Fort Dix, in combat boots, in 1962 so that I could win a weekend in the big city) is out of the question, I found, to my delight (and with his prodding) that I could run at a 7:30 per-mile pace, as I had in my 40s, before my knees gave out, for one minute on a treadmill.
Earlier in the workout Astilean had referred me to Dr. Oz’s dire predictions for those who couldn’t run a quarter-mile in under four minutes.
Yet I had run one at a 2:27 clip, and thus could say with confidence, I told him, that, barring unforeseen mishaps, I could look forward to turning 72 next February.
Further, when I looked at the speed/time chart for which Astilean’s seeking a patent, I could see that the fact I’d run a minute at a 7:30 pace also meant that, when it came to future workouts, I could run at an 8:30 pace for two minutes, at a 10-minute pace for three, and at a 12-minute pace for five.
As I ascended the chart from the four-mile-per-hour line to the eight-mile-per-hour one, Astilean’s 6-year-old son Max spelled me (with ease) at every increment as I toweled off.
His other son, Alex, 13, who placed fifth in the state Y.M.C.A. swim meet’s 100-yard freestyle race this spring, showed in his turns on the treadmill that he could run like the wind as well.
On the treadmills, Astilean wants his trainees to run on the balls of their feet, not on the heels. That way, he said, there’s no impact.
“You’re in much better shape than you thought,” Max and Alex’s father concluded. “And that’s no b.s., because you’ve seen on my chart what you’re capable of.”
One of the reasons Astilean wants to train older people has to do with what he saw happen to his father. “At 76, he ran a quarter-mile in 3:15! I timed him. He was a hard worker all his life, but he never exercised.”
“After two years, he ran a quarter-mile in 4:15 (Dr. Oz’s danger point). There was a big fall-off. That wouldn’t have happened if he’d worked out with me.”
The higher one rose on his chart the better, of course. Once there, it would take many years to drop down into the danger zone. Still, for me, he thought the midway point would be a goal worth shooting for. That 10-mile-per-hour line, he added, was unachievable for someone who was obese.
Moreover, he said, people were also hurting themselves by running on hard surfaces, and by running for so long at a time. “I would like them to put in a soft track in the park (his studio abuts Herrick), with shavings. That’s the kind of track we ran on in Rumania.”
The decathlon, he said, was a two-day event. “The first day it’s the 100, the long jump, the shot-put, the high jump, and the quarter-mile. The second day it’s the 110-meter hurdles, the discus, the pole vault, the javelin, and the 1,500, which is almost a mile. You end with that. And then, of course, you have to warm up for each event. You lose 15 pounds in those two days.”
“I was in the University Olympics in 1981. In Bucharest. In ’84, the year the Olympics were in Los Angeles, I couldn’t get a visa. They knew I’d never go back if I came here,” he said, with a smile. “In 1990, I came. I had a capitalist vision!”
Once through with the treadmill, I did 50 repetitions of several pulling exercises to strengthen the upper body, and, lying with my back on a mat, rocked back and forth with a medicine ball, which I’d throw to him, and he to me, every time I sat up.
“So, I guess I should add some treadmill running to my regimen,” I said, about to depart.
Running at a brisk pace for a short period of time was, he said, “number one” when it came to maintaining an optimum level of fitness. “Running is very important, before everything. Well, not before sleep. Sleep is number-one, running is number-two. Then sex.”