It's been a week since I last posted here. I returned late yesterday from several days in Bangkok where I spoke at the Asia Fitness Conference. It's always interesting to talk with athletes from around the world. What always stands out for me when doing this is that it doesn't matter where they are – Bangkok, Berlin or Boulder – athletes around the world have the same interests, concerns, needs and questions. This includes older athletes who are seeing a slowing of their race times. So with that let's get back to talking about aging and performance.
So far as shown in Part 1 and Part 2, we are coming to the conclusion that aerobic capacity (VO2 max) and lactate threshold are (perhaps) the keys to maintaining your racing performances as you get older. At least the few studies on the subject seem to support these as the primary areas of interest.
Could it be that performance in some sports changes faster or slower than that in others? I’ve found only one study on this. A cross-sectional study from the University of Bourgogne in France looked at which sport experienced the greatest rates of decline in performance – swimming, cycling or running (1). And, of course, they looked at triathletes to find the answer. Here the split times of the top 10 males in each age group from 20 to 70 were examined at the Triathlon World Championships in 2006 and 2007 for the Olympic and Ironman distances. Cycling showed less decline in performance with aging than running or swimming. And, interestingly, the rate of decline of the 50+ age groups for cycling and running was significantly greater for the Ironman athletes. In other words, the older triathletes who raced at the shorter distance experienced less decline in performance. And, conversely, older Ironman athletes saw a greater decline in performance.
This last finding is interesting. Why might that happen? Why would Ironman athletes get slower as they aged at a greater rate than their age-related counterparts at the Olympic distance? Of course, what the researchers did here was to compare the split times of, let’s say, 50-year-olds with those of 30-year-olds at the same distance and then compare the rates of decline for the corresponding Olympic and Ironman age groups. The short-course triathletes slowed down the least.
Here’s my take on this. The primary determiner of performance in short-course racing is intensity. These athletes are likely to do very fast-paced intervals to boost performance. For the Ironman-distance the primary determiner of performance is duration. They are likely to do long, steady workouts at a much lower intensity. If that’s true, and I believe it is, then it seems to point the finger of blame for loss of performance with age at training intensity rather than duration. If you train slower, albeit longer, you are likely to lose performance at a greater rate per decade than if you train fast with perhaps fewer miles.
I agree with the studies cited in part 2 which suggest that VO2 max is probably the greater determiner of performance as we age. If that’s true then maintaining VO2 max is the best way to maintain high performance as we get older. If you read my previous blog on VO2 max then you know that the best way to improve or maintain aerobic capacity is by doing high-intensity training. Seems to make sense.
So, what can you do to keep from experiencing a high-rate of decline in performance as you age? The answer in a nutshell seems to be: train with high intensity. But training volume and duration of workouts also must play a role. If you train only a handful of hours weekly, even if they are very intense, it is unlikely that you will approach your potential or be competitive on a broad stage as you get older. The best endurance athletes in the world almost always train both intensely and with high volume. “High,” of course, is a relative term. For a 20-something pro cyclist high may mean 30 or more hours a week in the saddle. For a competitive 50-year-old, age-group marathon runner 12 hours per week may be high. The same serious runner training for 5km races may run 7 hours a week and that would be high.
So just put in high volume weeks with a few days of intervals thrown in. No problem, huh?
Well, let’s get real. While there certainly are a few athletes who at age 50 (and 60 and even 70) are still putting in very high volume (I know a few of them and they are certainly remarkable athletes), most of us on the high side of 50 either can’t fit high-volume training into our busy lives or else we know our bodies simply won’t handle it. The solution is to find the “Goldilocks volume” – not too high, not too low, but just right. That means just right for you given your A-priority races, available training time (you’ve probably got some semblance of a life aside from sport), resistance to injury and illness, and training environment (for example, weather and sunlight). Once you’ve found this number (it may change somewhat throughout the year based on periodization) stick with it while focusing on intensity.
Intensity can be sort of tricky, too. The training intensity of an Ironman athlete is significantly different from that of a sprint-distance triathlete. The average training pace of a marathoner is considerably slower than that of a 10km runner. Athletes must train at intensities that are specific to the event for which they are training. Long-distance athletes (Ironman, marathon, etc) shouldn't train fast. Or should they? The key here is periodization. And that’s where I’ll go with my next post as this one is getting a bit long.
Check back in a few days as I’ll dig into how to manipulate your seasonal periodization to optimize training intensity in order to keep the inevitable slowdown with age to a reasonable amount.
1. Lepers, T.C., F. Sultana, T. Bernard, C. Hausswirth and J. Brisswalter. 2010. Age-related changes in triathlon performances. Int J Sports Med 31(4): 251-6.