As we age, science tells us that certain physical aspects of performance will most likely need our attention. These are aerobic capacity (VO2max), muscle mass, and body weight.
Here I’ll discuss how your aerobic capacity may be maintained or even increased. I’ll also get into what can be done to avoid age-related training interruptions due to injury.
The research on aging in experienced endurance athletes tells us that in order to reduce the decline in aerobic capacity with advancing age, training must be intense. That typically means just below, at, or above the lactate threshold (anaerobic threshold, functional threshold, etc.). And this is based on heart rate, pace, speed, power, or perceived exertion. For experienced endurance athletes, an exercise regimen based solely on long, slow distance will do little to improve or even maintain your aerobic fitness status over the years.
Of course, you simply may not be able to improve it, especially if you’ve been training intensely for many years. Even with such focused training there is still the age-related performance decay that research has repeatedly shown us is inevitable. Your current age and history of exercise consistency has a lot to do with how great the gains may be in the future. If your training has been inconsistent and you are in your 50s, you’re more physiologically capable of significantly reversing the downward performance spiral through training than if you are in your 70s. That doesn’t mean a 70-year-old can’t make performance gains after a few years of slacking off. It’s just somewhat harder to accomplish due to physiological changes that occur with advancing age, such as reduced hormone production.
There is also the matter of genetics. Some people have apparently won the genetic lottery. They are endowed with a great capacity for hard workouts with little risk of breakdown. They can do high-intensity training and experience a quick and positive response. Others of the same age can do the same workouts over the same time and see little or no performance change. Life just isn’t fair.
Risks and Considerations
There’s little doubt that intense training is risky. As workouts become more challenging, the chances of injury, illness, and overtraining increase. Intense training needs to be modulated in regards to your current level of fitness and personal age-related limits. Those limits may have become magnified by the absence of high-intensity training in recent years. If that’s the case, be extra conservative with training changes as you ease into what I’m going to propose below.
If high-intensity training is something you haven’t done for a long time or ever before, then there are several things you must consider. These include the type of hard workouts, the frequency of hard workouts, short-term recovery from hard workouts, and nutrition relative to hard workouts. I’ll cover these last few points in future posts. But for now let’s look at high-intensity training for aerobic capacity.
The most effective and efficient use of your time and energy to increase training intensity is by doing some type of interval training.
When doing intervals, the absolute intensity, duration of the repetitions, number of repetitions, and the durations of recoveries between them must be only slightly more challenging than your estimated current capacity for physical stress. Because this type of workout can be quite stressful, an interval session should be preceded by a gradually progressing warm-up. It should end when a reasonable workout goal is attained, when it is apparent that high-end performance is declining, or when effort feels unusually high for the output (pace, speed, power).
If you have been diagnosed with coronary heart disease, have concerns about your heart health, or are on statins or other medications that alter heart rate, then you should consult with your doctor before starting an interval-training program. Fortunately, the risk of heart attack among apparently healthy athletes as they age is quite low (Mengelkoch).
If you’ve previously done intervals throughout your sport career but have had a gap in recent years, then you know how to get started again. But if long, slow distance training has been your only training method, then you may need some guidelines for interval training.
Guidelines for Interval Training
A typical first session for someone who has not done interval training recently may be something like…
- Warm-up: 10–30 minutes gradually ratcheting intensity up to zone 3
It’s common for older athletes to need more warm-up than young athletes. Warm-up may also vary by sport. For example, it is typically longer for cycling than for running. Swimming generally falls between these two.
- Do 3 x 3-minute reps with each rep in zone 4 and 3 minutes of recovery in zone 1 between them.
Rep intensity may be based on heart rate, pace, speed, power, or perceived exertion. Some of these are better than others depending on the sport. Heart rate–based intensity is perhaps the worst way to gauge how hard to work with intervals as heart rate rises slowly. It may take several minutes to achieve zone 4 during which time you are left guessing how hard to work. Most athletes err on the side of starting intervals too fast to force heart rate up and then slowing down later as zone 4 heart rate is finally achieved. This is just the opposite of what should be done, which is to finish each rep with a slightly higher intensity than it was started.
- Cool down with several minutes of easy exercise in zone 1.
As with the warm-up, the duration of the cool down depends on the sport. Cycling is typically long and running is relatively short.
At first, such a workout may only be done once in a week. Over time the number of such weekly sessions may be increased to two. It’s uncommon for senior athletes to be capable of doing more than two in a week. I’ve coached some who can, but they are rare and more likely in their 50s rather than in their 70s.
An indication of improving fitness is that the speed or power of the reps increases relative to heart rate. To determine this, you can divide the combined average speed or Normalized Power for the reps by the combined average heart rates for the reps. As this ratio increases, your fitness is improving. TrainingPeaks calls this “Efficiency Factor (EF).”
As the EF for your interval sessions rises, increase the number of reps. As the longer-rep sessions become tolerable begin to gradually increase the duration of the reps. When you can easily manage about 20 minutes total combined rep time (such 4 reps of 5 minutes each at zone 4) with recoveries about a quarter as long time-wise as the preceding interval (75 seconds for a 5-minute rep) in a single workout, then you are ready to move on to slightly more intense intervals. Start again with 3 x 3-minutes with 3-minute recoveries, only this time just above lactate threshold.
Over several weeks as the intensity moves up to zone 5b heart rate or pace (see The Cyclist’s Training Bible or The Triathlete’s Training Bible for details on zones) or zone 5 power (see The Power Meter Handbook), restrict the rep durations to 2–4 minutes with recovery durations of the same length. And restrict the total combined interval time to no more than about 15 minutes. At this intensity, most older athletes generally should not do more than one such session per week while perhaps continuing to also do one of the zone 4 sessions in a week. The time gap between such weekly sessions should be at least two days, three is usually better. Some athletes will not be able to handle two interval sessions in a week. That’s not unusual. If unsure, do only one per week.
Once you become fully accustomed to doing intervals, you can modify the components of the session. Change such elements as the duration progression of the reps, terrain for the reps, number of reps, total combined time of the reps, and durations of the recoveries. You can also combine various types of interval and steady-state sessions into a single workout. But be patient with such advances. Don’t rush into them or you greatly increase your risk of injury. Patience is the key to training consistency as you get older. If in doubt, leave it out.
All of this brings us to the peripheral training adjustments that are usually necessary for older athletes to avoid injury. I’ll address this in my post, “Aging: The Problems of High-Intensity Training.”
L. J. Mengelkoch et al., “Effects of Age, Physical Training, and Physical Fitness on Coronary Heart Disease Risk Factors in Older Track Athletes at Twenty-Year Follow-Up,” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 45, no. 12 (1997): 1,446–53.