The topic of aging athletes is a favorite of mine, given my propensity for getting older every year. Here is a question I was recently asked at an interview I did with a cycling publication.
Question: It seems that recovery, or lack thereof, is a big issue with older cyclists. Based on your training methodology, what suggestions do you have for this group?
Answer: “Older” athletes are old primarily because their rate of recovery is relatively slow. Someone can be “old” at age 35 due to a poor recovery rate after stressful workouts. On the other hand, I’ve coached athletes in their 60s who recovered very quickly, and so by this definition were still “young.” In fact, recovery is probably the key to performance at all ages, but especially so for aging athletes who tend to have the deck stacked against them.
For the purpose of this discussion, let’s say that aging athletes are over age 50. Starting around this age it becomes apparent that athletes have lower levels of testosterone, have started losing muscle mass, have increased risk of osteopenia and osteoporosis (especially in cyclists), have increased tendencies for acid-base imbalance, have reduced sensitivity to thirst, perhaps a greater propensity for weight gain, lost soft tissue elasticity accompanied by an increased likelihood of injury, reduced enzyme activity, less tolerance for heat, and more. It isn’t pretty.
Aging athletes are fighting an uphill battle. But for most, I don’t believe the issue is aging so much as it is detraining. The younger an athlete is, the more mistakes that can be made in their training and lifestyle without negatively impacting performance. As we age, there is less latitude for mistakes. Cutting back on training with age only exacerbates the problems when the athlete does train seriously. So for the aging athlete the focus on training and performance must be narrowed.
The Four Focuses of Training
The focus of the aging athlete must be in four areas:
There are only three elements of training that can be manipulated to produce fitness: workout duration, workout intensity, and workout frequency. As we age, there is a tendency to increase duration at the expense of intensity. Workouts become longer and easier. The aging athlete needs to do just the opposite if he or she is to slow the aging process. Workouts above 80% intensity factor with an emphasis on muscular endurance, anaerobic endurance, and sprint power (see my Training Bible books for details) should be the basis of their training. This typically results in shorter training sessions but higher weekly average intensity. This stimulates testosterone release and maintains muscle mass.
Lifting weights is one of the best ways the aging athlete can maintain bone density while also stimulating testosterone release. The use of heavy loads with traditional strength training is what is needed here to accomplish these goals. Such training should include loading the legs, which requires a great deal of planning so as not to impact on-bike training. An alternative for the athlete who prefers not to load the legs is walking or running several miles each week. I suspect that body-weight-only exercises are not as effective as lifting heavy loads when the purpose is bone density. Such training should be done frequently and regularly. Research suggests that this will maintain the aging athlete’s bone and muscle health.
As mentioned above, younger athletes can make many mistakes in training and still perform at a high level. Aging athletes can’t. This is certainly true when it comes to recovery. As we get older, adequate sleep is especially important. If following my guidelines above, training is becoming more intense and serious strength training is adding to the accumulating stress. Sleep quantity and quality are necessary to allow the body to cope with this stress. Aging athletes must be very careful not to compromise sleep in order to fit more activities into their lives.
The second most effective modality for improving recovery is nutrition. There are two primary areas of concern: 1) adequate macronutrients, especially carbohydrate and protein, in the recovery period following an intense workout, and 2) a micronutrient-dense (vitamins and minerals) diet for the remainder of the day. The first requires taking sugar during a long and intense workout (water is all that is needed during short workouts) with starch consumed in the recovery window. These recovery foods are micronutrient-poor but necessary for maintaining and restocking glycogen (stored carbohydrate). Once short-term recovery is achieved then the athlete should greatly reduce their intake of starch and sugar. The emphasis now should be on micronutrients. The most micronutrient-dense foods are vegetables, fruits, and animal protein. These alkaline foods have also been shown to improve acid-base balance (an acidic diet escalates the loss of bone minerals and muscle mass).