Who is an “aging athlete”? For simplicity’s sake let’s assume that’s anyone over the age of 50. While I’ve known many half-century athletes who are still successfully competing with 30-somethings, by this stage of life most of us start to see things change a bit. The most obvious is the need for more recovery time following hard workouts and races. Athletes in their 20s can manage several hard days in a row and still perform at a high level each time. Not so for the aging athlete. We need more rest and recovery time than we did a few years ago.
[Related: “Q&A: Recovery and the Aging Athlete“]
As the years pile up after that, we notice other changes taking place. Here are three that I’ve found have a lot to do with maintaining performance as we move beyond 50. I describe these all in much greater detail in my book, Fast After 50.
Changes in Aerobic Capacity/VO2max
Other than recovery, the most obvious change is that aerobic capacity (VO2max) begins to decline. You breathe just as hard on long hard efforts as you have always done, but you aren’t going as fast or the power isn’t as great. This doesn’t happen all at once but rather very slowly over a period of several years. It more than likely started in your mid-30s and continued into your 40s, but perhaps wasn’t really noticeable then because you had become a smarter racer and knew how to take advantage of your other strengths to be competitive.
But usually by the time there are 50 candles on your birthday cake, you’re aware of it. This is normal. It happens to all of us. And short of a magic wand I don’t know of any way to completely reverse the trend. But you can temporarily reverse the trend—perhaps. You can certainly slow the decline of VO2max. There’s no doubt about that, especially if your training now is typical of other similar age mates. By this point in life most of us start gravitating toward long, slow distance. Other than an occasional all-out effort, usually in a race or hard group workout, we find it somewhat more comfortable to focus on duration at the expense of intensity (although duration has been shown to decrease with aging also). We become focused on how many miles or hours we’re doing rather than how hard the rides are.
To boost your VO2max you need to reverse that trend. To do that I suggest including two types of workouts in your weekly training. Both should be high-intensity intervals done at near or above your anaerobic threshold. In the workout appendixes in my Cyclist’s Training Bible and Triathlete’s Training Bible, you’ll find guidelines in two ability categories that will fit the bill—muscular endurance and anaerobic endurance workouts.
Changes in Muscle Mass
The second change that begins to appear after 50 is a loss of muscle mass. Again, this doesn’t happen suddenly but sneaks up on you. It also helps to explain, in part, the decline in VO2max since the more sport-specific muscle you have the more oxygen you can process. Unfortunately, this happens because we get lazy. We hire someone to cut the grass or clean the house. And we’re less inclined to do hilly courses or push to our limits. We stop going to the gym. And lots more. The bottom line is that if you don’t stress your muscles they shrink. Use it or lose it.
The fix? Make it a point to stress the muscles at least twice each week—every week. Not just when you feel like it. Perhaps the best way to do that is by getting back to the gym again. The muscles you are most concerned about are the ones that propel you in your sport. For example, in a cyclist it’s the muscles in your legs that drive the ankles, knees, and hips when pedaling. For this you already know the best exercises: squats, leg press, lunges, or any weight-loaded exercise that causes you to extend the ankles, knees, and hips at the same time. A runner or a swimmer, for example, needs to give some thought to which muscles are most important—and develop them with some stressful overloading. Don’t like going to the gym? I understand. So go to the Muscular Force section of the workout appendices in my Training Bibles to find alternatives. Then do them regularly. Your sport-specific muscles will begin coming back to a more youthful strength and be able to produce greater power.
Changes in Body Fat
The third change is one we’re all too familiar with—an increase in body fat. Part of the reason we gain fat with aging is that our anabolic hormones, such as testosterone, estrogen, human growth hormone, insulin-like growth factor, and many, many more are in great decline by age 50. Guess what stimulates the production of these tissue-building hormones—high-intensity exercise such as intervals and lifting heavy weights.
But it doesn’t happen during the hard ride or gym session. Those only create the potential for the hormones to do their thing. The actual changes that take place in the body mostly happen while sleeping. That’s something most of us don’t get enough of. We try to wedge too many things into our days. Where do we nearly always find that “extra” time to do more stuff? By reducing bedtime. Because of this I tell athletes with very high sport goals they can only have three things in their lives—family, career, and training. All of the other stuff must go. I know those other things are important to you. But there’s only one you. It really just comes down to how badly you want to achieve that high athletic goal. It’s your call.
You have choices to make every day. I’ve suggested three options here that have the potential to improve your performance despite aging. It’s up to you to decide which, if any, you will do.