Coach’s Note By Lance Watson
Is Age Just a Number?
While triathlon is still relatively a young sport, we are now seeing athletes who have been training and racing for 10, 15 and 20+ years. Training knowledge has evolved in triathlon, and like many endurance sports, athletes are enjoying being fit and fast into their 50’s, 60’s and beyond. While triathlon is for many, a fountain of youth, it is important that the maturing triathlete doesn’t keep reapplying the same training template and body stress year after year, decade after decade. The annual plan has to adjust as the body ages, after age 40.
Many athletes will hit their lifetime potential in Olympic distance triathlon (1.5km-40km-10km) in their early 30’s, and Ironman distance in their mid to late 30’s. In lifelong athletes, studies show peak endurance performance is maintained until ∼35 years of age, followed by modest decreases until 50–60 years of age, with progressively steeper declines thereafter.
Age group racing in the 40-44 and 45-49 categories is fierce. Athletes are still going really fast. In fact we have seen professionals racing successfully into their 40’s at the Ironman distance. VO2 max (maximal oxygen consumption) appears to be the primary mechanism associated with declines in endurance performance with age, with a reduction in lactate threshold (the exercise intensity at which blood lactate concentration increases significantly above baseline), being secondary. In contrast, exercise economy (i.e. metabolic cost of sustained sub maximal exercise) does not change with age in endurance-trained adults.
Many athletes can replicate the same types of threshold training sets they did in their mid 30’s through their early 40’s. The biggest change in training regime is recovery time. The good news for the long term athlete is muscle memory, which can best be described as a type of movement with which the muscles become familiar over time. The more often you do a certain activity, the more likely you are to do it as needed, when needed. While the amount of training intensity needs to be monitored, exercise economy should be high due to muscle memory. Athletes can attain previous levels of fitness with less threshold work so long as they stay healthy and can perform consistent strong aerobic efforts.
Recovery weeks should take place every 3rd week, and they need to be a really good recharge, especially as you approach your late 40’s. The most common reason competitive athletes’ performances drop off in their 40’s is they don’t respect the increased need for recovery and develop a serious injury. Increased focus on body maintenance through massage and stretching can also prolong the athletes’ high performance window.
Research out of Australia has shown that of the three sports, cycling declines less with aging than does swimming and running in triathletes. The decline in running vs. cycling is more pronounced in Ironman distance than Olympic distance triathlons, suggesting that task duration exerts an important influence on the magnitude of the age-associated changes in triathlon performance.
Bone mass or density is lost as people age, especially in women after menopause. The bones lose calcium and other minerals. Impact of exercise helps maintain bone density, and supplementing calcium is a good idea. Changes in the muscle tissue, combined with normal aging changes in the nervous system, cause muscles to have less tone, elasticity and ability to contract. Muscles may become rigid with age and may lose tone, even with regular exercise.
Cycling is non weight bearing, and most athletes in their 50’s can do similar volume to those in their mid to late 40’s. Emphasis should shift to a higher percentage of aerobic mileage in all 3 sports, but still performing 50-75% of the high intensity work done in your 40’s. Good cycling fitness will help support a declining run split. I.e. if you can start the run feeling fresher, you are capable of running closer to your current maximal level. Generally, placing two recovery days after a hard interval session helps you reap the fitness benefits without tearing down the body.
Athletes in their 50’s need to carefully “pick their spots” in the season. They can train for a high level performance, but cannot sustain the same high levels of training output for as long of durations through the year as athletes in their 30’s and 40’s. You have to be really clear on what your peak event is, and have a shorter threshold emphasis peaking phase that follows a longer aerobic base phase.
Strength training becomes more important after age 50. Lifting 2-3 times per week much of the year and doing core strength regularly is a good idea, as does a regular flexibility routine. Need for recovery increases more, and a minimum of 2 weeks out of every 5 should be a dedicated recovery week.
We often think of age chronologically. But chronological age doesn’t do a very good job of predicting your functional age or fitness level. We all know 45-year olds who have never been very physically active. When compared with the 65-year old masters athlete, you’d place bets on the 65 year outperforming the 45 year old in a host of fitness measures like muscle strength, flexibility, and maximum oxygen consumption despite the 20-year chronological age difference.
Protecting the joints from inflammation, pain, stiffness, and even deformity which can result from breakdown of the joint structure means the mature athlete has to respect the pain body signals. The healing process from injury at this age can be much longer.
Most adults continue to gain weight (body fat) until their mid 50’s and then begin to lose weight afterwards. Weight loss can be exacerbated in senior athletes. Be vigilant about consuming adequate calories carbohydrate and protein calories to maintain your body weight.
People typically lose about 1 cm (0.4 inches) every 10 years after age 40, and this accelerates after age 65. Coupled with losing some range of motion, bike set ups may have to change.
After 60, the injury risk and recovery required from frequent high intensity training is not worth the benefit. One high intensity swim, bike and run workout every 2 weeks, coupled with frequent aerobic work emphasizing efficiency of movement is a good guideline. Take 2 days of per week, and every second week should be a lower intensity, lower volume recovery week.
Along with your aerobic conditioning work, include resistance exercises that work the major muscle groups, and regular flexibility and stretching. A gentle yoga class is a really good idea for maintaining strength, range of motion, balance and stability.
Given their impressive peak performance capability and physiological function capacity, Masters and Senior athletes remain a fascinating model of ‘exceptionally successful aging’. Athletes functional ages may vary, athlete longevity continues to evolve, meaning exercise prescription evolves as well. In fact there are many fine genetic specimens out there who will disregard the outlines and recommendations of this article! Regardless, as you age, the take home message is “use it or lose it”!
LifeSport head coach Lance Watson has coached a number of Olympians, Ironman and Age Group champions. Lance and the coaches at LifeSport enjoy working with athletes of all ages and abilities.