In Part 3 and Part 4 of this series I made an argument for training aerobic capacity as you get older in order to maintain not only VO2 max but also lactate/anaerobic threshold and economy, the “Big 3” of endurance training. In this last installment (Whew! Finally!) I will relate such training to periodization. In other words, based on the type of event you are training for, when is it most affective to do VO2 max intervals?
My experience in observing athletes for decades is that as they get older they tend to gravitate toward longer races and train at a lower intensity. As mentioned earlier, this results in a loss of aerobic capacity over time. While these aging athletes are still much more aerobically fit than their sedentary neighbors, including those younger than themselves, they could be more fit – and race faster at all distances – by training with higher intensity for at least some portion of their seasons.
A University of Colorado study from a few years ago confirms both of the above contentions. Wilson and Tanaka studied 13,828 male subjects who were divided into three groups: sedentary, active, and endurance-trained (1). The endurance-trained subjects were runners. They found that body fat and weight increased with age in the sedentary and active groups but not with the runners. Yet the runners’ VO2 max dropped at the rate of 6.8% per decade (sedentary-8.7% and active-7.3%). You may recall from my previous post on aerobic capacity that the formula for determining VO2 max is mL O2/kg body weight/minute. So if body weight stayed the same yet VO2 max was decreasing the only change taking place was that the volume of oxygen the athletes could use during maximal exercise was decreasing.
While age may account for a portion of this drop in O2 usage, I suspect that a portion was the result of the runners doing slower workouts as they got older thus reducing stress on the aerobic system. Use it or lose it. In fact, the study found that there was a significant decrease in the speed of training runs with advancing age in the endurance-trained group of runners. Was that due to the ravages of age or a reduced motivation to run fast? In other words, does getting older make us slower, or do we elect to train slower as we get older? I don’t know of any research on that question. My guess is that both things happen with advancing age: We experience physiological changes that reduce aerobic capacity but we also gravitate toward slower workouts. While you probably can’t change the physiological decrements you certainly can change your training to include more high-intensity workouts and thus preserve some portion of your aerobic capacity.
One of the questions you should be asking is “when should I do harder workouts and what should I do?” I answered the latter part of this in Part 4. Don’t rush into VO2 max-interval training if most all of your recent training has been zone 3 and lower, which is common for older athletes, I’ve found. Start, instead, with zone 4 training over several weeks with once- or twice-weekly “cruise intervals.” This will raise your VO2 max significantly if you haven’t been training that intensely and prepare your body for the higher-intensity zone 5/5b VO2 max intervals also described in Part 4.
If it’s been years since you’ve done such training then allow your body to adapt to the zone 4 workouts over an even longer period of time, perhaps 3 to 6 months, with only one such session a week 2 out of every 3 weeks. And, as always, if you have a family history of cardiovascular disease or have experienced symptoms then consult with your doctor before beginning such training. (Dr. George Sheehan, a noted runner, philosopher, Runner’s World columnist and author, used to say that if you aren’t going to exercise you should see your doctor.)
But what if you do long, slow (relative to VO2 max pace/power) races such as marathons, Ironman triathlons and centuries? Should you still train with fast-paced intervals? After all, as I’ve said many times here before, the key to periodization is to make the workouts increasingly like the A-priority race the closer in time you come to the race. Wouldn’t VO2 max intervals be counterproductive in that case?
Well, the answer depends on when you do the fast intervals. I often read on the internet of athletes describing what they call “reverse periodization.” They are usually a bit confused about what this is, but it is the answer to the dilemma of when to do high-intensity training when getting ready for a long, relatively slow race. Most athletes seem to believe that periodization means the closer in time you get to your race the more intense your training should become. So they believe that when training for, say, an Ironman that in the last few weeks before the race you should be doing VO2 max intervals. That’s obviously wrong and they sense it. So they invent reverse periodization in which the VO2 max intervals are done in the Base period. They’ve solved the problem with their “reverse periodization,” but for the wrong reasons.
Indeed, the solution is to do VO2 max intervals (as described in Part 4) in Base 3 when you are training for an event which will be conducted at well below VO2 max pace or power. But this isn’t “reverse periodization” at all; it’s exactly what periodization is all about – making training more like the race the closer you get to it. Conversely, the farther away (in time) from the race, the less like the race training is. This is still linear periodization (by the way, there are many other ways of periodizing training other than linearly which I hope to discuss here some time). So having done VO2 max intervals in Base 3 (these will raise not only your aerobic capacity but also your lactate threshold pace/power while improving your economy) you progress into more race-like pacing/power in the Build period.
Assuming two A-priority races in a season this means you’d spend 8 to 12 weeks a year working on aerobic capacity with such workouts spread out into at least two portions of the year. That’s what I do with the older athletes I coach. And it’s quite effective, I’ve found.
That’s it. That’s how I train older athletes to help maintain their aerobic capacities while producing faster times in very long races. Of course, there is much more to training as we get older than this. Other major concerns are the timing of rest, recovery modalities, nutrition (a huge topic for older athletes), strength work and psychological training.
The reason I wrote this exceptionally long, 5-part post on aging and performance is that I am considering writing a book on the subject so it is on my mind a lot right now (not to mention that I am also getting up there in years). If you’d like to read what I wrote about on this same topic about 13 years ago look for a copy of my second-ever book, Cycling Past 50 (that’s me on the cover at age 53). A lot has changed since then, which is why I am considering a new book on the topic of aging (not just for cycling, by the way), but the basic premise I describe here is the same.
Thanks for hanging in there with me through several weeks on this topic. As a result, we’re now both older– and wiser (I hope!).
1. Wilson, T.M. and H. Tanaka. 2000. Meta-analysis of the age-associated decline in maximal aerobic capacity in men: Relation to training status. Am J Physiol Heart Circ Physiol 278(3): H829-34.