(The following first appeared in my interview with Performance Conditioning for Cycling Newsletter.)
Old athletes are old for many diverse reasons. But the primary one is due to their relatively slow rate of recovery following stressful workouts. Someone can be “old” at age 35 due to a poor rate of recovery. 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 appear to have the deck stacked against them. But there are also other reasons for declining performance with aging.
For the purpose of this discussion let’s say that one is "old" over age 50. By this age it is usually apparent that an athlete is experiencing several life- and performance-altering physical changes: lower levels of testosterone, lost muscle mass, increased risk of osteopenia and osteoporosis (especially in cyclists and swimmers), an increased tendency for acid-base imbalance further contributing to bone and muscle loss, a greater propensity for weight gain, lost soft tissue elasticity with an increased likelihood of injury, reduced enzyme activity, less tolerance for heat, and more. It isn’t pretty.
So it appears that aging athletes are fighting an uphill battle. But for most I don’t believe the issue is aging so much as it is detraining, misuse and disuse. We simply fail to adequately and appropriately change our lifestyles and training regimens as we get older. When younger one can make more mistakes in lifestyle and training without significant negative consequences for performance. As we age there is less latitude for mistakes. For example, temporarily cutting back on training only exacerbates the problems when the aging athlete once again trains seriously. When younger the same athlete may well have bounced back quickly from a break in training. So one example of a critical issue as we get older is training consistency.
For the aging athlete training and lifestyle must adapt. Something has to change to maintain or even improve performance. My experiences as a coach and as an athlete in my seventh decade of life tell me that the focus for the aging athlete must be in four areas:
• Workout intensity. There are only three elements of training for a given sport 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 slower as weekly volume becomes the focus of training. The aging athlete needs to do just the opposite if he or she is to perform at a high level despite the aging process. Workouts above 80% intensity factor (just below and above anaerobic/lactate threshold) 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 two or three times each week - not lots of long, slow distance This change typically results in shorter training sessions but higher weekly average intensity. Such change stimulates testosterone release and helps to maintain muscle mass.
• Strength training. Lifting weights is one of the best ways the aging athlete can build bone density while also stimulating testosterone release to maintain muscle mass. The use of heavy loads with traditional strength training is what is needed to accomplish these goals. Such training should include loading the legs which requires a great deal of planning so as not to impact sport-specific training in the build period (this is not necessary for runners to maintain leg and hip bone density). An alternative for the cyclist or swimmer who prefers not to load the legs in the weight room is walking or running several miles each week. I suspect that body-weight only exercises such as squats, step ups or lunges are not as effective as lifting heavy loads or the impact loading of walking and especially running when the purpose is bone density. Such training should be done frequently and regularly but vary with the season. Research suggests that this will maintain or even improve the aging athlete’s bone and muscle health. You can rebuild bone and muscle despite how old you are.
• Sleep. 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 you follow my suggested guidelines above, training will become more intense and serious strength training (or walking or running) adds to the accumulating physical stress. Sleep regularity, quantity and quality are necessary to allow the body to cope with this stress for it's during sleep that the body releases testosterone. Aging athletes must be very careful not to compromise sleep in order to fit more activities into their daily lives. The standard I use to determine if an athlete is getting enough sleep is this: If you have to use an alarm clock to wake up in the morning then you didn't get enough sleep. Go to bed earlier.
• Nutrition. After sleep, the second most effective modality for improving recovery is nutrition. There are two primary areas of concern: adequate macronutrients, especially carbohydrate and protein, in the recovery period immediately following a high-stress workout, and 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 during-exercise and recovery foods are micronutrient-poor but necessary for restocking glycogen (stored carbohydrate) for the serious athlete (note that if you work out an hour or less a day then you don't need to be concerned with restocking glycogen). Once short-term recovery is achieved the athlete should greatly reduce the intake of starch and sugar. The emphasis should then be on micronutrients. The most micronutrient-dense foods are vegetables, fruits and animal protein. Akaline foods (fruits and vegs) have also been shown to improve acid-base balance. (As repeatedly demonstrated in research, an acidic diet due to a high consumption of cheese, grains and legumes escalates the loss of bone minerals and muscle mass. This is explained in Dr. Loren Cordain's and my book, The Paleo Diet for Athletes.)