Science measures aging in many ways. Take telomeres, for example. Those are the caps on the ends of your DNA strands. Scientists use them as markers of cell age since the longer they are, the younger the cell is. They grow shorter as you get older. The length of telomeres is also directly related to aerobic capacity (VO2max) and therefore endurance performance. So how long are your telomeres?
A few years ago scientists at the University of Colorado in Boulder measured the telomeres of young (18-32) and old (55-72) subjects (LaRocca). Each group was divided two sub-groups – sedentary and endurance-trained – so there were four groups in all. When the telomeres of old sedentary subjects were compared with those of the young sedentary, the oldsters’ were 16% shorter. They really were “old.” Those of the old, endurance-trained subjects were only 7% shorter than the endurance-trained youngsters. Old athletes had telomeres that were 13% longer than their sedentary peers. Telomere “age” was directly related to activity level. Exercise keeps you young. I doubt if this is any big news for you.
It also appears that the more intensely you exercise the younger you are if we accept aerobic capacity as a marker of aging. And as we also learned previously, aerobic capacity seems to be the marker of performance in which we experience the greatest losses as we age.
David Costill’s Human Performance lab at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana has produced many valuable studies for endurance athletes over several decades. Here’s a classic that gives us a clearer picture of the relative importance of duration and intensity in training and aging when it comes to aerobic capacity.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s 53 elite, male runners were tested for several parameters of fitness including aerobic capacity. They were re-tested 22 years later. In those two decades all experienced a loss of VO2max (and more than likely telomere length also since they are closely related). Nothing new there. But here’s the kicker. Those who continued to race and trained with high intensity had the least decline in aerobic capacity – 6% per decade (68.8 to 59.2 mlO2/kg/min). Those who focused on “aerobic fitness” while decreasing their intensity experienced a per-decade drop of 10% (64.1 to 48.9). And, as we might expect, those who stopped all training lost the most – 15% per decade (70.7 to 46.7). Intensity is the key.
That information may produce some new challenges for you, not the least of which is the motivation to train with higher intensity.
Simply knowing this is not going to make it happen. You must actually do something about it by training as you did when you were younger – with some age-related adjustments. I want to get into this topic of how to adjust training for age, but first we need to examine your commitment to serious training. Training to perform better, whatever that may mean for you, starts in your head.
What can you achieve in sport? That comes down to setting goals. I’m not going to go into all the goal setting stuff you’ve been reading and hearing about for years and years such as being measurable, well-defined, time-oriented and on and on. You know this. So let’s move on to goal setting as a function of age.
The starting place for better fitness is setting goals based on what you believe your aging body (and mind) can handle. Aiming for the stars sounds good when talking with your pals, but that usually means low commitment because you know down deep it isn’t possible. Be realistic and honest with yourself. On the other hand, don’t dummy down your expectations by assuming that you are incapable of attaining a high level of performance simply due to the number of years you’ve been on the planet.
Most all athletes, regardless of age, can achieve a lot more than they think they can. Don’t be afraid to set high goals. However, I’d rather see an athlete set a goal they know is achievable and then later on, once imminent success becomes apparent, take it up another notch. That’s far better than starting too high and losing motivation to continue toward the unachievable.
Therein lies the key question: What am I capable of achieving? I’m asked that question a lot. I’m afraid my crystal ball is a bit cloudy. There is no sure way of knowing what your potential is. But here is how you can go about getting a ballpark answer. We have to look backward before projecting forward.
The more challenging and structured your training has been in recent years and the more dedicated you’ve been to working out, the less room you have to get faster. But if you’ve been slacking and you know it, then there is probably a great deal of improving you can do in the years ahead despite your age. If your race times have slipped more than 20% in the past decade, for whatever reason, and you are currently healthy then I would fully expect you could achieve at a higher level. But if your times have increased by 5% or less in a decade then you may be quite close to your potential. Between these extremes is anybody’s guess.
For most athletes, regardless of age, the greatest obstacle to better performance is seldom physiological but rather psychological. Most people simply lack the motivation. This can, and does, happen at any age. Being 50 or 60 or 70 doesn’t mean you have a pass to train more easily and yet some how perform well. Patting yourself on the back for merely finishing is a sure way to injure your shoulder. High performance has been and always will be based on hard work. That means higher intensity and more speedwork. But many of us seem to gravitate to slower and less stressful activity levels over time as if we’ve some how earned it. Then all too often we complain about how slow we’re getting.
You aren’t old until age becomes your excuse. If you continue to remind yourself of your age and use it as a crutch, no matter what that number is, you’ll come to believe that high achievement is impossible. That’s probably the way your parents saw the world. At least mine did. After a certain age you weren’t expected to do anything strenuous. Gardening and a walk around the block was about as tough as it got. Just grow old, get fat, and accept that as simply the way life is. You can have that if you want, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You are the master of your own fate no matter your age. Refuse to accept it as your excuse.
LaRocca TJ, Seals DR, Pierce GL. 2010. Leukocyte telomere length is preserved with aging in endurance exercise-trained adults and related to maximal aerobic capacity. Mech Ageing Dev 131(2):165-7.
Trappe SW, Costill DL, Vukovich MD, et al. 1996. Aging among elite distance runners: a 22-year longitudinal study. J Appl Physiol 80(1):285-90.