Let’s review some critical points before moving on.
I’ve been making the point, based on the aging research, that experienced senior athletes are most likely to improve or maintain their endurance performance by focusing on aerobic capacity and muscular strength. Such training is high intensity. That presents the possibility of injury since older athletes are more “fragile” than they were when younger.
There isn’t just one way to train, however, that works for all senior athletes. The research is drawing general conclusions based on a wide sample. Not everyone has the same needs. The newer you are to your sport, for example, the more likely you are to improve or maintain your performance by simply putting in lots of training time. For the experienced athlete such training is of less value. High intensity is likely to be more beneficial, albeit risky, for these athletes. There are other considerations besides experience.
Your unique individual situation must always be considered when designing a training plan. This should take into account your age, previous training, body weight, health, sensitivity to training stress, risk of injury, time available for training, the goal event, training partners and much more. Then there are the environmental factors where you live and train to consider, such as altitude, terrain, weather, training venue availability and on and on. Even if aerobic capacity and strength training are right for you physiologically, some of these factors may interfere with such training.
Aerobic capacity training may also not be your limiter. The other determiners of endurance performance are lactate threshold and economy. Let’s do a quick review of all three so you can draw a conclusion as to which you most need to address in your training. The best way to determine your training needs for each of these is to be tested for VO2max and ask the technician for a comparison of your data relative to other athletes of various ages. Such tests are often available at medical clinics; universities; health clubs; running, bike and triathlon shops; and are often offered as a service by coaches. Expect to spend at least US$150 for such a test.
Here is a very brief summary of each (click on the links to read more details to help determine what your major limiter may be).
- Aerobic capacity (VO2max) – how much oxygen your body is capable of utilizing at maximal aerobic effort to produce energy. The higher this is, the greater your potential for high performance. In experienced athletes, this responds best to workouts that are done at or slightly below VO2max.
- Lactate threshold – at what percentage of VO2max do you begin to “redline” due to increasing acidity. May also be referred to by the tester as anaerobic threshold, functional threshold, maximum lactate steady state, and other names. Be sure to ask for a definition. The higher the LT percentage is relative to VO2max, the better your endurance performance is likely to be. An LT between 80 and 90% of VO2max is common in fit athletes of all ages. Again, similar to aerobic capacity, in experienced athletes the most affective training to elevate LT is to do workouts at or slightly below LT.
- Economy – how efficiently you use oxygen (a proxy for energy) to produce movement. As economy of movement improves, you race faster or use less energy at any given submaximal effort. It’s very difficult to improve economy in highly experienced athletes, but high intensity has been shown to be effective (Gunnarsson).
In previous posts (here, here, and here) I’ve discussed these three endurance performance markers and their likelihood to be at the root of a performance decline as you get older. I’m of the opinion that a great portion (most?) of your loss over time is largely due to things you have some degree of control over.
But back to testing... If you’d rather not spend the money (I couldn’t blame you) you may just want to accept that you fit the description of the experienced senior athlete found in most of the research I’ve been reviewing. In that case you could draw the conclusion that aerobic capacity is your major limiter and address it in your training. More than likely, that’s what you would find out through testing.
So why not the other two? In the above posts I made the case that economy is likely not the limiter for most senior athletes as many years of training for a given sport has a tendency to refine and optimize one’s movement patterns. The same goes for lactate threshold as it’s been shown to be at a higher percentage of older athletes’ aerobic capacities than that of young athletes. That leaves aerobic capacity. Several studies have shown this to be the one we geezers have the greatest need to improve. It appears to decline for many reasons – some mix of age- and training-related causes.
Then there’s the matter of muscle loss that typically comes with aging and may also play a role in the decline of your race results over a long period of time. Less muscle means less power. And that means slower speed.
This brings us back to what can be done to slow the losses, maintain current levels or even improve aerobic capacity and muscle mass – again, assuming these are limiters for you. I’ve previously proposed two solutions that both involve high-intensity training: aerobic capacity intervals (or fartlek, hill reps, hard group workouts, etc) and weight lifting. Heavy resistance strength training (Vale) and high-intensity aerobic capacity training (Pritzlaff, Pritzlaff) have been shown to stimulate the production of anabolic hormones – such as testosterone, estrogen, growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor – at a greater rate than low-intensity training while also being more effective for performance gains in well-trained athletes (Laursen). Such hormones build and remodel the tissues necessary for improvements in your aerobic capacity and muscle strength. They keep you "young."
Let’s again take a look at the risk associated with such training. High-intensity training increases the possibility of injury due to great stress. So if you are to train as I’m proposing here, some how you must decrease the risk. The way to do this is to be both cautious with training load starting points, and conservative with their increases. This comes down to what sport scientists call “dose” and “density.”
Dose has to do with how hard a given workout is – its duration and intensity. Duration may not be a problem for you (although it often is for runners who may need to consider cross training on easy, recovery days). Most senior athletes I’ve known have gravitated toward doing long, rather slow workouts. If you’re like most senior athletes, high intensity likely gets little attention in your workouts which further increases your chances of an injury if you bump up the training zones suddenly. To keep your risk of injury manageable it’s important that you be conservative with high-intensity workloads, especially when doing workouts such as aerobic capacity intervals and heavy resistance training. That means knowing what your limits are and staying well below them. Stop the interval session when you know you have one or two good reps left in you. Don’t try to beat your 1-repetition max in the weight room on your last set.
That’s dose. Let’s examine density.
Density describes how frequently you do these risky workouts. The more frequent the challenging workouts are done, the greater the density and the higher your risk. Allow plenty of time between hard sessions. When you first start training this way that may mean one such workout in a week. That gives you six days of low-intensity to fully recover. As the season progresses and your body slowly adapts, you may be able to make these workouts more dense, meaning fewer recovery days between them. The older you are, the less dense your training should probably be. A 50-year-old can typically handle more density than a 70-year-old. The same goes for dose.
For triathletes this does not mean do multiple high-intensity aerobic capacity sessions in each sport. A senior triathlete when first starting such a training regimen may only do one such workout for the entire week. It's then best to use it for your weakest sport. Over time, more aerobic capacity sessions may be added to the week. The triathlete must also consider the risk associated with such training in each sport. For example, high-intensity swim training has a lower dose-density risk than running.
The bottom line for both dose and density is this: Seldom try to find your limits. Instead, slowly “push them higher from the bottom up.” Do not “pull them up from the top.” That means, don’t force your body to adapt with excessively high dose and density. Instead, allow it to adapt slowly. Be cautious and conservative. Restrict both the volume of high intensity and its frequency. Train within your known limits. So what does that mean? This has to do with training periodization for senior athletes, which I’ll get into in my next post.
Gunnarsson TP, Christensen PM, Holse K, et al. 2012. Effect of additional speed endurance training on performance and muscle adaptations. Med Sci Sports Exerc 44(10):1942-8.
Laursen PB. 2010. Training for intense exercise performance: high-intensity or high-volume training? Scand J Med Sci Sports 20 Suppl 2:1-10.
Pritzlaff CJ, Wideman L, Weltman JY, et al. 1999. Impact of acute exercise intensity on pulsatile growth hormone release in men. J Appl Physiol 87(2):498-504.
Pritzlaff CJ, Wideman L, Blumer J, et al. 2000. Catecholamine release, growth hormone secretion, and energy expenditure during exercise vs. recovery in men. J Appl Physiol 89(3):937-46.
Vale RG, de Oliveira RD, Pernambuco CS, et al. 2009. Effects of muscle strength and aerobic training on basal serum levels of IGF-1 and cortisol in elderly women. Arch Gerontol Geriatr 49(3):343-7.