Can the loss of performance with aging be overcome by training? Can you maintain your 35-year-old aerobic capacity and muscle mass, the keys to aging performance, when you’re 55 or even 75 years old? Most scientific research tells us that it’s highly doubtful (Doherty, Faulkner, Foster, Phillips, Raue). Even though much of this loss appears to be a result of disuse (LaRocca, Leyk, Wroblewski, Wright), there is no doubt that there is a decline in endurance performance with age that appears to be inevitable even among elite age group athletes regardless of sport.
We know, however, that the rate of loss can be slowed if you continue to train at a workload similar to when you were younger, especially the intensity of your workouts both in aerobic (Katzel) and strength training (Aagard, Porter). I wrote about that here and here. But as many readers have told me recently in comments to this blog and in emails, the problem is an increased incidence of injury resulting from high-intensity efforts that seem to be especially high among runners. The other problem is slow recovery. The keys to maintaining aerobic capacity and muscle mass then are injury prevention and rapid recovery following workouts. I wrote about recovery and aging a few weeks ago here. So let’s now examine Injury prevention in greater detail.
Modifications to training are necessary to avoid an increased likelihood of injury. Typically, the older you are the easier it is to become injured and the slower an injury is likely to heal (Kallinen). Bones, tendons, ligaments, cartilage and muscles break down and form scar tissue at lower levels of training stress than they did when you were younger. An increased likelihood of orthopedic injuries may be the reason runners seem to slow down more than their similarly aged peers in swimming and cycling. While running is not the only sport athletes get injured in, it is more likely to produce orthopedic injuries than, for example, swimming, cycling and cross country skiing. So the normal training stress of runners often declines at a steeper rate over time. That may well be necessary.
In terms of continued performance improvement, there is nothing worse than an injury. It can easily result in a bunch of zeroes in your training log. Missed workouts mean lost fitness and starting over again.
To avoid injury, regardless of your sport, there are two things you must always do. The first is to start at a training stress level you know you are fully capable of managing. This has to do with how long and intense your workouts are and your weekly volume of training. The second imperative to avoiding training setbacks is to be patient with your progress. This is where most athletes make their greatest mistake. Allow more time at each stage of training than you did when you were younger. Be patient. Wisdom is supposedly one of the attributes of age. Apply it to your training.
Increase your workout durations and intensities slowly over time. Don’t rush to the next level. It’s too risky. Counterbalance these two workout variables. When you increase the duration of your workouts, decrease their intensity. When it’s time to increase intensity, decrease duration. For older athletes it's probably wise to avoid increasing both up at the same time. If you do, your risk of injury increases exponentially. You may have gotten away with a double increase when you were younger, but it’s now more likely to result in injury.
If injured the timing of treatment is critical. Don’t wait to seek medical help. Every athlete, but especially you as an older athlete, need someone in your corner who can treat injuries, or even niggling aches, when they occur. This could be a family physician, chiropractor, physical therapist, podiatrist or naturopath who you trust, who knows your endurance sport and who understands the treatment of aging athletes. I rely heavily on Nate Koch at Endurance Rehabilitation, a physical therapy practice where I spend my winters in Scottsdale, Arizona. With my summers in Boulder, Colorado I go to the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine and to see Dr. Andy Pruitt, an old friend and fellow aging cyclist. They’ve both been treating my aching bones and soft tissues off and on for 11 years. I have complete faith in their effectiveness when I place myself in their hands as I’ve had to do on numerous occasions.
Closely related to injuries is arthritis which becomes increasingly common with advances in age. The best way to avoid this may well be continued exercise since it is less common in athletes (Maharam). The research doesn’t tell us, however, if exercise helps to prevent joint disease or if those who experience it drop out of their sport becoming sedentary and so skew the data. If you suffer from arthritis you have probably become adept at knowing not only what aggravates it, but also how to modify your training to accommodate it until the inflammation subsides. Prescribed medications may well be necessary at these times.
In my next post I’ll take a look at other aspects of injury prevention and workout recovery.
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