Sport and the Ageing Athlete

Sport and the Ageing Athlete

April 17, 2019

Although all athletes will eventually lose performance as we age, with better training and recovery practices we are seeing more athletes in their 40’s and older remaining competitive at the highest levels of sport. By “training smarter, not harder,” athletes can reduce the chances of injury, maximize gains from training and minimize the effects of ageing.

In most sports, there is an optimal age where all the planets align, so to speak, at which the physical, technical and strategic abilities come together and the athlete is at his or her peak. In most sports, this age is in the mid 20’s to early 30’s, for endurance sports, the upper cap for competing at the sport’s highest levels appears to be around the age of 40.

Chris Horner won the 2013 edition of the Vuelta a Espana, 51 days before his 42nd birthday, making him the oldest winner of a cycling Grand Tour.

One big reason we see declines in aerobic (or endurance) athletic performance with age is that our bodies can’t use oxygen as effectively as when we were younger. Numerous studies have shown that an endurance athlete’s VO2 max declines gradually, typically starting sometime in the 30’s. For many athletes this decline only starts to become noticeable in the late 40’s or early 50’s.

In the general population, VO2 Max tends to decline by about 10% every 10 years after the age of 30. Athletes who continue to compete and train hard can reduce the drop to about 5% per decade after the age of 30. The reason VO2 Max declines with age is that our maxim heart rate goes down as well.

Maxim Heart Rate is the highest heart rate in beats per minute one can achieve during the intensity of endurance exercise. It is roughly predicted as 220 – age = Maxim Heart Rate. Although the actual Maxim Heart Rate for a given person is highly variable, as you age, your Maxim Heart Rate decreases, whether you are a fit athlete or not. As we age this decrease reduces both cardiac output and oxygen delivery to the muscles, which translates to a lower VO2 Max and thus lower performance in endurance events.

However, what doesn’t seem to decline with age in an athlete is the ability to operate at a high percentage of maximum potential. Even if oxygen delivery to the muscles goes down, the ability of the muscles to efficiently utilise the oxygen they do get relative to a given workload (exercise economy) is maintained into the 60’s and 70’s.

A study done on masters runners between the ages of 50 and 82 years of age, who continued to compete on a regular basis over a 10 year period showed less declines in VO2 Max compared to their non-competitive peers. Studies also show that a slight decline in VO2 max may be countered by the ability to deal with greater amounts of lactic acid, an advantage found to exist in older runners. This could possibly explain why many endurance athletes in their late 40’s and 50’s are still competitive with athletes who are in their 20’s and 30’s.

You expect to see fast times from athletes in their 20’s and 30’s in any endurance event, but it is now common to see athletes in their 40’s and 50’s almost as fast, if not at times faster. At 42 Kenneth Mungara of Kenya won the 2015 Gold Coast Marathon in a time of 2:08:42, which is still a course record.

Now that we know peak performance as an endurance athlete seems to occur somewhere between the late 20’s and early 30’s, how long can we maintain a high level of fitness, or at the least, continue to make gains towards higher levels of fitness as we age?

Top coaches push an athlete’s power at Lactate Threshold to a higher percentage of the athlete’s power at VO2 Max. For example, rather than an athlete having a threshold power at 75% of VO2 Max Power output, they aim to get it to 80% of VO2 Max. Even as VO2 Max is slightly declining due to age, with training, athletes can sustain or improve the percentage of the VO2 Max at which they can operate.

How we do this is high-intensity training, which is tough enough for young athletes, let alone older athletes losing their muscle elasticity and mass. General consensus is that an ageing athlete has to actually do high intensity workouts if they’re to perform at a high level, with workouts above 80% of maximum, with an emphasis on muscular endurance, aerobic endurance and sprint power forming part of training 2-3 times per week.

Another training focus that should evolve as we age is to avoid junk K’s when running. We incorporate more swimming and cycling because of the non-weight-bearing nature. Research suggests that 70% of injuries in the over 60’s are a result of overuse when running because of the decrease in musculoskeletal flexibility, running long distances on hard surfaces is hard on the body.

High-intensity interval training, for instance, focuses on the quality of a workout, rather than the sheer volume of training and can be used effectively by older athletes to improve aerobic capacity.

There was a study conducted where 37 elite runners had their fitness tested in 1970 and then re-evaluated 22 years later. During the interim period 11 runners continued to train strenuously, a further 18 on a more casual basis and the remaining 8 took up a sedentary lifestyle.

The result was the eight sedentary ex runners lost 15% of aerobic capacity each decade and the 18 slower paced runners lost about 9% over the same period of time. However, the 11 who continued to train strenuously enjoyed no significant loss in VO2 Max or running economy, despite maturing from an average age of 26 to 48 Years old.

The key point is to not neglect high-intensity training, so long as you pay careful attention to recovery. Strength sessions should also become part of your training regime with specific strength exercises that will stimulate testosterone release to maintain muscle mass longer, particularly for older athletes.

Being cardio junkies, gym sessions are not our natural playground, however, we focus on doing two workouts a week, after a bike or swim session. The session consists of a combination of weight and bodyweight work.

An emphasis on “active recovery” strategies (an easy run or swim on your rest days), good nutrition and improved sleeping habits are important for athletes of all ages, but become essential for older athletes as they take longer to recover.

Typically a two-days training and one day rest program is a popular program to adopt, depending on how you feel, take a two-day break if you feel tired and lethargic, particularly if the sessions have been hard with little respite.

Now that we have that covered, get out and take care of business people, get the show in the road. When it comes to world class sporting apparel we have you covered, no matter your discipline.



The Element Twenty Two Team

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