What does it really mean to age as an athlete?

Fluorescent ChrisIt’s an interesting problem trying to figure out what to expect (or not expect) as you age as an athlete.

See, the idea of aging is both a reality and a mindset. We have no control over the fact that we grow older in years. Yet we can combat how those years affect us through exercise, strength work and healthy eating. So to answer the question “What does it really mean to age as an athlete?” one must consider this duality. .

Measuring how you age

The first component is the reality that aging does have profound effects on our bodies and minds. The physiology of the body begins to decline after an athletic peak at around age 26. By age 40 a trained athlete can still perform at levels similar to that of younger competitors, but age eventually eclipses performance capability past 40 for all but the most remarkable athletes. 

That means we must begin to compare ourselves to new standards as we age, and isn’t that a refreshing notion? It would be insane to beat yourself up for not running as fast at age 45 as you did at age 25. At some point it becomes impossible to match the aerobic and cardiovascular output of our younger selves. But that does not mean the quality of our efforts need to diminish. And that’s the difference.

Training and competing 

photo (50)What do we mean by quality of effort? It means that we can draw the same satisfaction out of training and competing at any age. Fortunately (and unfortunately in some respects) the sports of running, riding and swimming all have metrics by which we can see the specifics of our training and competing. We know our times and how fast we competed. But those are not the sole standards for quality of effort.

For example: a race effort on a hilly course is never going to be as fast as a race on a flat one. The same standard applies as we measure ourselves as we age. The limiting factors of our physiology basically change the quantifiers by which we should judge the quality of our effort.

That means every year constitutes a new start as we age.  The times you ran last year or five years ago may be relevant in absolute terms, but never should dictate or determine expectations or how you view the quality of your effort today.

It’s wonderful of course to do well in your age group. Many even surpass those perceived standards and race well against people younger by 10, 20 or even 30 years! That’s a great feeling in terms of quality of effort. It proves you don’t need to “give in” to age as the years add up.

I’m always fascinated by people who take up running in their 30s, 40s or 50s because having been a runner all my life, there is a big difference in how the body responds the first time to training. Some folks see enormous improvement in the first couple years, then wonder why they can’t keep breaking their PRs. Some might credit it to age. But actually, what they’re often reaching instead is the extent of their knowledge and training base. We call this a plateau.

Age can feel like a permanent plateau. That’s one of the tarsnakes of existence. But you know the old joke: Life is rough, but consider the alternative. So it’s best to figure out ways to adapt to the plateaus of age than to bitch about the feeling of loss of youth, or otherwise.

Quality versus quantity

Improvement always comes down to working with what your body can sustain. Even world class distance runners and cyclists who continue competing into their 40s and 50s and beyond note that more rest and recovery is required as an athlete ages.

monkey-girl01Same goes for training volume and intensity. Younger athletes recover more quickly from the strains and injuries resulting from intense or high volume training. Older athletes may find that injuries persist or become chronic. That requires an adaptive approach to training. Strength and support training in flexibility is important for all athletes, but older athletes especially need to build a base of core strength and work on those muscles that support the joints. Keeping ahead of muscle and joint imbalances is important work.

It also seldom pays throw in that junk mileage that seemed to carry you through youth. It does not hurt to train hard, but aging athletes must consider sustainability over quantity.

Keeping perspective 

Last fall I ran a 45:00 10K, which is an average of just over 7:00 pace per mile.

But here’s the funny thing. My training leading up to that effort was negligible actually. Less than 15 miles a week. That begs the question of how well could I do if I doubled that mileage, or tripled it?

Cudworth Racing SycamoreTherein lies the challenge. In my earlier life as a competitive distance runner I did some very high mileage, topping 100 miles per week in training. That did put some wear on my body. Some of my peers can no longer run at all thanks to sustained training at that level in their 20s and 30s. I backed off a bit and gave up competitive running for a while as I raised a family. So there’s still a bit of tread on the tire. But I have to be smart because the realities of age and use can combine to create problems. That’s not a guarantee, but it is a fact.  

It is quite difficult to separate the wear and tear from a life’s worth of mileage from that which comes naturally with aging. The muscles and tendons in our bodies naturally become less flexible and less durable with age. We can counteract much of that effect through regular training. Strength work is key to this process because it builds back muscle bulks, strength and durability.

Letting go, oh no…

People who don’t train at all tend to age in much different ways than those engaged in physical activities. A body left to age on its own is much like an untended garden.

Life exists as a process of dealing with continual loss. But that does not mean that all is necessarily lost.

Problems crop up like weeds and can take over the whole assemblage. That often leads to chronic issues with joints, organs and blood, to name a few. As recent generations have adopted more active lifestyles we hear less about “trick knees” and “bad ankles” and more about biomechanics and addressing imbalances. That’s a big change from 30-40 years ago. 

It has been proven that regular exercise, even as little as 15-30 minutes a day can maintain the body and mind in healthy ways. Those of us who do more than that, riding four hours on the bike or running two hours at a time, are pushing the other end of the envelope. Our problems come from overuse, not neglect. But the two can feel and look like the same thing!

Tricky problems

Last year when I managed to race 10K in 45:00 at age 57, it was despite a chronic achilles tendon problem. My activities were limited by the soreness yet the work I did accomplish was of decent enough quality that a base level of running fitness combined with the aerobic benefits of cycling made it possible to race at a decent pace. It also helped that toward the end of the training we did a tweak in my orthotics that along with a different set of shoes resulted in an injury-free effort. It’s been slowly improving ever since, and I’m now doing training on the track at 6:00 per mile pace. 

Granted I have a lifelong “base” upon which to draw in terms of training and experience. I would say the latter is actually as valuable as the former. I know how to pace myself and my baseline ability as a runner does give a degree of confidence that I can go out and do it again.

Goals and limits

So if I were to delve into training this year without injury, what are the outer limits that I could gain in an event such as the 10k?

IMG_3850Well, the world record for the 10K at age 60+ is 32:48. That’s just over 5:00 per mile. My PR at the distance is 31:10, accomplished when I was 24 years old and training between 60-90 miles per week. So I have absolutely no expectations of going that fast. 

However it might be possible however to manage a 6:00 per mile 10k. That would put me at 37:17. Hmmm. It feels within reach. But only if I can do the training to carry that pace over 6.2 miles. You can see how the age question becomes a governor on one’s expectations. 

This is where “quality of effort” enters the picture again. Because perhaps my real goal is to run 7:00 pace in the two different segments of a duathlon. That would move my time up 3-4 minutes over the 10K at that distance. Improve the bike speed as well and I’m competing with athletes much, much younger than me. And that’s fun. That’s why I now do these sports.

Factors

Let’s be honest: the aerobic efficiency of a 57-year-old man is simply not as strong as that of a 24-year-old man. Lung capacity and VO2 max rates drop as you age. Your heart cannot even achieve the rate of heartbeats on average that you need to crank at the paces you once did as a youth.

Even world class runners and cyclists “lose a step” as they age for these very reasons. Cyclists such as Chris Horner and Jens Voigt defied age late in their careers and even won races. But take note: the world class cyclists who dope are doing so in order to improve their oxygen conversion capacity and to try to keep up with the peloton for stage after stage. Add in the factor of diminished aerobic capacity as you age and it’s clear there’s a double-whammy going on. Even a “clean” peloton is a hard taskmaster. 

Parsing factors

Bike rethinkingIt is very hard to determine for yourself whether the results from year to year as you age are the product of getting older or changes in training. In my case I started cycling seriously in 2005 at age 47. That’s ten years ago, and I have not stopped to calculate whether I’m improving or losing a pedal stroke or two. That first year I participated in 8 criterium races and learned the hard and ironic lesson that it isn’t fitness alone that wins cycling races. It’s also brains and positioning and the like. So you can impose all the absolute metrics you like on cycling. It still comes back to quality of effort. 

I have also watched cyclists my age and older beat much, much younger cyclists. Their training was sustained over the years and that is a significant “age-proofing” method for all those involved in endurance sports. Let that be a lesson to us all. If you want to compete well into your 40s and 50s, it is wisest not to “let yourself go” during your late 30s or early 40s. 

Muscling up or down


Finish RunIn the last couple years I sense a challenge that I did not anticipate. My quadriceps have not been retaining bulk and strength like they did even 10 years ago. That means to counter that aging effect there needs to be discipline in the weightlifting department, and possibly more riding just to reach pace and distance levels that were possible a decade ago.

To be sure I’ve also noticed subtle changes in my mind as well. It’s subtle how some of these changes manifest themselves. More than one male friend of a similar age has shared that their sexual drive becomes more measured as they age. I would not say diminished in these cases, but tempered. The theories go back and forth about the relationship between sex drive and competitive success, and there is not a straight-line relationship between the two. After all, there are plenty of women who compete extremely well who do so without the testosterone levels found in men to drive them on.

But where aging changes us in interesting ways is in how we apply the energies we do have. There is something to be said for knowing yourself well enough to parcel out your athletic––or sexual––prowess in the most effective ways. Again, shall we say, it comes down to quality of effort. 

Thinking quality thoughts as we age

That goes for thinking too. With age the wisest people often learn to rule out distractions and formulate their priorities in more consistent ways. The energies we blew off in youth may not be available to us in such volume, yet it is clear that with discipline the aging athlete (or businessperson) can often compete on very equal ground with those much younger. That’s called experience. 

SwimmersIt’s a visible reality, this thing we call experience. At last weekend’s triathlon/duathlon in Galena saw five male competitors over the age of 50 finish in the top 10 overall positions in the duathlon. They were given no special advantage in the race. They ran the same course and rode the same hills. Yet they beat athletes 20 and 30 years their junior.

So to answer the question “What does it really mean to age as an athlete” requires a nuanced response. Because we can all do plenty to prevent unnecessary aging and even defy the potential effects of age. It pays to ignore negative expectations and embrace positive behaviors. That’s the real answer to the question.

Because here’s a worthwhile observation:  if you choose to “age as an athlete” you are most likely not going to age as fast in general. You might not always go as fast as you once did, but the quality of your effort can be just as satisfying and contribute great mental and physical health benefits along the way.

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About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @gofast and blogs at werunandride.com, therightkindofpride.com and at 3CCreativemarketing.com. Online portfolio: http://www.behance.net/christophercudworth
This entry was posted in Christopher Cudworth, cycling, duathlon, running, triathlon and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to What does it really mean to age as an athlete?

  1. bgddyjim says:

    Man, you speak the truth, especially the bit about the older cyclists handing it to the younger ones… I know some pretty old fellas that can absolutely hammer… Beating up on guys three times younger. Three TIMES. Great post.

  2. khmcnair says:

    Thanks, best posting yet! Ken (57yo)

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