Adapt your workout performance decline as You age

How should I adapt my workout routine as I get older?

One of the recurring themes in coverage of the 2008 Olympics was that old people can be just as strong and fast as their juniors. At 41 years of age, swimmer Dara Torres won three silver medals; marathon runner Constantina Tomescu-Dita won gold at 38; and 61-year-old Ian Millar picked up a remarkable silver medal in the team equestrian event. But it’s not entirely clear what lessons the average middle-aged or elderly exerciser can draw from these one-of-a-kind models.

Probing that question by studying “masters” athletes—the definition varies from sport to sport, but it often refers to ages 40 and over—has become a hot research topic in recent years, in part because masters competition is the fastest-growing segment of sport in North America. “We’re not trying to encourage everybody to become a masters athlete,” says Patricia Weir, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Windsor. “Most adults simply won’t choose to undergo that level of training.” Instead, Weir and collaborators like Bradley Young of the University of Ottawa are trying to figure out what key factors allow some athletes to train and compete at a high level for many decades, to see whether there are insights that could help weekend warriors stay active as they age.

The basic principles of training for older athletes are the same as for younger athletes, according to a review of the topic by University of Wisconsin-La Crosse sports scientist Carl Foster and his colleagues in 2007. However, the optimal mix of stimulus and recovery may be shifted by the risk of injury, as well as by the hormonal changes that accompany aging, which affect the speed and magnitude of the body’s response to exercise. To combat the steady loss of muscle with age, for example, Foster recommends weight training, even—or perhaps especially—for skinny endurance athletes.

Studies of masters athletes have found that the most successful manage to suffer fewer injuries than their peers. This may seem like a matter of luck, but it’s not necessarily that simple. “Maybe they’ve got good genetics,” Young says, “but maybe they’re also smart.” You can improve your odds through what Young calls “deliberate acts of recovery,” such as taking an extra day between hard workouts. Cross-training may also be more valuable for older athletes, since they’re less able than younger athletes to recover from doing the same activity every day.

Champion masters athletes continue to train intensely, Young and others have found, but their training becomes more focused on the essentials. Top age-group distance runners, for example, spend proportionately more time training their endurance as they age. But the dominant factor appears to be consistency and continuity of training. Top masters athletes manage to accumulate months, years, and even decades of relatively unbroken training. Although champions train for their chosen sport year round, many recreational masters athletes prefer “sampling”: they participate in different sports throughout the year but are never totally inactive for long stretches. Ultimately, this may be the most important lesson we can draw from the exploits of aging Olympians: if you play hockey for six months a year, find something else to keep you active for the other six months.

How quickly will my performance decline as I age?

One way to see how human performance declines over time is to plot the age-group world records for various sports. No matter what sport you choose, you’ll see a similar pattern: gradual declines starting around the age of 35, getting steadily steeper with each succeeding decade. For a typical healthy adult, each decade past your 30s brings on average a 9 percent decrease in aerobic fitness (measured by the maximum amount of oxygen you’re able to process), a drop of seven beats in your maximum heart rate, and the loss of 10 percent of the muscle in your body.

You don’t lose everything at the same rate. If you compare the age-group world records for the 100 meters and the marathon, you see a sharper decline in endurance compared to speed. This pattern is replicated in other sports like swimming. The decreases, as a percentage of the world record, also appear to be steeper in women than men—but researchers suspect that there’s no physiological reason for this. Instead, the records for older women are likely weaker because not as many women as men continue to compete in organized sports as they get older.

Another study, by researchers at the University of Texas’s Cardiovascular Aging Research Laboratory, examined age-group records for weightlifting. The records for Olympic-style lifts like the snatch and the clean-and-jerk, which rely more on muscular power than on absolute strength, declined more quickly than pure tests of strength like the bench press, squat, and deadlift. It’s this loss of muscular power, rather than strength, that causes the most problems for seniors in day-to-day life—which is why researchers now recommend that seniors include at least some power-building exercises in their program.

Age-group records offer a general picture of how the human body changes over time. But if you’re interested in knowing how your own body will change, these records have a subtle but important flaw. The records show the best performances of many different people, each of whom flourished for a brief period before fading to sub–world-record levels at later ages, thanks to health problems, changes in motivation, or other issues. There’s a big difference in the performance trends displayed by this type of “cross-sectional” data compared with “longitudinal” data that follow specific individuals for many years—and the differences are encouraging.

Starting with a study of masters track and field athletes published in Experimental Aging Research back in 1982, researchers have found that longitudinal data show a less steep decline in performance than cross-sectional data (i.e., age-group records). The decline seen in age-group records tends to be quadratic, which means it gets steeper and steeper as years pass. On the other hand, more recent studies of runners and swimmers who have trained continuously for several decades show evidence of decline in a straight line. You’ll get slower no matter what, but continuous training seems to prevent the decline from accelerating (at least for a while).

For sports like running and swimming, age-graded performance tables offer a way to assess how you’re doing from year to year. For each five-year age category, performances are expressed as a percentage based on statistical analysis of existing performances. Just remember that if you can stay healthy, motivated, and consistent, you should be able to beat this cross-sectional curve—if you do, your age-graded score will get better as you get older.

How can I stay motivated to exercise as my performances decline?

When Ed Whitlock became the first septuagenarian to run a marathon in under three hours in 2004, it was thanks to a simple but grueling training plan consisting of two-to-three-hour runs around a local cemetery, nearly every day. That regimen presented two key challenges that are familiar to any masters athlete: staying healthy, and—just as important but less obvious—staying motivated.

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In fact, when asked why his race performances in his 50s were less impressive than the years before and after, Whitlock points to the second factor rather than the first. “The main reason—or excuse—is that I was busy at work, so while I did continue running throughout the decade, my training dedication fell off,” he says. “I am sure if I had been more dedicated and better organized I could have done more.”

The physical declines that accompany aging are well documented, but there’s strong evidence that the decline in masters athletic performance is steeper than purely physiological reasons can explain. Indeed, experiments where mice are given unfettered life-long access to exercise wheels have suggested that the intrinsic drive to exercise declines with age.

In a sense, it’s a classic chicken-and-egg problem: Do you train less as you get older because you’re slower and weaker, or is it the other way around? The answer seems to lie somewhere in the middle.

In this context, motivation seems crucial to success. Studies of elite masters athletes by University of Ottawa researcher Bradley Young and his colleagues have identified a complex mix of personal and social factors that make some people more likely to continue training at a high level into their 50s and beyond.

The personal factors are mostly what you’d expect: at the top of the list is enjoyment of the sport, which is cited by more than half of elite older athletes as a reason to train. Close behind is the sense of personal challenge, followed by improved fitness and health. Surprisingly, the social factors mix positive reinforcement (from family, training partners, and the wider community) with more negative pressure (the feeling, for instance, that stopping training would make you a quitter).

Motivation is ultimately very personal, so there’s no universal formula for maintaining your enthusiasm. But it’s important to understand how the people around you can affect your outlook and to make sure that your family and friends are supportive and understand the benefits of your exercise routine.

As researchers studying three decades of data from the Framingham Heart Study have found, health and exercise habits are highly contagious. And the most powerful source of social pressure, Young’s research shows, is your spouse—a result that wouldn’t surprise Whitlock, who discovered his calling as a masters runner when he was 40, after a 15-year hiatus, at the urging of his wife.

Jean-Paul Marat

Many tips are based on recent research, while others were known in ancient times. But they have all been proven to be effective. So keep this website close at hand and make the advice it offers a part of your daily life.

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