We're all getting older and, until someone discovers the elixir of life, we’ll all start slowing down sooner or later. But how much of the decline is inevitable? And what can we do to minimise the effects of ageing on our triathlon performance?
The slippery slope
It’s true that most long-time athletes will decline from their endurance peak from about the age of 35, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for you to improve your performance well into middle age.
“There is a deﬁnite decline with age in certain physiological parameters, like VO2 max [aerobic capacity – your ability to transport and use oxygen during exercise],” says Caroline Robertson, sports scientist at Loughborough University.
“But at the same time we maintain things like capillary density and certain oxidative enzyme pathways that become a substitute for what we’ve lost. That enables us to offset the decline to a much greater extent than if we were just sedentary.
“The better training history you have, the better chance you have of maintaining your VO2 max. It comes down to the individual, what sport they’re doing and what sport they’ve done in the past.”
The bottom line is that if you stay on top of your training, the drop in your ﬁtness is likely to be modest in your 40s and 50s. It’s only beyond there that your performances are likely to tail off more steeply.
Improving with age
Canada’s Ed Whitlock became the oldest person to run a sub-three-hour marathon at the age of… wait for it… 73. That’s an extreme example but there’s a pretty good chance that you might actually improve your athletic performance as you get into middle age.
There’s plenty of evidence to support the idea that you don’t lose the ability to improve your ﬁtness with age – even into old age. A study from Missouri in 1991 showed that healthy people aged 61-70 were able to improve their VO2 max through endurance exercise to the same extent as younger people, and it was the same for women as it was for men.
Of course, you’re not going to be ﬁtter at 70 than you were when you were 20, but proportionately you can still make the same gains. And there’s always the possibility of setting a new personal best by upgrading your skills too.
So, we can sometimes continue improving as we get older, but does that mean we can ignore the ageing process altogether? Nope. For a start, recovery – the body’s repair processes after exercise – takes longer. And if you want to get the maximum beneﬁt from your training, you can’t rush your recovery.
“As you get older you need a little bit more time between training sessions,” says triathlon coach Barry Jameson. “You’ve got to make sure you don’t do too much all together.
"How do you judge that? If you start to feel tired all the time and your muscles are quite sore and tender, you’re overtraining or not getting enough rest. That’s when you need to back off.”
Fellow coach Steve Trew agrees that extra recovery time is vital as the years go on, so you need to train that little bit more cleverly. “As you get older you’ve got to start analysing what you are doing and cut out the junk mileage – the training that’s not really making you any faster," he says.
"You’ve got to look at your hard sessions and make them very speciﬁc and very hard, but then be aware that you’re going to need a little bit more recovery time afterwards.”
In other words, you need to carry on getting the quality, high-intensity training in, like hill reps. But you need to be more careful that you don’t overdo it.
“It’s a bit of a cliché but it’s all about listening to your body,” says Trew. “You might be out on your bike and think, ‘You know what? I’m shattered’. Don’t be afraid to stop and rest for the day. That’s being a smart trainer.”
Flexibility and strength
Speaking of injury, the stats say that you’re much more likely to pick up a niggle as you get older, partly because your body’s connective tissues become less elastic and you lose ﬂexibility.
You need to take preventative action if you want to avoid time spent on the sidelines, which means making sure to stretch after exercise. Concentrate on your key weaknesses in terms of flexibility, and hold each stretch for 30 to 40 seconds.
Unchecked, we tend to lose muscle mass as we get older, and with it strength, and this makes injury more likely too. Regular resistance exercise sessions will prevent this.
“It’s important that you do a lot of core strength work,” says Barry Jameson. “It’s a valuable part of your training. I’d say one or two core strength exercise sessions every week, lasting about 20 minutes or half-an-hour each. You’d be doing fairly light weights and maybe three or four sets of 15 reps on all your major muscle groups.”
On the plus side...
So, although ageing brings with it challenges, there’s plenty you can do to stay on the right track. And on top of that, there are even some beneﬁts to being that bit older.
“Older athletes often have more time,” says coach Ralph Hydes. “Your family is likely to be more grown up so you don’t have the pressure to run off and take the kids to football, and you can take time off work and spend it doing long rides if you need to.
"You’re also likely to be more in control ﬁnancially, so you can afford to invest in getting some coaching. Plus, if you’ve kept ﬁt over your life, your endurance will probably be very good.”
It takes several years of regular training for you to fully develop the capillaries that carry blood to your working muscles, for example. Steve Trew reckons that differences in attitude are helpful too: “Generally, you get more relaxed and see the bigger picture."
That calmer approach can pay off on race day too, according to Barry Jameson. “You become wiser,” he says, “and you become better at measuring your effort. A lot of younger people in their 20s blast off very fast but over a two-hour race I’ll catch up and pass them. That wise old head comes in useful!”
The effects of ageing
Here's how the ravages of time take their toll on your body:
The motivation and drive to train tends to lessen as we age.
2 Blood vessels
Blood vessels can gradually corrode and get blocked by fatty deposits, impeding blood flow.
3 Heart rate
The most important reason for slowing as you get older is a steady reduction in your VO2 max – the maximum amount of oxygen that your body can take in and use during exercise. It is usually given in millilitres of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute.
This is mostly caused by a slowing of your heart rate (the number of times your heart beats per minute) and a reduced amount of blood pumped with every beat.
4 Lactate threshold
It's likely that slowing down as you age is partly due to a reduction in lactate threshold – the intensity of exercise at which lactate starts to increase significantly in your blood and hamper your performance.
5 Weight gain
We tend to store more body fat as we age, and that extra weight will slow us down, but this is not inevitable.
6 Muscle loss
Unchecked, we lose muscle mass as we get older and produce less force – but training can minimise or even reverse these losses.
The connective tissue between your bones becomes less elastic as you get older, increasing the likelihood of injury, so older athletes tend to get more injuries than younger ones. This causes a reduction in the amount and intensity of training, leading to a decline in performance.