Adapted from Fast After 50: How to Race Strong for the Rest of Your Life by Joe Friel.
Fast After 50 is for every endurance athlete who wants to stay fast for years to come. For runners, cyclists, triathletes, swimmers, and cross-country skiers, getting older doesn’t have to mean getting slower. Drawing from the most current research on aging and sports performance, Joe Friel—America’s leading endurance sports coach—shows how athletes can race strong and stay healthy well past age 50.
There. I’ve said it.
None of my previous many-candle birthdays—40, 50, or even 60—got my attention. But 70 did. Somehow, 70 seems really old, a lot older than 69. It seemed different enough to me that I had been contemplating the start of my eighth decade of life for the better part of a year. My greatest concern was that it might signal the beginning of the end of my lifelong adventure as a serious athlete. I simply didn’t know what to expect.
Leading up to my Big Seven-Zero Day, there was only one question I wanted an answer to: How can I slow, or perhaps even temporarily reverse, the loss of performance as I get older?
By the time we’re in our 50s, it’s just starting to become apparent that things are going the wrong way. The first thing athletes typically notice around that age is that they don’t recover from a race or hard training sessions as quickly as they did a few years earlier. And not only that—race times are slowing, there’s a loss of power, hills seem steeper, and other performance markers are looking worse. What can be done?
Defining the “aging athlete” is difficult, especially in the conventional way with a number representing age. Yet with each new number comes change. We know that change will happen with aging; we just don’t know how rapidly it will occur. Some athletes continue to produce amazing performances well into their later years and remain competitive even with other athletes half their age.
For example, consider the remarkable accomplishment of Diana Nyad, who in 2013 swam from Cuba to Florida—111 miles and nearly 53 nonstop hours in shark- and jellyfish-infested rough water—at age 64.
And Bob Scott, who at age 75 raced in the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii to set a new course record of 13:27:50 for his age group, a good time even for athletes in their 30s and 40s.
Or how about Libby James, age 76, of Fort Collins, Colorado? She set a new half-marathon world record of 1:45:56 for her age category in 2013, demolishing the previous record of 1:55:19. Few women half her age can run such a fast time.
You may never swim from Cuba to Florida or break course or world records, but I expect you are capable of achieving far more than you are currently accomplishing. How can you do it? How can you be fast after 50?
Let’s get started down the path to better sports performance regardless of age.
The Aging Myth
There may be plenty of voices telling you that you shouldn’t be exercising so strenuously, that advancing age means you must slow down. Maybe they’re telling you horror stories of broken bones and heart attacks. Look at so-and-so, they say. He wouldn’t stop, and now he’s getting knee replacements. Quit training and competing. Overdoing it is bad for you. No one keeps racing forever. Back off—you’ve earned a rest. Enjoy the twilight of your life.
Rest assured, you can indeed remain vigorous into your 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond.
How does science explain the phenomenon we call “aging”? Interestingly, scientists are still working on that question. They don’t fully understand it yet. They have theories, and there is ongoing research, but they don’t have solid answers. Instead, most researcher have chosen to examine only the symptoms of growing older. Here’s a partial list of run-of-the-mill signs of aging as reported in most of the research:
- Skin loses its elasticity and becomes drier as oil glands slow their production. Fingernails grow more slowly.
- Hair thins, and there’s more gray hair as pigment cells are reduced.
- Compression of joints, including spinal discs, causes a loss of height. By age 80, the loss of 2 inches is common.
- Somewhere around age 55, high-frequencyy sounds start becoming harder to hear.
- By age 50, most people need reading glasses as the eyes’ lenses become less flexible, impairing the ability to focus on anything close up.
- Changes occur in the menstrual cycle before it ceases.
- Sleep time basically becomes shorter, and the quality of sleep decreases. Waking often during the night is common.
- Bone minerals are lost, resulting in more fragility.
- The basal metabolic rate slows down, often resulting in weight gain—mostly fat.
Additionally, and sadly, the chances of contracting ailments such as osteoarthritis, hypothyroidism, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, coronary heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and dementia increase.
There’s a caveat, however. What we know of all these depressing changes has been based on studies of normal aging people. By “normal” I mean people who are generally representative of our society—many of whom are sedentary, overweight, and unmotivated. If you are active and vigorous, you aren’t normal—and that’s good.
As an aging athlete, you are still experiencing some markers of aging, but from a smaller subset of symptoms. Nearly all exercise physiology research has found that you can expect certain performance-diminishing changes with advancing age. The symptoms of aging that concern athletes include:
- Aerobic capacity (VO2 max) declines.
- Maximal heart rate is reduced.
- The volume of blood pumped with each heartbeat decreases.
- Muscle fibers are lost, resulting in decreased muscle mass and less strength.
- Aerobic enzymes in the muscles become less effective and abundant.
- Blood volume is reduced.
These are the symptoms we need to reverse or at least minimize in our training and lifestyle.
The Older Athlete
Before going any further, let’s make one important point clear:
First, exercise keeps you healthy and much younger than what is normal for our society. Moreover, that exercise does not have to be highly intense to foster excellent health and allow you to lead a robust life as you get older. Exercise, regardless of intensity, is powerful medicine when it comes to health.
If your reason for exercising is to live a long life filled with vibrant family activity and fun for many years to come, and you don’t really care about how fast you are, then vigorous and frequent exercise of any type, including long, slow distance, is the way to go.
So far, about all science knows about exercise and aging is that there seems to be an inverse relationship between older people’s volume of exercise and their risk of premature death, regardless of cause. In other words, the more you exercise, the less likely you are to die early.
Of course, there’s more to life than just how long you live. Quality is at least as important as quantity. Living a long time in loneliness and boredom, with little in the way of activity except for occasional exercise, is not what any of us wants. Quality of life means not only participation in sport as an athlete but also simply being an energetic and dynamic person in all aspects of life.
While aging does inevitably take a toll on the performance of aging athletes, it’s small compared with the loss of functional performance that normal, inactive people experience due to disuse. Most people “rust out” due to inactivity rather than “wear out” from being overly active.
Additionally, exercise plays an important role in slowing aging. Genetics and lifestyle — often referred to as “nature” and “nurture” — are both important, but there is reason to believe that the major contributor to performance decline as we get older is nurture, with nature playing a smaller role. This contradicts what our society has come to believe—that the vagaries of aging occur at a given rate, are inevitable, and are completely outside one’s control. That line of thinking makes is easy to throw your hands up and surrender.
But a vigorous lifestyle— and especially strenuous activity, or “high-intensity training” — has a powerful influence on physiology and has the power to keep old age and poor performance at bay.
Longitudinal studies have shown that reduced training intensity resulted in marked changes in performance-related physiology of athlete subjects, and loss of a vigorous lifestyle may also explain, along with diet, declining lifespan in native populations.
Some scientists who study sport and aging also see the balance tilted toward the nurture side because as we age, exercise behavior (nurture) appears to play a significant role in how our given genetic biology (nature) plays out. This balance could be around 60-40 or even 70-30. In other words, 60 to 70 percent of our reduced performance might be explained by changed in training (and lifestyle in general), with the changes due to biological aging accounting for only 30 to 40 percent.
With that in mind, the chief question must be: What do we need to do to get the large nurture portion right so that we can stay fast after age 50?
The first question in our plan is this: What physical performance changes are occurring as you become older? And I do mean you. Although the research indicates what senior athletes generally experience with aging, not all of those conclusions may apply to you.
To get started on this question, perhaps the most important discovery you can make is to determine what is holding you back — your specific weaknesses, or “limiters.”
Many areas of your life could produce nurture limiters, such as the amount of time you have to train, your diet, how much sleep you get, your speed of recovery, and much more. But our focus right now is the big rocks—those few things in your training and lifestyle that may well be limiting your performance. For nearly all senior athletes, the performance-related changes that are most common are what I call the “big three” aging limiters.
- Decreasing aerobic capacity: You simply aren’t as capable of delivering oxygen to your working muscles. You may well be doing something to turn this around, but my experience has been that most aging athletes aren’t. The key to maintaining your aerobic capacity is our old friend high-intensity training.
- Increasing body fat: In the normal population, there is a significant change in body composition starting around age 65. Compared with where they were at age 25, by their late 60s most men have lost about 26 pounds of lean mass and women about 11 pounds—mostly muscle. Even as aging athletes, we can expect some change in body composition—more fat and less lean.
- Shrinking muscles: Sarcopenia is the loss of muscle as normal people age. Here’s what science currently knows about it. Starting around age 40, a progressive decrease of muscle begins.
These changes in aerobic capacity, body fat and muscle make up the big three most common reasons for the decline in performance as we get older, but there’s more happening in our bodies that we need to understand in order to counteract the negative effects. These include loss of bone density, an increasing propensity for total-body acidity, a slowing of the metabolism, a loss of joint range of motion, and more. But many of what we consider to be the inevitable changes of aging are things that we have some control over.
There are several key training, recovery, and nutrition strategies that can limit age-related losses to performance.
See my new book Fast After 50: How to Race Strong for the Rest of Your Life for more.