High-Intensity Training for the Athlete Over 50

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An excerpt from the groundbreaking book Fast After 50: How to Race Strong for the Rest of Your Life by Joe Friel. Fast After 50 offers a smart approach for athletes to ward off the effects of age and stay fast for years to come.

High-Intensity Training

Research tells us that the performance decline we typically experience with aging has a lot to do with how active we are while growing older. For example, a paper released in 2000 examined the combined effects of age and activity level over time.5 The researchers reviewed 242 studies comparing aging and VO2max involving 13,828 male subjects. Each of the subjects was assigned to one of three groups based on how active they were: sedentary, moderately active exerciser, or endurance-trained runner. Aerobic capacity was highest in the runners and lowest in the sedentary group. No surprises there. The aerobic capacity changes per decade of life were sedentary, 8.7 percent; active, 7.3 percent; runners, 6.8 percent. What this means is if at age 30 a man had a VO2max of 60 and then for the next 30 years didn’t exercise and lived a “normal” (sedentary) life, he could expect his aerobic capacity at age 60 to be around 46. If he was moderately active, it would be about 48. And if he trained as an endurance runner, it would be in the neighborhood of 49. Those are not significant numeric changes. But for normal folks who generally see VO2max declines of 10 percent and greater for a 10-year period, these numbers are really high.

But regardless of the actual size of the change, here’s the main message: The study further reported that the subjects who were endurance trained runners significantly decreased their volume (miles run per week) and training intensity as they got older. That’s a common practice with aging athletes. So maybe it’s not simply working out that maintains aerobic capacity and therefore, in part, race performances; instead, it is how much training you do and how intensely you do it. It’s a critical lesson for getting faster regardless of your age.

Here’s another. Do you remember Michael Pollock’s longitudinal study in Chapter 1?6 It was a watershed study in understanding performance and age, so let’s quickly refresh your memory.

In 1987, Dr. Pollock and his colleagues at the Mt. Sinai Medical Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, reported an astonishing finding that lent further credibility to the idea that very strenuous exercise was an aerobic capacity preserver. Well-trained, competitive endurance runners with an average initial age of 52 were able to totally maintain VO2max values over a 10-year period.

In the full group of 24 athletes, VO2max went into a tailspin, with an average 9 percent decline during the 10 years of the study. However, Pollock discovered that 11 of the 24 had continued to train vigorously and were still competitive a decade after the initial testing. When he categorized the results, he found that the more active athletes had absolutely maintained their average VO2max at a steady 53 ml/kg/min (10 years earlier it had been 54) despite being now in their early 60s. The less active subjects had seen their VO2max values plummet by 12 percent. In Pollock’s paper, “more active” meant that athletes continued to do high-intensity workouts while maintaining their volume.

Just like Pollock’s study, other research on aging in experienced endurance athletes generally supports the notion that in order to reduce the decline in aerobic capacity with advancing age, training must be intense. That typically means training anaerobically—at or above the lactate threshold. For experienced endurance athletes, an exercise regimen based solely on LSD will do little to improve or even maintain your aerobic fitness status over the years.7

Of course, you may not be able to improve it, especially if you’ve been training intensely for many years. Even with such focused training, there is still the age-related performance decay that research has repeatedly shown us is inevitable. As explained earlier, your history of exercise type and consistency along with your current age have a lot to do with how great your gains may be in the future. If your training has been inconsistent and you are now in your 50s, you’re probably more physiologically capable of significantly reversing the downward performance spiral through training than if you have been training consistently or are in your 70s.

That doesn’t mean a 70-year-old can’t make performance gains after a few years of slacking off. It’s just somewhat harder to accomplish due to physiological changes that occur with advancing age, such as reduced hormone production. Hormones have a lot to do with the response to training, fat accumulation, and muscle loss.

There is also the matter of genetics. Some people apparently chose the right parents. They are endowed with a great capacity for hard workouts with little risk of breakdown. They can do high-intensity training and experience a quick and positive response. Others of the same age can do the same workouts over the same time and see little or no performance change. Unfortunately, life isn’t always fair.

There’s little doubt that intense training is risky. As workouts become more challenging, the chances of injury, illness, and overtraining increase. Intense training needs to be modulated in regard to your current level of fitness and personal age-related limits. Those limits may have become magnified by the absence of high-intensity training in recent years. If that’s the case, you need to be extraconservative with training changes as you ease into what I’m going to propose.

If high-intensity training is something you haven’t done for a long time or have never done, you must consider several things: the type of hard workouts, the frequency of hard workouts, your short-term recovery from hard workouts, and your nutrition relative to hard workouts.

5. T. M. Wilson and H. Tanaka, “Meta-analysis of the Age-Associated Decline in Maximal Aerobic Capacity in Men: Relation to Training Status,” American Journal of Physiology—Heart and Circulatory Physiology 278 (3) (2000): H829–834.
6. M. L. Pollock, C. Foster, D. Knapp, J. L. Rod, and D. H. Schmidt, “Effect of Age and Training on Aerobic Capacity and Body Composition of Masters Athletes,” Journal of Applied Physiology 62 (2) (1987): 727–728.
7. E. Enoksen, S. A. Shalfawi, and E. T.nnessen, “The Effect of High- vs. Low-Intensity Training on Aerobic Capacity in Well-Trained Male Middle-Distance Runners,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 25 (3) (2011): 812–818.

In his groundbreaking book Fast After 50: How to Race Strong for the Rest of Your Life, Joe Friel offers a smart approach for athletes to ward off the effects of age and stay fast for years to come.