A few weeks ago, I competed in the European Championships Middle Distance Triathlon in Belgium, proud to wear my Team GB kit. I have been competing in the 60-64 Age Group for the last couple of years and I am always surprised at the start line to see so many fit and healthy older athletes. I think I can say I am not a slow athlete, although my swimming is not quite what it used to be, thanks to some metal works attached to my collarbone. My cycling is a bit slower than when I focused on time trialling but obviously, I wasn’t doing much outside of cycling. My running is still almost as good as it used to be, specifically on the longer distances. Yes, I’ve lost some speed – my 5K’s are a good minute slower than when I was in my 30’s and 40’s, but I am still quite close to my best marathon time.
I surprised myself this summer with a good sub 4 hours marathon (3.52) at the end of the full distance triathlon in Roth, where I finished 10 minutes faster than 5 years ago. Those times make me a top 10 athlete at those championships in my AG but nowhere near to the top 3. So, what makes us older athletes continue to go fast year after year and why do we seem to lose less over longer endurance work than the shorter speedy stuff? And why do some older athletes still run as fast as those 20 or 30 year younger (Tommy Hughes won the MV60 Manchester Marathon in 2.30.05!)?
Research makes us believe that we should actually lose 10% of our VO2 max every decade after you hit thirty. Is that true? Would that also lead to losing 10% off your best times every decade? In a longitudinal study published in the International Journal of Physiology and Performance and in the European Journal for Applied Physiology, the data showed that aging runners lose more fast twitch muscle mass around 30 to 40 years and hence will lose some speed and intensity, but the main conclusion was that consistent training will result in much less VO2 max decline, more towards 5% rather than 10% per decade.
Athletes that started running in their forties or fifties might even still improve into their sixties as it is more athletic years that count than physical age. It also showed that some of the data related to fitness declines are based on what happens to non-athletes, rather than those that have an active and athletic life.
In short, the conclusion of these studies was that you can stay fit as long as you continue to be active, are consistent in your training. Continue to mix easy effort or Zone 2 training with some high intensity work, take time for recovery, pay attention to your nutrition (there is some suggestion that muscle protein resynthesis slows with age) and avoid any injuries by reducing the risk of overtraining and doing plenty of strength and conditioning. I guess most of those fast men in my AG are doing exactly that, I know I try to do all of that.
All in all, getting older should not stop anyone from trying to achieve athletic performance, you can still achieve some good results as long as you approach your training smart! Written by Jack De Bokx