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home » Gettin' old, no worries

It's been quite a year (2008) for older athletes! Dara Torres was back in the pool to add a few more Olympic medals to her collection at age 41; Constantina Tomescu-Dita wins the Women's Olympic Marathon decisively at the ripe old age of 38; And Lance Armstrong gets dropped by 44-year old Dave Weins who wins the Leadville 100 mountain bike epic for a 6th time! So is 40 the new 30 for endurance athletes?

By my reckoning (and my own experience) one's ability to perform at the max levels of 20s and early 30s begins to slip during the late 30s. Most elite level endurance athletes are done by this point. Yet some keep going for a few more years with no apparent loss of top end performance.

Having been an endurance athlete for 35 years, I can say experience counts for a lot. Knowing when to back-off before getting injured or burning-out; knowing what works for peak fitness and what doesn't, and knowing how to tune the confidence factor so race day is your best day all improves with age.

It's a fact that very real physiological changes happen with age that slow us down. The head may still be as ready as ever to go, but the body needs more TLC than it once did. I can't describe all the exact subtle changes, but the first obvious difference you may notice is a drop of max heart rate. Resting HR should not change. Top end speed during anaerobic efforts is diminished, while endurance holds pretty well, and economy even may improve. As we get older recovery takes longer so we can't accomplish the same bulk of training over a set period of time. Healing takes longer; at 50 that calf strain will take twice as long to heal as it did at 30.

So it's a good thing there's age group racing! Though times will suffer—speaking from the wisdom of my 5th decade—I can say that the sensation and satisfaction of a good workout or race doesn't diminish with age.

The consensus is that the run 'goes' first. Or perhaps that's just the discipline we measure and analyze most closely. The run is also the discipline that requires significantly more conservative training as injuries can set you back in a way they didn't when you were younger. The limiter is recovery and healing time which doubles by age 50.

The good news is that swimming and cycling don't take quite as much of a hit with age. Without the impact stress of running, recovery is not as much as an issue in the water and on the road (or trainer).

So how much speed will one lose over time? One source says to expect 1% of top end (max VO2) speed loss for each year over 30. This seems high. For me it was more like .75% starting during late 30s, or maybe 1% starting at 40, either way you will get slower.

Good news for endurance athletes who begin at 40 is that there are several years when performance keeps improving relative to where you started. If you were not training well during your 20s and early 30s the contrast between then and now (40+) is not there!

  "When you become older, you must do more recuperation after training and you are not doing the mileage that you were doing when you were young." - Constantina Tomescu-Dita 2008 Women's Olympic Marathon winner at 38 content ©opyright tri-Guru