5 Things Athletes Need to Know in Your 40s, 50s, and Into Your 80s!

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By Chris Carmichael

I am a cyclist in my mid-50s and I spend a lot of time riding with athletes up to 30 years younger and 25 years older than me.  People ask me about the impact of age on endurance athletes, and here’s what I tell them:




Your potential declines, but your ability to maximize your potential doesn’t.

Numerous studies show that an endurance athlete’s VO2 max declines gradually, typically starting sometime in your 30s. For many athletes this decline only starts to become noticeable in the late 40s or early 50s. What doesn’t seem to decline is your ability to operate at a high percentage of your maximum potential. One of the goals my coaches and I have is to push an athlete’s power at lactate threshold to a higher percentage of that athlete’s power at VO2 max. For example, rather than having a threshold power at 75% of VO2 max power output, we aim to get it to 80% of VO2 max. Even as your VO2 max is slightly declining due to age, with training you can sustain or improve the percentage of that VO2 at which you can operate.

Wisdom cancels out some of the advantages of youth.

If young athletes behaved like older athletes, they could be even stronger and faster. Remember the old adage that youth is wasted on the young? It’s generally true in endurance sports. Older athletes tend to have the means and patience to eat fresher and more nutrient-dense foods. They’re more willing to go to bed earlier if their coaches tell them they need more rest. Many older athletes are more comfortable with their career and family lives, which translates to lower levels of lifestyle stress. And older athletes know themselves better, have more confidence, and are often better at listening to the signals their bodies are sending them. In other words, age gives some people the wisdom to be better at being athletes.



Don’t worry about what you can’t change.

I’m in my 50s and I don’t complain because in my view growing older is a privilege denied to many. I’m not as light or as powerful as I was 30 years ago, but I’m doing pretty well for being a husband, father, and business owner. There’s no fountain of youth, so I work hard to keep this old body as fit as I can. And I push myself to my limits in training and competition because I enjoy and crave the sensation of giving everything I have – even if what I have to give isn’t as much as it used to be. To be an athlete is to delight in the sensation of pushing yourself, and that’s something that age cannot take from you. So, don’t worry about whether you’re maximum potential is declining because of age. If it is, it is. What you can control is what you do with the physical potential you have.

Training won’t kill you (probably).

Over the past few years there have been a succession of articles, mostly in mainstream running and triathlon publications, but also in cycling publications that suggest athletes are at increased risk for heart problems. The general idea is that while some exercise is good, lifelong athletes have overdone it and we’re going to exercise ourselves into an early grave. I’ve covered this topic twice in full-length articles here and here so I’ll just summarize in this post. The cardiologists and electrophysiologists we’ve consulted remind us that the incidence of arrhythmia increases naturally as people get older, the Baby Boomer generation represents a large population over 50, there are more athletes over 50 than there used to be, and we have better diagnostic tools and wearable monitors than before. Essentially, the medical professionals we talked to said there is plenty of evidence to show that exercising  – including strenuous exercise – is beneficial for health and longevity. There is not enough evidence, yet, to say there is a causal link between exercise and the development of arrhythmia in older athletes. You have a lifetime of experiences – positive and negative – and underlying genetic factors that come into play. If you have any signs or symptoms of arrhythmia (a racing heart, fluttering heartbeat or skipped beats) you should see your cardiologist. Don’t panic, though. A physician who specialized in electrophysiology pointed out that experiencing an arrhythmia isn’t a sure sign of a life-threatening or long-term problem. Even a perfectly healthy heart can skip a beat or race briefly and return to normal rhythm. Athletes are also more attuned to their bodies and sometimes notice arrhythmias before a sedentary person would.

Make hay while the sun shines

The longer I’m involved in endurance sports, the more I realize that life is both short and unpredictable. Knock on wood, I’m still in one piece and healthy enough to take on challenges like Haute Route Rockies and  Tour of California. And I hope to stay as healthy as CTS Athlete Frederic Schmid. In the past few years he has won US National Championships in cyclocross, cross-country mountain bike, and road racing – in the Men’s 80+ age group!

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A while ago the New York Times published an article asking whether cycling was a safe sport. Falling is part of being an athlete, and although my view is that the benefits of being an athlete outweigh the risk of being injured, I’m not naïve about the risks. Whether by age or accident, the scope of what we can do will eventually diminish or disappear. So I’m not putting anything off to later, and neither should you.



47 Responses to “5 Things Athletes Need to Know in Your 40s, 50s, and Into Your 80s!”

  1. Wendy L Hardy on

    I’m 58 years old and from 1979 until now I rode a bike for only one brief period, the summer of 1999, riding to and from a college campus for a summer job. I have developed OA in both knees & my back, resulting in constant pain; my doctor told me that knee replacement surgery is only a matter of time. I swim for 30 minutes almost every morning & recently moved to a duplex that has a lovely biking/hiking /rollerblading/jogging/walking trail that goes on for about 15 miles. Walking hurts my joints, I can only walk about 30 minutes. But biking is low impact for my knees, found a good one on Craigslist for a decent amount (I’m on a fixed income), but a helmet, and yesterday decided to give it a try on the path. Thank goodness there weren’t a lot of people walking because I was absolutely terrified! What happened to the balance, depth perception, eyesight, coordination & reflexes I used to have? Did I really used to just hop on my bike as a teenager & zip all over the neighborhood w/confidence, turning and maneuvering w/no problem? What happened to that girl?

    I was scared to death every time there was a small hill or a curve in the road. I was a little wobbly due to lack of balance. How was I going to get around anyone or anything? What if I rounded a curve & someone was there? How do I get on the bike & get started? How do I get off? How do I stop? I had to practice all this before I even hit the trail & fell off within 5 seconds–a horrible thing for me, as one good fall could hurt me good due to my OA. But not doing anything–not moving about regularly–is even worse. The more you sit, the worse it gets.

    I want so much to do this, been reading articles and comments about how Baby Boomers (like me) are starting to bike again and are doing pretty good. There are so many fears that I’m hesitant to even get on the bike, so worried that I’m going to break my crazy neck. I want to enjoy the exercise and scenery and not be scared. I know that practice makes perfect–to a point–but am beginning to wonder if things will get better if I make an effort to ride whenever I can. Once your sense of balance, coordination, etc. starts gradually deteriorating, how can you get it back? A three-wheeler sounds like a better choice but I can’t afford one & don’t have the room to store one anyway. Do I have a right to be scared to death of this or is there hope?

    Reply
    • Andy Langston on

      You have a right to be scared, just no reason to be scared. Things aren’t gonna be the same as earlier days but they won’t be terrible either. The thing to answer for yourself is are the dangers you worry about worse than the dangers you are already being exposed to? Is falling and getting hurt worse than rapidly falling apart ?

      Reply
  2. Wendy Skean on

    I am a 72 year old female endurance mountain biker. For the last 13 years I raced solo the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo in AZ. The last 4 years solo singlespeed. I have placed 3rd or 4th in Open Womens class those 4 years. I have also raced the Leadville 100 MTB 8 times. In 2016 I was the oldest racer to finish. I love riding a mountain bike and plan to take on Robert Marchants record when I am 105. I truly believe age is just a number.

    Reply
    • Clarke Tobin on

      MS. Skean, you are my new HERO! I am 58 and have been an avid, amateur cyclist for the past 32 years. I’ve taught spin class for the past 5+ years but only entered into one bike race and one Tri. You’ve inspired me! I’ve been fretting about losing some VO2 Max power and ability to compete. After reading your entry, I’m encouraged and excited to get after it! Thank you!!

      Reply
  3. Al on

    I’ll be 70 this year been a cyclist for 7 years. Used to run Marathons and play basketball and racqueball and triathlon’s Had both my knees replaced and developed A-fib. So now it’s swim cycle and hike.
    My big rides have been double century’s including DMD. This year my goal will be Death ride for the second time and Cycle Oregon
    .

    Reply
  4. Veronica Testy on

    Inspiring article. Thank you.

    One thing I would like to point out is that it appears that we should NOT assume that V02 max declines with age. One well publicized proof point is Robert Marchant, the 105 year old who increased his V02 max by 13% at the age of 103. 13%! Wow. Inspiring. See article
    https://nyti.ms/2k2fFN7.

    What a great opportunity to question long held beliefs about age and fitness.

    Reply
  5. Mike McDonald on

    Reading the comments is inspiring. You can do it. You can get out there and have an awesome time of it. You can improve your fitness, your health. I turn 64 this season and started road 5 years ago. My wife and I celebrated my 50,000 miles in 5 years, equivalent to twice around the world. I played football when younger and hockey in the Detroit Red Wings farm system, and was mvp of our adult hockey leagues until age 48. Later, in my 50’s I became a Class 5 Advanced Open Water Kayak Instructor and led Atlantic Ocean and Great Lakes expeditions as well as running white water rivers for fun. I found cycling 5 years ago, went to a Brevard CTS camp and fell in love with the mountains. I ride and train with guys 20-30 years younger and they sometimes complain I am making them suffer. But they have brought to that level of ability. I’ve won some century mountain events too. Someone said about crashing, comes with the territory. I guess and I’ve been there, broken clavicles, a plate, separated shoulder, broken ribs, torn rotator cuffs, road rash. But the level of fitness I’ve been able to achieve is wonderful and the lessons I learned from Brevard CTS have stayed with me throughout. Thanks so much.

    Reply
  6. Craig Hoover on

    This is helpful information and the responses are testimonials to the power of a willful mindset in the face of adversity and our remarkable bodies abilities to adapt. Too, the idea of finding pleasure in the activity isn’t to be lost as it’s what keeps me doing it, and doing it, and doing it blackening my toenails on runs, cramping my legs at night, getting me stitches in the hospital after a fall, fracturing my sacrum on a run, getting a compression fracture in one of my vertebrae after a collision, enduring spinal fusion surgery after finding out I have Spina bifida occulta and that that pain in my back and tingling in my leg was because I had been running and riding and lifting weights for two years with a broken bone in my back.

    Reply
  7. Ralph on

    Great article. Especially the part about make hay . . . . I have never raced formally, but have ‘endured’ many fun, fund-raising events, centuries, “Ride the Rockies”, etc. My philosophy has always been to do what I enjoy to stay in reasonable shape. I refer to making hay because I once crashed, hard, and suffered back, rib fractures, and severe concussion (even wearing helmet). Fitness, and getting back on the bike for fitness actually sped my recovery. So, like Jens, I love my legs screaming.
    My overnight recovery has edged to at least two days. I’d like to know more about the why behind that.

    Reply
  8. Janet Sanderson on

    I’m an 80 year old woman who started racing at the Senior Olympics in 2001. I now have 8 state records in Michigan. I have been to six National Senior Olympics. Placing in the top eight in all of them. They consist of two races, a 20k and 40k and two time trials, 5k and 10k. This summer I got two gold in the races and two bronze in the time trials. I have no plans to stop riding my bike. Senior Olympics are a great place for 50+ ages to race. Every state has them. The Nationals are held every two years. You must qualify in your state to attend the Nationals. In 2017 they will be in Birmingham, AL

    Reply
    • Jon Adamson on

      How do qualify for the Nationals to be held in Alabama. I turned 80 this year and have been a competitive triathlete for 35 years but never bike raced.

      Reply
      • Barbara Lagana on

        You must qualify for the National Senior Games being held this year in Alabama in the year preceeding and in the state reside unless that state does not have any State Senior Games. In that case you can qualify in another state. As it is now getting closer to the start of the games you may give the National Senior Games a call and find out if you can be entered based on the triathlons you completed in 2016. I highly recommend the National Senior Games. It is a lot of fun which is why we continue to compete into our senior yea

        Reply
  9. Charles Hufman on

    Great article and what an encouragement for all of us “old” guys and gals. I’m 55 and started riding aprox 5 yrs ago. I went form a simple little hill to riding the kokopelli
    trail (150 miles x 3 days) to completing the Race the Train; a ride that entails two mountain passes from Durango Co. to Silverton on a MTB with a 40lb pack and jeans. biking basically saved my life and I’ve lost weight and i believe i am in the best shape of my life. good Lord willing I will keep pedaling to a brite sunset.

    Reply
  10. Ray Scott on

    I am 71 and have been cycling since 1971 (44 years). I took all 3 gold medals in last years Senior Olympics. I broke the state record for the 40k road race by over 5 minutes taking gold. I plan to ride in the Hincapie Grand Fondo the end of October. The training advice from Chris has been invaluable to me and has made me a better cyclist.

    Reply
  11. Richard Finch on

    Great article. Just turned 61 this year but with job loss (16 years with a bike shop that closed last year) and taking full time care of an 88 year old (24/7) this cut into my cycling time. I need a coach to chew me out but funds are really limited so I just push myself a lot harder than I should on my short rides and pat myself on the back on big ring climbs (I know, I know, small rings and spin…LOL) and every time I managed to pass someone (me competitive?!), then go way to fast on the downhills before my first beer. Every ride is fun and I never take anything for granted. Somehow, someday I am going to climb the alpe d’huez…count on me to give you a call for some advice before then.
    Best wishes to all the staff and great job on the articles!!!

    Reply
  12. Ed Crandall on

    Everything in moderation, is what I’ve been told for many years, and at 71 I have not taken that advise and have biked rather hard for 31 years…I’ve learned however, when to rest and when to ride; and yes, I have had a heart operation (5 by pass), cancer, and the whole bit…It depends on how you what to live your life and how your behavior effects others important to you.

    Reply
  13. Don on

    I am 66 and elite level racing cyclist for my age. Its judging the amount of and understanding the benefit of rest that’s so important. Employing the power of rest is key to relative high performance for our age group.

    Reply
  14. Carolyn on

    Thanks to everyone who commented on this article. I am a71 year old female. I Crossfit and bicycle, and feel stronger than I ever have. Used to be a runner but now biking seems to be of more benefit and certainly more enjoyable. There are many days when I think I should just quit trying, so reading all these responses is so motivating and encouraging!

    Reply
  15. Art kleimer on

    I will be 74 in January. Started riding and doing Ride the Rockies with my son 3 years ago. I plan on doing it every year till I am 120. It beats sitting on the couch and withering a way. Life is meant to be enjoyed and lived to the fullest. I also appreciate my coach Noah who understands me and always has the right balance of encouragement push and kindness.

    Reply
  16. Phil Holman on

    I’m 65 and got 3rd and 4th respectively at masters nats in the TT and RR this year. I can still TT at 26+ mph on a flat course which isn’t any slower than what I did when I was 40. Don’t stop challenging yourself just because you are older. Great article.

    Reply
  17. Jar on

    60 yrs old and former marathoner and former tri athlete but completely my 1st 100 this year and most miles ever.
    Can’t do everything I once did but having a lot of fun doing what I can and doing it as hard as I can

    Reply
  18. Rob Payne on

    I’m a cyclist as well as a personal fitness trainer. Recently, I attended a workshop on how to train this I ever growing segment of our population.

    Your spot on! Age need not be a “retirement sentence”, as you said with age comes wisdom.

    Reply
  19. Joseph G. Neuwirth, Ph.D. on

    At 73 yrs I am still riding and racing. I took 1st in Road Race at Georgia Senior Olympics this past year and second in TT. I attended Carmichael Climbing Camp at Asheville in 2005. Great experience with some kick-butt instructors. I have also taken up mountain bike single trail riding and so far have broken my hand and eversion sprained my ankle. I’m thinking about sticking to road biking. Hey, you need to check out Carmichael Training.

    Reply
    • Link lindquist on

      At age 86 I completed the Triple Ascent of Mt Ventoux in one day, this September. I have maintainded my position for the forth year as the oldest person to meet this challenge out of over 7,000 cyclist. I have set a goal to do this when I am age 100. You just have to have a goal to keep you going. Nothing beats cycling like cycling in Provence,Fr. Have cycled there for 14 years and it gets better and better every year. LINK

      Reply
      • Don M on

        That is astonishing to me, congratulations. At age 70 I rode up Ventoux once a couple of years ago, so I know that I’m not on track to emulate your effort. Were you at elite level in your youth? What is your ftp? I would be fascinated to know.

        Reply
  20. Larry on

    72 – cycling for 20 years, but decided to train and push myself harder this last two years – 270 miles last week mostly outdoors but also some intervals on turbo. I noticed a few weeks ago that I was getting faster and that holding around 20mph on flattish roads for ten miles or so was possible (an improvement of perhaps 2mph on last year) I’m not really sure what to put this down to, though I have done quite a bit of sweet spot training. The important thing is I still love my cycling.

    Reply
    • Larry on

      Interesting looking back ..!! Still improving. I tested myself on a private 20 miles out and back rolling route TT last Tuesday. I finished in one hour and 29 seconds -19.84 mph average. My Garmin 1000 said 144ms elevation gained. With elevation corrected it said 336 Ms gained. I’m not sure what to make of that .??

      Reply
  21. Joe on

    thanks for this blog statements. Simple. I’m a 67 yo M … I want to tattoo label all my hurts and pains, etc. These are my reminders to keep moving. Rode my bicycle across America last summer. Praying to complete my bucket lists. It’s more of a barrel.

    Reply
  22. Lanier Gordon on

    I am 54 and have been riding since 1982. I love to ride and that feeling I get when you can just keep pushing is what keeps me motivated. My co-workers think I’m crazy but that’s fine with me. Cycling is not a hobby but a lifestyle and I am fortunate to be able to ride and not take it for granted. I ride faster and stronger now than when I was in my 30s! Life can change at the drop of a hat so live each and every day to the full. Congratulations to Jens Voigt, and Frederic Schmid. That is what I call inspiration. We “older” guys are living proof that you can better with age. The reason why we’re all still riding is because we feel the same way now as when we took our very first ride. We do it because we have passion for the sport. “La passione e tutto.”

    Reply
  23. Gary Benkendorf on

    59 here and crank out on my intervals faithfully using my power meter weekly. Wouldn’t have it any other way. Thank you CTS for your existence. Congrats to Jens Voight for his spectacular Hour record. It took a Masters rider to get the younger Pros to step up. Now we wait.

    Reply
  24. SteveT on

    At 56 years old I unfortunately had to go through the agonizing pain of a double hip replacement wiping out my entire 2014 season. What I learned from this experience is I will never take one day of riding for granted again and will cherish each day on my bike once 2015 gets here. My goal from here on out is to realize my potential as a cyclist and become as fit as possible to avoid the operating room again. My other goal is to complete a CTS hill training camp because as I approach retirement I want to experience as many epic rides as I can until I can no longer pedal. Thanks so much for the CTS newsletters for keeping me motivated.

    Reply
  25. Larry Wilson on

    I read almost every article. Thanks for this one. Started following your website a year ago. I am 62 and started riding 3 years ago. I would love to attend one of your camps, so I am saving up in hopes of getting to one. I have one question though. Because of my starting out late, is there any reason that I couldn’t catch up to the guys my age that have been riding for years? Of course unless I don’t do the work. I have downloaded 4 of your training workouts. Going to the Huntsman World Senior Games in October. I ride 5 days a week. Thanks again for the encouragement. Larry W

    Reply
    • Colin Campbell on

      Larry W, I know several riders who started late in life, and have done very, very well. Certainly one reason is that they were blessed with big engines (good hearts and lungs), but another is that they “saved” their bodies from some of the damage that affected people who were active young and stayed active. You may find your toughest competition is from people like you who started later in life!

      I am 70, have a basketball-damaged knee, lack cartilage in the knees and elbows, have some arthritis in my shoulders and elbows (and maybe elsewhere), etc. That’s what a life of sports and fitness training can “give” you. But I’m still riding and enjoying.

      Reply
      • Larry W on

        Colin
        Thanks so much for the encouragement, I started out on a $400. used road bike to see if I would enjoy it or not. I haven’t looked back from that point. I can’t ride enough now with work and all. One guy at work that rides a lot and for many years, tells me you are what you are and can’t improve on that other than staying in shape. I don’t believe that. I have been getting better stronger faster each month. I will work hard to find out what my body’s max output is at this point in life.
        Thanks again for your encouragement Larry W

        Reply
        • Ben reiter on

          Larry

          I started riding at the age of 56. I never did any endurance sports and just played friendly softball and some tennis. I was never very good. I trained for 3 years with CTS and attending a camp and by 60 I was easily keeping up with the young Hammerheads and even entered some races. The races combined 50’s and 60’s and I had no trouble at all keeping up. Unfortunately I lost a little enthusiasm and cut back my training and almost instantly deteriorated. I am riding a but more now at age 64 and still can keep up with the fast group; though no longer near the front.
          You can do it!

          Reply
  26. Steve on

    At 66 I’m doing rides again that I stopped doing a decade ago thinking I was too old. Obviously it wasn’t true though I give a lot of credit to my new bike designed for the older biker and with better gearing for hills.

    Reply
  27. Garrett Fonda on

    I turn 69 in 10 days and I have a group of friends who will do my birthday ride with me–a mile for every year. My friends are all 15 years or more younger so I just try my best not to embarrass myself. Still fun after all these years.

    Reply
  28. Michael Childs on

    Excellent article. Make hay will the sun shines like 43 year old Jens Voigt setting the hour endurance record today at 51.115 km!

    Reply
  29. AL LOTZ on

    I will be turning 66 in Nov. 2014, and I am still very healthy. I realize I can’t ride like a 20 year can, but I am still able to push myself. I just did my first Gran Fondo on August 10, 2014, in Snowmass/Vail Colorado. It was the most difficult ride I had every done but I completed the 44 mile ride all in the mountains. , So yes, you can enjoy your later years in life, but you got to keep moving forward and training and never giving up.

    Reply

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