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!
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.