Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of articles and blogs about adding years to your life, and to be honest most of the advice is downright obvious: Don’t smoke, reduce stress, drink alcohol in moderation, eat better and exercise more. That’s all wonderful advice for the general population, but it got me thinking about our population, by which I mean aging athletes. We are already outliers to the general population, and have already committed to the steps shown to extend lifespan. But as athletes we have also placed a high priority on thriving rather than surviving, so what are the steps aging athletes need to take to add life to our extended years?
Younger athletes can bounce back from a period of inactivity more easily and more quickly than an older athlete. As an aging athlete the physiological deck is stacked against you. Testosterone levels gradually decline. VO2 max gradually diminishes. It is harder to maintain lean muscle mass. Consistent training is the greatest defense against these opponents, and the biggest lesson aging athlete need to learn is that the mode of exercise matters less than the act of exercising itself. Keeping your activity level from dropping is the primary goal, and sport-specificity should be less of a concern. In other words, the older you get the more important it is to be a well-rounded athlete capable of participating in a wide range of activities.
This week CTS Athlete Fred Schmid celebrated his 84th birthday. He has won dozens of USA Cycling National Championships, most – if not all – after his 70th birthday. In every post-race interview he is asked how he continues to win races at his age, and every time his response is, “Just don’t stop.” A man of few words, Fred is nonetheless absolutely correct. Just don’t stop. Keep exercising and staying active, no matter how you do it. Sport specificity is crucially important for younger athletes working to achieve mastery and maximum performance in a single discipline. But from the standpoint of longevity, it is crucial to remove the barriers to consistency. You have to increase the opportunities for activity so you utilize a wider range of activities to maintain your activity level.
If there is any population that benefits most from the principles outlined in “The Time-Crunched Cyclist” books it is aging athletes, which is ironic because athletes often have more available training time post retirement. Aging athletes may have more available training time, but they benefit greatly from a training paradigm featuring fewer, shorter, higher-intensity interval sessions. This type of low-volume, high-intensity training model achieves greater training stress with lower overall volume, opening up more time for purposeful recovery. In other words, polarizing training so about 25-30% of the weekly training time is devoted to harder intervals and the rest of the week is devoted to recovery and endurance riding yields greater fitness improvements for aging athletes compared to the same training volume at a more consistent and moderate intensity level.
“Is it safe?” That’s the number one question aging athletes ask after reading about interval training. A lot has been written on this subject in recent years, and I have consulted with several cardiologists and cardiac electrophysiologists on the issue as well. You can read an article on the subject here. The main takeaway is that focused intensity is beneficial, but it has to be balanced with adequate recovery. A program featuring shorter, less frequent interval sessions benefits aging athletes by inducing greater training stress with less overall training volume and more opportunities for between-workout recovery. From a practical standpoint, this means aging athletes do best with about two interval sessions per week and two longer, moderate-intensity workouts.
An increased focus on resistance training fits in naturally with the two aforementioned pieces of advice. Reduced lean muscle mass is one of the driving forces behind a reduction in testosterone production and a reduced level of overall activity. In some ways this is a chicken-and-egg problem: either the reduction in activity level leads to reduced muscle mass, or the reduction in muscle mass limits the activities an aging athlete feels comfortable and confident participating in. Regardless of the cause, resistance training to maintain or increase muscle mass is a viable solution.
As athletes progress from their 50s into their 60s and 70s I firmly believe the primary goal of training should shift from sport-specificity toward generalized fitness, particularly through an increase in the amount of time devoted to resistance training. The preservation of muscle mass and bone mineral density are crucial for success as an aging athlete.
Of all the recovery modalities out there, sleep is far and away the most effective. It’s not that younger athletes need less sleep, it’s more that they can get away with less sleep and still compensate and function at a high level. Older athletes need to prioritize sleep because you can no longer compensate for its absence as well. High-quality sleep is so crucial that if you apply none of the aforementioned advice and simple increase the hours and quality of your sleep, you will achieve improvements in your athletic performance. Aim for at least 8 hours of sleep per night. Sleep in a cool environment. Research even shows that an investment in higher-quality bedding, sleepwear, and pillows will provide a positive return on investment. Improving your sleep will improve your performance. It’s that simple.
I have to admit, there was a period of my life when exercise was my solace, my escape from the noise. Riding by myself fulfilled my need for time to myself, and I have heard that sentiment echoed by cyclists, runners, triathletes, and every type of athlete out there. However, the natural experience of getting older is that our community constricts. Gradually and almost imperceptibly the number of people we interact with decreases, and the circle gets smaller. Continued engagement in sport can be a crucial defense against this collapse of community.
Cross-generational participation is one of the biggest benefits of endurance sports. When you go out to the local group ride or participate in centuries and gran fondos, there is no separation of age groups. The groups self-select by ability and pace, not age. I am 56 years old and frequently find myself in groups containing riders 20 years my junior and senior. We all have something to teach each other and impart unto each other. I love helping younger, inexperienced athletes stay in the group when they have the power of youth but are lacking the savvy of experience. Similarly, I love catching the glance of an older rider who knows his experience and savvy are the only reasons he hasn’t been jettisoned by the younger and stronger riders in the group.
Endurance sports are the only place I know of where youthful inexperience and mature wisdom co-exist so naturally and result in cross-generational high-fives over a post-ride beer. The value of a 65-year-old laughing with a 20-something over a post-event beer should not be underestimated. That’s what our community is built on; the young ones keep the old ones engaged and the old ones exemplify and personify a pathway for the young. It’s a cycle, and the only way you can break the cycle is to stop and join the sedentary majority.
Do us all a favor and take Fred Schmid’s simple and concise advice: “Just don’t stop.”
CEO/Head Coach of CTS