I spoke at two book signings this week and during both Q&A sessions I was asked about the impact of age on declining endurance performance. It’s one of the most common questions I get, and I’ve written about it previously. I’ve also been reading about mental toughness and the connection between hard training and pain tolerance. Somewhere in this milieu of information I suddenly remembered Muhammad Ali’s quote: “A man who views the world at 50 the same way he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” That’s when it clicked.
Now, before I can get to what clicked I have to give some background on what we’re talking about.
Age and Performance
Intuitively we all know athletic performance gradually declines as we get older. It’s generally accepted that VO2 max – the maximum amount of oxygen you can take in and deliver to tissues – starts declining at around 40 years old and declines at around 1-2% per year thereafter. In other words, you could lose 10-20% of maximum aerobic capacity between 40 and 50!
“Could” is the operative word in the last sentence, because you have control over factors affecting VO2 max. Training can increase your VO2 max relative to now, increase the power/pace you can achieve at VO2 max, and length of time you can sustain that effort. Age may reduce your highest possible VO2 max, but there’s room for improvement between where you are now to that highest possible value.
VO2 max is also “use it or lose it”. Athletes who were world-class competitors in their youth experience a slower decline… as long as they continue training at a high level. Athletes who lost fitness at VO2 max and returned to sport later in life don’t get back to the levels their peers maintained. Training yields progress and continued training enables you to maintain a higher performance level longer.
Performance is not all about VO2 max, either. Lactate threshold as a percentage of VO2 max is another area that can be improved at any age. If you think of VO2 max as a warehouse, your current power/pace at lactate threshold might fill 70% of the building. Training to improve performance at lactate threshold can increase this to 75%, without an increase in VO2 max. Raising the roof (increasing VO2 max) can create even more space to fill/room for improvement.
Mental Toughness and Performance
A completely different area of sports science looks at the how the mind affects our ability to maximize physical potential, as well as how the mind copes with pain and fatigue. CTS Athlete Rebecca Rusch was part of some Redbull Endurance Project research into the effect of the mind on perceived barriers. In one test athletes were asked to perform a 4-kilometer time trial on a velodrome. They were then asked to repeat that effort, this time chasing a LED light representing the pace of their previous effort. To repeat the same time all you had to do was stay with the light. Then, unbeknownst to the athlete, they increased the pace so the light was going faster than their previous maximum pace. Two athletes improved their time trial performances and two dug too deep, blew up, and went slower. While far from definitive, the overall project was trying to learn about “reserve capacity”, that small amount of energy athletes have for a finishing kick. A maximum effort is rarely your physiological max; when you reduced the mind’s influence, physiological performance can increase!
That sounds like the opposite of unlocking the mind’s power to elevate performance, right? But what it suggests is that, because it affects performance in both directions, perception plays a central role in achieving maximum performance. Difficult experiences in training and competitions elevate athletes’ perceptions of what they can handle, which sometimes leads to breakthrough performances despite no physiological improvement. On the other end of the spectrum, reducing the brain’s influence on performance can unlock physiological capabilities the athlete was either unwilling or unable to handle mentally.
A recent study thoughtfully described by Alex Hutchinson in his Sweat Science blog on Runnersworld.com adds more support to the idea that exposure to discomfort through hard training efforts and events doesn’t change an athlete’s pain threshold (point at which you feel pain), but does increase an athlete’s pain tolerance (point at which you cry Uncle). I can only reference Alex’s blog and the article abstract at this point, however, because the information was recently presented at the American College of Sports Medicine Conference but I don’t think the full study has been published yet. Nevertheless, it’s not a revolutionary idea that training – whether physical or mental or combined – can increase a person’s ability to suffer, and his or her willingness to endure greater suffering.
So, with that long prelude, what was it that clicked for me this week?
Willingness to Suffer Declines with Age
Think about what you were able to do when you were 25 years old. Whether it was physical or mental labor, you were tireless. You bounced back quickly from all-nighters, could train all day and still go out at night. More than the volume of activity you could handle, I’m betting you could also dig deeper. That threshold for pain and suffering you were willing to inflict on yourself in an interval was higher back then. Not only in individual efforts, but also in the number of repeats you were willing to endure.
Does that mean we just get soft as we get older? Kind of, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just may help explain another facet of why we get slower as we age. Being selective about what we are willing to endure is part of developing as an adult. Priorities change as we gain perspective about the lives we want to lead and what we want to get out of activities and experiences, including exercise. As an athlete you have developed a higher pain tolerance than the average person, but at some point most people lose interest in experiencing that level of pain on a regular basis. You’re happy to train, and even train hard, but not that hard. This presents context as well as opportunity. If there’s something you really want to achieve, mental training could enhance your willingness or ability to push yourself further.
I am not aware of peer review literature examining the effect of age on pain/suffering tolerance in athletes, so I can only rely on anecdotal experiences from my years as a coach and athlete. What I have seen, heard, and experienced tells me our perception of “hard” or “maximum” diminishes with age. Over time this contributes to lower training workloads, which contributes to our gradual decline in performance. Personally, I still crave the feeling of going hard enough to get that metallic taste in the back of my throat, but I also know – without a doubt – I am not willing to go that hard as often anymore.
I’d love to hear your views on whether and how your pain tolerance or willingness to suffer has changed with age. Leave your comments below.
CEO/Head Coach of CTS