Are You Just Getting Soft? Mental Toughness and Performance Decline in Athletes Over 40


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 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.

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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.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

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Comments 41

  1. I have to agree and disagree, I discovered my love for running the first time I ran cross country as a kid, and was a great track and cross country athlete as a teenager (not elite, but winning school and some state races – however not fast enough to be elite) – however my pain threshold and interest in pushing that threshold maxed out at only 5km.

    In my 20s I was determined to crack a sub 40 10k, I trained and was happy doing tempo runs at 4:30 – 4:37 per km pace. I could never push myself to train harder (faster) however when I reached 30 I found my speed picking up and I cracked 40 minutes when I finally entered the race I was too afraid to enter in my 20s (as I was training better, harder and faster).

    I’m 34 now and I can easily do 8 – 10 1km intervals consistently at 3:50 pace, I find running less than 10km a short run on any given day and I’m the fittest I’ve ever been. My body hasn’t changed since I was a teenager in terms of being toned and slender, I still eat the same as I would 15 years ago.

    To summarise my point, my pain threshold has rapidly increased with age and my interest in reaching that pain has stayed as high as it ever has been, and the pain doesn’t feel like it used to – I can train harder and longer without feeling the pain as early on. E.g., as a 16 year old I would race 3km and feel that pain and have to push myself as early as 1km. Now, I could run that 3km race without batting an eye as mentally my mind knows that that pain in a 3km race is actually only (less than) 12 minutes (which flies by when you’re used to running 15km).

  2. Pingback: How Aging Weekend Warriors Can Maintain Performance | Fine Feather Heads

  3. Great article. How do folks 50+ keep it going if you were much faster when younger? I was a local hammer in a couple different localities and didn’t really realize how much that fed my ego. At 49, this year literally, I hit like an age wall. My ability to keep to the gym for heavy weight sessions to support hard efforts on the bike a couple times a week just vanished this year. Recovery takes so long. The same perception of pain and effort results in so much slower times and performance. Precipitous declines in gym and bike performance are devastating. I love cycling and am trying to find the passion again but is hard to feel like doddering around the local trails that I still have koms on from as little as two years ago. I do try to stop and smell the roses and enjoy tremendously seeing my kids discover this sport but am struggling mightily to keep at it for such diminishing returns in my own performance. Would love thoughts on how folks have coped with this reality of aging and hitting similar “age walls.”

  4. You state — “Personally, I still crave the feeling of going hard enough to get that metallic taste in the back of my throat,……”
    Having experienced that phenomenon on many occasions when I was training hard, what exactly is it physiologically? Why does it happen?

  5. I know many people in their 40’s to 60’s. Some ride only on weekends, some race, and some train like they race, but don’t race. Some are super motivated and often get injuries from over doing it. I see ones personality is also a factor. Type A versus type B. Type A may push themselves more in training regardless of age. Type B may hold back and train more conservatively as they age.

    Recovery does slow with age for me, however there are so many factors like rest, sleep time, diet, etc. Since I can’t or won’t increase my training time each day, I starting adding weight to the bike. By adding weight, I can increase the load on the hills I do. My effort is a little harder without having to change my training otherwise. I now notice that my base strength is stronger with the same training time. I use a weight I picked up at rockbarcycling and it has been helping. They say people lose muscle mass as they age, so increasing load may help counteract that?

  6. Chris this article is spot on as are all the comments. As you get older you have more experience to draw on. There are more tools available to measure and motivate your performance but i think the natural survivors instinct in us knows that we don’t need to push ourselves to breaking point to often. I think therefore our perceived effort is higher than actual effort and there is always more in the tank but hard to access. The reason for this maybe that as we get older we are more aware. When younger we acted not thought. Now we think and perhaps act.
    With Training Peaks I have experience of training older athletes. Oldest is 76, most in there 50’s and youngest 18. We all react differently but unless you have experience this yourself it is hard to walk in the other persons shoes. I’m 50 and whilst I can push out the power it is hard to push out the HR unless forced to. Training with your mates, the occasional race and perhaps once a week making yourself do the efforts can work. However if you expect to beat yourself up each day like you could when younger think again.
    I agree with Joe about use it or lose it but you don’t expect to use it at our age more than once a week!!

  7. Interestingly enough, at 49 I go harder than ever. I’ve done IMs, 100 mile ultras, adventure racing, all kinds of sport. I rushed through a lot of sport when I was younger, for example jumping from running 10ks to marathon training, then right into ultras. Now that I’ve had time to endure a few years of “base building,” I find the suffering has more value & I’m willing to do it in exchange for the results.
    I think it was some goofy cyclist I heard say, “it’s not the fastest person that wins the race, it’s the one willing to suffer the most.” 🙂

  8. For me it is how bad do you want to do it – that is my pain level. I’m 75. I took up cycling at 68 and did my first Century at 69. I read Joe Friel’s book “Cycling Past 50” and used his training plan. I’ve done probably 15-16 since and will do 2 more this year. I took up snowboarding at 73 (ouch, very painful), did a Triathlon at 74. My tip would be daily “soft” exercise, yoga, stretching, swimming, walking. Do runs or bike rides once or twice a week. You think you can do it, you might. Joe Fiel says to “train to finish the first time.” Great advice.

  9. Coming upon my sixtieth lap around Sol I agree with a lot of what has been written here.
    My biggest issue has been the transition from fixed gear to road as I ride much less fixed, my muscles seem to have lost mass.
    Sure, can bang away on the big ring, and get places faster but when I climb aboard the fixed gear I have to run lighter to control.
    Diet,sleep pattern,work same
    just appears I have leaned out.
    Fun though riding with younger butterflies, experience keeps me competitive and I try to share
    what I have learned including CTS tidbits..
    Yeah, it hurts to set the bar and achieve our goal, why we love it so
    ….( )/ ( )
    hide not your essence

    1. Add weight to your bike. It will make you work harder without mentally focusing on your effort. I tried a case I found at rockbarcycling.

  10. Good article! I think there is one more piece to this…perceived stress from other areas of life. As we mature our lives become more complicated and we take on more responsibilities. This, along with our training load, stresses the system.

    I’m a Tier X coach with Equinox. Part of what we do in our assessment process is take resting metabolic rates and VO2 assessments. What we see in a lot of our older (40+) clients is a higher level of perceived stress at rest. When the body is already in that state its harder to push hard and recover. The body doesn’t know the difference between the types of stress we’re under. This, I believe, contributes to our diminished ability to go hard as often.
    Thoughts on this?

    1. Since information processing does slow with age, one’s perception of effort could also be altered. ?? Being mindful of this might help alleviate the situation. But of course that’s an over simplification:)

  11. Interesting article for sure. Another perspective at my age (73yrs) is that I am no longer interested in racing . I have been competitive in my time and am happy with my achievements. I managed silvers in Comrades and Two Oceans and over a 45 year span ran over 100 marathons. The important thing for me is to run and enjoy it- and I do. Being in this advanced age group requires a modicum of common sense when it comes to training . I have watched my max pulse decline over the years and am happy with it. My resting pulse is important as well and I use it as my barometer of cardiac well being.My waking pulse is 36/min and has been so for 40 years.
    In short, I run with less intensity to fit my changing physiological parameters and enjoy it . This doesn’t mean I don’t challenge myself. I run the steepest hills I can find-but only slower than i used to. As the advert says- “there is no finishing line”

  12. Really loved this. As a 43-year-old ultrarunner, it goes far in expaining why, when doing a Tough Mudder recently, I was just zero percent interested in the electrocution obstacles, while people half my age were limping the run but all about getting the living ___ shocked out of them. There was just no part of me that would have felt more accomplished or victorious enduring pain for no positive outcome. I’ll do barf-worthy repeats and up my weights even when I don’t want to… but my brain now definitely has a “let’s not do dumb stuff” shut-off.

  13. Nice article. I am retired teacher of Exercise Physiology. Still competing in cyclocross. I often train with much younger athletes. I am 66 this month. HR still goes to 180. Can go very hard only one day a week. One medium and rest are easy days. Have competed over the years in Triathlons, Marathons. 24 Hour MB races. Road bike, Cyclocross Swim meets, Karate matches.
    The point I want to mention is that in your 60’s you can still push your body as you have learned how. It is not a matter of pushing, It is a matter of not feeling good after doing it. Have to question the effect on immune system at this age. Dont think it is good to try and push to max too often.

  14. As a 63 year old female, I’m the last of the pre-title niners. This motivates me. Body DOES follow the mind. I ride five days a week and if I don’t hit 400 watts on the power meter, I don’t feel I tried very hard:)

    I think aging, pain tolerance and motivation, in general, has to due with what one has encountered throughout one’s life. If a person has suffered setbacks, broken bones, c-sections (haha), and still come back for more, I think they’re in it for life! It has to be intrinsic; one must feel it on the inside. It also has to be stimulating. As our fluid/mechanical functions decrease, our crystallized/pragmatic functions compensate for the loss, if we persist.

  15. Ever heard of Diana Nyad? At age 64 she swam from Cuba to Florida. She had failed numerous times when she was younger and in better physical shape. She attributes her successful swim to her age. Her book and accounts of her success should be an inspiration to all ages. Dream your dream and then go live it. The only one in your way is you.

  16. I was involved in competitive sports in my younger years in a limited way. Life, work and family replaced that and I got soft and fat. My avocation as a Paramedic also discouraged maintaining good physical practices. Realizing that if I didn’t change i would suffer the results of many of my patients for not taking care of themselves. So, I started riding a bike and working out at the station. I am now the best fit guy ( and the old timer) in the company. I have entered some competitions recently to see where I am at ….. At my age 57. I realize that I have a long way to go catch up to some of the young fellas. What seems to mean something to me us to be able to complete an event “in the crowd or peleton” and know that I am doing something others are unwilling to do because there is some suffering and pain.

  17. Maybe the trick is to keep it all fresh.
    I’ve come to endurance sports later in life. Hiking, skiing, and rock climbing hooked me on wilderness activities. Met my wife rock climbing. Then kids came and I transitioned to coaching soccer, baseball — and mountain biking (NICA High School MTB racing — it’s a great thing). After leading rides, coaching riders and sweeping the races, I started racing on my own hook — and really enjoy it. At 62 years old.
    Now I have a fresh list of things on the horizon, enough to last another 20 years easy. Races, working up from local events — been doing well, but not much competition. Self-contained bike touring with my wife — we’ve done a bunch over the past several years. Long distance MTB rides — some of the Colorado Trail for this year. Great riding, amazing scenery. Training with Coach Julia! Still progressing, still notching significant PRs as I progress.
    And bringing it all back to the high school racers I’m still coaching. Teaching is a great way to learn, and working with younger folks helps keep one in touch with life. You get to see it all anew, with each new year’s beginners. It’s a thrill to watch them grow into the sport and make it their own, whether as elite racers, explorers or recreational riders. It is a sometimes very interesting challenge to find the hook that catches their interest. Coaching keeps it fresh!
    Never stop. That’s a key to performance in later life. It’s easier when it is always interesting, when there is always a new challenge.

  18. These articles on aging and being an athlete are very encouraging especially as I age. At a CTS camp, I asked this very question about aging and endurance, your answer was great, that it is 50% in my mind and I have not forgotten that as you and my awesome CTS coach, Julia have challenged me to work harder and grow, the payoff is wonderful. I am 53 and I appreciate the accountability of goals and support. So thank you! You and so many others who are in this age group are so inspiring because I can see, so can my children, that I can go beyond what I imagine regardless of my age~Michelle

  19. I am 66 and have been a runner for 40 years and a triathlete for almost 10. I can relate to the “been there, done that” perspective. Over the years I have raced virtually every running distance between one mile and 100 kilometers and sprint to IM triathlons.

    At this point I train virtually seven days a week, taking a day off here and there but have pretty much stopped racing. I train 12 – 14 hours a week because that is what I enjoy, and the more I train, the stronger I feel and the more I enjoy beach swim, bike and run. Most days I train alone.

    I have just seemed to lost interest in racing for,the time being. Perhaps that interest will return, and perhaps not – either way I am good.

  20. Excellent article. Since an episode of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema left me short of breath for several minutes (which felt like several minutes too many) in my forties, I have very low tolerance for pushing myself to the max. There’s pain, and there’s scary. Not being able to catch your breath for too long is scary. As a result I became a lot more “selective about what I’m willing to endure”.
    By focusing on lactate threshold and endurance, rather than maximum efforts, I’ve been able to stay in very good shape while avoiding the feeling of impending doom. And I’m certainly healthier as a result. I still have lots of options for enjoying the level of fitness that I have.
    Jay Tendler, MD

  21. That was an ah ha moment right there. I agree that as we get older we choose that level of pain we wish to endure, not what our limit is. I would be really interested in seeing some research on this. This thinking extends not just to athletes but also for people who never were athletes and just their perceived limit of effort (or pain) they wish to endure to get off the coach and become stronger to slow down the decline of aging on basic strength and endurance. What difference I see from my parents generation to the current seniors is, the more the current generation has pushed themselves the more active they continue to be. That then benefits overall body and mind health, reducing disease and injury and the appearance of age.

  22. After 25+ years of triathlon (and variations of single and multisports competitions), I find that my tolerance for ‘discomfort’ has greatly increased over the years, particularly as the distances that I’ve gravitated to has increased. ‘Race pace’ for an ultra is very different than for a sprint, and it’s not so much about pain; rather it’s enduring discomfort for the duration. The rewards of out-lasting your peers (slowing down slower than them!) often results in more wins/fewer injuries than the pain of racing against the fast youngsters; overall race wins are just not realistic after a certain point. Perhaps for me, there’s also not the same hunger for those overall wins, as a few decades ago as well. Gratitude to still be out there healthy, uninjured, playing with youngsters is definitely my predominant sentiment in recent years!

  23. In my late 40’s here in central Texas, I’ve noticed my willingness to train in hot, humid conditions has decreased significantly.

  24. I totally agree with you. I’m in my early 50’s and have been competing for almost 20 years. I don’t plan to stop, but I have come to the realization that I may need to find events that fit better with my ability to tolerate being uncomfortable.

    I find that my biggest obstacle is my ever-increasing intolerance of weather conditions, especially the cold, wet, windy days that are common in the midwest. My days of “HTFU” have been replaced by ‘”been there, done that, no thanks!”. Pair this attitude with an aversion to indoor training and I get a dilemma that I need to resolve before I lose my competitive edge.

  25. Next month I’ll be 46, and my target is to be Warren, 5:51 AM in my 60s+.

    In my 30s some of my athletically inclined friends used to joke that you have to work out twice as hard to look half as good as you did in your 20s. And then there’s the women’s middle age version –“@ss or face, pick one.”

    I do think the physiological changes are not insignificant. However what I have noticed is that it isn’t willingness to suffer during one individual effort, it’s chronic suffering that wears on you when you are older. It used to be a badge of honor to have DOMS so badly I could barely sit down without help. Now in my mid 40s that just seems dumb if it can be avoided.

    It wears on you when you have an intense training schedule plus maybe you have younger kids, a stressful job, and even when are retired, you are ‘supposed’ to be chasing butterflies (whatever that means to you) and that additional layer of self inflicted tiredness might feel less key to happiness. So maybe the psychological slowing is an attempt to balance complexity of a life with many foci.

    Can’t speak for cyclists but us runners are trying to run away from death so we will always be motivated at least a little bit. 😉

  26. I think the more you expose yourself the more you learn what you can take. What one person might interpret as pain others can feel pleasure in. I think it’s a matter of mindset and goal orientation and ultimately desire. Nowadays the metrics are really awesome and I know using a power meter and heart rate monitor what my personal maximums are like never before. This technology and learning how to use it to treat my body right over time is critical for my building confidence.

  27. Amazing Chris Carmichael. I am 68 and agree with everything you said. I ride mostly solo which makes it even more difficult to push myself to the max. I also feel aches and pains at 68 that I didn’t at 25. I have only been riding a year and a half after being off the bike for 4 years with knee injury. I rode 6000 miles last year and made great improvements but this year I am riding less than half that although most of my riding is on a mountain bike this year. Wish you had a old timers class I could attend. You are my favorite coach. Best of luck.

    1. I know Merle and he is amazing on and off the bike! The heart of a lion and soul of an angel !!
      Keep pushing it Merle , a true inspiration!!!!

  28. Great article and it would be good to know more when these studies are published. From my experience training with a CTS coach helped me to understand that pain doesn’t mean I’m going to have a heart attack! When my HR goes over 200 in a race (I’m 56 now) I now understand that is normal for me. As I get older I’ve noticed I am less “interested” in feeling that level of pain, ie. it’s in my head. I do still like to do the occasional race so have had the usual doctors tests and they tell me my arteries are clean as a whistle. Knowing that helps me push harder. I have found that, as I’ve gotten older, not looking at my HR monitor in a race helps me and I’m still getting close to PRs and coming top of my age category (if I train properly).

  29. Great article! I’m 65 and been “moving,” walking then transitioning to running ultras for the last 10 years.

    I just hired one of your coaches because I want to do for another 20 years, at least. 🙂

    I finished my 2nd 50K in three weeks. The first included 6,800 ft of elevation gain, mostly in mud! I made the cutoff by 5 minutes and finished in 10:41. It was brutal and I was stoked to finished. AND kudos to the organizers who hung in there for the last three of us stragglers.

    Last weekend I finished a much less challenging 50K with 1,100 ft of gain and I finished in 7:20, a nearly 50 minute PR for me! Still the last finisher, but. . . again the made the cutoff, with a great deal more pad than the first one and the race organizers were just as excited about my finish, but I suspect for different reasons! LOL

    So, please keep studying we geezers! There’s a lot of miles ahead and PRs to be had! Thanks for all you do to keep us running!

  30. Thanks, Chris! Your column is of great interest – one of your very best, at least to me, a 59.5 year old guy who currently has a mental issue with riding. After years of training (under a great CTS coach, Dave McIntosh) & riding, including the completion (EFI) of 2 Ride the Rockies & 4 Triple Bypasses, I fell off the wagon and simply quit riding 18 months ago. Initially I felt I needed more time to handle other life responsibilities (job loss), but also felt like all of the time and effort (cost) did not provide an outcome (benefit) that was worth it any more. Aches and pains never seemed to subside and personal desire faded as my performance declined – riding had become more of a job / obligation than an enjoyed activity in spite of the benefits it gave my health. Now I could not do a 20 mile ride and knowing I used to be able to do way more than that saps my motivation to even get on a bike. Lance went to Ashville and found a renewal of his desire to ride… I am driving SAG on Hawaii next week for friends, maybe watching them ride in paradise will “shock” my brain out of its funk. Cheers,
    Marc, Westminster, CO

  31. Great blog! I am now 71 years old, and ride a fatbike towing my best friend, Carlos (American Staffordshire Terrier) in his dog trailer on the hilly roads of the Appalachian foothills. I do hope a good peer reviewed study will come up some day, because in my case, I feel my pain tolerance is higher now than before. I believe pain tolerance is something you can actually improve if you work at it regardless of age.

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