Fifty is America’s favorite age. According to a recent Harris Interactive poll, if we could “skip time and live forever in good health at a particular age,” Americans, on average, choose 50.
Athletes, however, might think differently: 50 isn’t exactly associated with peak performance. But it’s still a damn good age to be an athlete, says Joe Friel, one of the world’s foremost experts on endurance sports. You can, in fact, be fast after 50. That happens to be the title of his latest book, Fast After 50. We had a chat with the endurance guru, who’s now pushing 70 himself, to find out how athletes can thrive after hitting the half-century mark.
OUTSIDE: Why 50? Why not 40, or 60?
FRIEL: Fifty is the age where performance declines become obvious, and can no longer be written off solely to non-sport commitments like family or job stress. Plus, other things occur at 50 that move aging to the forefront of one’s mind, like reading glasses, grey hair, facial wrinkles, and so on.
What was the most interesting thing you learned researching this book?
Across nearly all of the research, three changes appear to be responsible for age-related declines in performance: a decreasing aerobic capacity (VO2 Max), a loss of muscle mass, and an increase in body fat. These three factors—and how to slow the changes, or even temporarily reverse them—become the focus of the book.
And what can athletes do to fend off those changes?
Well, that is a complex question. But in short, completing high-intensity workouts—like intervals, hills, and weight training—is absolutely critical.
This can be a challenge for a number of reasons, though. For starters, aging athletes tend to gravitate toward long, slow distance (LSD) workouts because LSD training is more comfortable and does not demand as much recovery time, which can seem great because it lets us fill our increasing leisure time with exercise. Additionally, high-intensity training comes with increased injury risk, so both the intensity and frequency of high-intensity workouts needs to be managed in a very structured manner, which can be a turn-off for some.
All of that said, the bottom line is that the human body adapts positively to well-managed training stress (not just LSD workouts) regardless of age. Age is not the limiting factor. The desire to perform at a high-level and make the necessary sacrifices to do so is.
“Young athletes can get away with reckless training and with making mistakes in diet and recovery. But if they continue with this sloppy way of training in the second half of their lives, it catches up to them.”
So for the over-50 athlete, a high-volume strategy may not be the best bet?
This is a proverbial “it depends” question. Who are we talking about? For some athletes that have been training at a very low volume, an increase might be beneficial to their performance (but they still need to do some high-intensity work). However, for other athletes, focusing on additional intensity trumps adding volume. The only way to find out (which approach is best) is to test different strategies and measure the results. Either way, the body cannot be forced to change quickly—it adapts slowly, especially as we get older—so any increase in volume or intensity should be gradual.
How does approach to everyday diet change for the aging athlete? How about recovery?
The research shows that as we get older, we need more protein in our diet. This doesn’t mean eating more food, but rather, replacing something, in this case, carbohydrates, with protein. Protein is anabolic, meaning it promotes muscle growth. Meanwhile, overdoing carbohydrates is likely to contribute to an increase in body fat because it causes insulin secretion which interacts with another chemical in the body, lipoprotein lipase (LPL), to store fat. When we are younger, testosterone keeps LPL in check allowing us to eat lots of carbs without increasing fat, but that changes with age. And don’t forget, women also have testosterone, just not as much as men.
Has anything changed in how you would coach a 30-year-old athlete as a result of writing Fast After 50?
Young athletes can get away with reckless training and with making mistakes in diet and recovery. But if they continue with this sloppy way of training in the second half of their lives, it catches up to them. If an athlete wants to be fast after 50, they need to understand their bodies and make adjustments in their training, ideally, earlier rather than later. [Like not short-changing recovery, focusing more on fueling and nutrition, and not racing too often.] But telling this to a young athlete is like selling ice to Eskimos. Most young athletes would benefit greatly (as they age) if they had an older athlete-mentor or coach throughout their careers.
Anything else older athletes should know?
I really want to stress that an athlete’s rate of recovery is the confounding matter in most decisions about training, especially when it comes to increasing the intensity of workouts, which, like I said earlier, is critical. While we spoke about the importance of nutrition, we didn’t touch on sleep. Sleep is huge, perhaps even more important than nutrition when it comes to recovery. Aging athletes should take an all-hands-on-deck approach to improving sleep. This includes the sleep environment—comfort, darkness, quiet, temperature—and also, what is done in the hour or preceding bedtime to encourage drowsiness, like sleep routine, reduced light, protein intake, quiet, and calmness. In Fast After 50, I offer more detailed strategies for improving sleep and recovery in general.