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Masters Athletes Can Reduce Performance Declines with High-Intensity Workouts

If you train slower as you age, you are likely to lose performance at a greater rate per decade than if you train fast.

Woman jogging at beach
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Joe Friel

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There’s no question that aging is a blend of genetics and lifestyle—nature and nurture. No one knows the exact proportions of these two factors—60-40, 70-30, or something else. Nor do we yet know for certain which has the most to do with how we age. Research on aging demonstrates that lifestyle has a big impact on biology and largely determines your physiological age. That’s important information because lifestyle—specifically our approach to training—is something we can control.

So what can you do in training to slow aging while maintaining or even improving fitness and performance? The answer is not all that difficult: What drives the physiology of training for high performance when you are old is no different from what it was when you were 30 years younger. The principles of training don’t change: namely, the duration, frequency, and intensity of the effort.

Changes in Performance over the Decades

Many athletes tend to decrease their volume (miles run or biked per week) and training intensity as they get older. But it’s not simply working out that maintains fitness and therefore, in part, race performances; instead, it is how much training you do and how intensely you do it. This is a critical lesson for getting faster regardless of your age.

Here’s another. In 1987, Dr. Michael Pollock and his colleagues at the Mt. Sinai Medical Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, reported an astonishing finding that lent further credibility to the idea that very strenuous exercise was an aerobic capacity preserver. Well-trained, competitive endurance runners with an average initial age of 52 were able to totally maintain VO2max values over a 10-year period.

In the full group of 24 athletes, VO2max went into a tailspin, with an average 9 percent decline during the 10 years of the study. However, Pollock discovered that 11 of the 24 had continued to train vigorously and were still competitive a decade after the initial testing. When he categorized the results, he found that the more active athletes had absolutely maintained their average VO2max at a steady 53 ml/kg/min (10 years earlier it had been 54) despite being now in their early 60s. The less active subjects had seen their VO2max values plummet by 12 percent. In Pollock’s paper, “more active” meant that athletes continued to do high-intensity workouts while maintaining their volume.

Long, Slow Distance Isn’t Enough

Just like Pollock’s study, other research on aging in experienced endurance athletes generally supports the notion that in order to reduce the decline in aerobic capacity with advancing age, training must be intense. That typically means training anaerobically—at or above the lactate threshold. For experienced endurance athletes, an exercise regimen based solely on long, slow distance (LSD) will do little to improve or even maintain your aerobic fitness status over the years.

There’s little doubt that intense training is risky. As workouts become more challenging, the chances of injury, illness, and overtraining increase. Intense training needs to be modulated in regard to your current level of fitness and personal age-related limits. Those limits may have become magnified by the absence of high-intensity training in recent years. If that’s the case, you need to be extra-conservative with training changes as you ease into what I’m going to propose. If high-intensity training is something you haven’t done for a long time or have never done, you must consider several things: the type of hard workouts, the frequency of hard workouts, your short-term recovery from hard workouts, and your nutrition relative to hard workouts.

Incorporate Intervals into Your Training

Note that when you perform intervals, the absolute intensity, the duration of the repetitions, the number of repetitions, and the duration of recovery between intervals must be only slightly more challenging than your estimated current capacity for physical stress.

What that means is that you must know or be able to sense your physical limits and not exceed them. It’s best to take a conservative approach to intervals if it’s been a while since you last did such a workout. Don’t try to get in shape in just a handful of these sessions. Too much, too soon will nearly always result in a breakdown of some sort, such as injury. Take a long-term approach—as in several weeks—to safely produce the results you want.

Because an interval session can be quite stressful, it should be preceded by a gradually progressive warm-up. This approach has also been shown to improve workout performance. Stop the workout when a reasonable workout goal is attained, when it is apparent that high-end performance is declining, or when the effort feels unusually high for the output (pace, speed, power). My advice to the athletes I’ve coached for the past 30-some years has always been the same: Stop when you know you can do only one more interval. The last interval is the one to be most wary of, so simply don’t do it.

I am not going to prescribe specific methodology for measuring intensity. I am going to assume that your years in your sport have given you a strong foundation in monitoring the intensity of your workouts. You can use a rating of perceived exertion (RPE), heart rate, lactate threshold heart rate, or functional threshold power if you are using a power meter and are familiar with that measurement. Go with whatever you are comfortable using and whatever is most repeatable for you.

I recommend that you keep track of your heart rate even if you do not use it to measure intensity. Heart rate is a useful component in determining the state of your fitness and the rate at which you are improving it, as you will see below.

If you have been diagnosed with coronary heart disease, have concerns about your heart health, or are taking statins or other medications that alter heart rate, then you should consult your doctor before starting an interval training program. Fortunately, the risk of heart attack among otherwise apparently healthy athletes as they age is quite low.

If you’ve previously done intervals throughout your sport career but have had a gap in recent years, then you know how to get started again. Just be conservative with the progression of this workout. If LSD training has been your only training method, you may need some guidelines for getting started with interval training. Here is what I suggest for the first few sessions for someone who has not done interval training recently.

Step 1

Warm up for 10–30 minutes gradually, ratcheting intensity up to a moderate effort. It’s common for older athletes to need more warm-up time than young athletes. Warm-up may also vary by sport. For example, it is typically longer for cycling than for running. Swimming generally falls between these two.

Step 2

Do 3 × 3-minute intervals with each interval at or slightly below lactate (anaerobic) threshold and 1 minute of light recovery between them. As I mentioned before, the gauge of intensity for an interval workout such as this may be based on heart rate, pace, speed, power, or perceived exertion. Some of these measurements are better than others, depending on the sport. Heart rate–based intensity is perhaps the worst way to gauge how hard to work with intervals, especially short ones of a few minutes or less, as heart rate rises slowly during each interval.

It may take several minutes to achieve lactate threshold, during which time you are left guessing how hard to work. Most athletes err on the side of starting intervals too fast to force heart rate up quickly, and then they slow down later as the goal heart rate is finally achieved. This is just the opposite of what should be done; instead, you want to finish each interval with a slightly higher intensity than when you started.

Step 3

Cool down with several minutes of easy exercise. As with the warm-up, the duration of the cooldown depends on the sport, with cycling typically long and running relatively short.

At first you should most likely do only one such interval workout in a seven-day period. Over time, however, you can increase the number of weekly sessions to two if you have the stamina and time. It’s not common for senior athletes to be capable of doing more than two of these in a week. I’ve coached some who could, but they are rare and more likely in their 50s than their 70s.

Adapted from Fast After 50:How to Race Strong for the Rest of Your Life by Joe Friel, with permission of VeloPress.

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