There aren’t many things that you can predict with absolute certainty, but aging is one of them. It might not be something you are looking forward to, but it’s better than the alternative! Fortunately, triathletes are probably the most optimistic bunch of agers out there; I know of no other group that actually looks forward to getting older, especially when it means changing an age group.
Some of the physical changes we can expect with age include:
- Loss of muscle size and strength
- Reduced power
- Lower Vo2 Max
- Increased body fat
Just because we generally have active lifestyles does not mean that we should ignore the changes we see happening with age. There is an awful lot that we can do in both training and lifestyle to slow down the process.
Muscle mass starts to decline in the mid to late thirties. It occurs at a rate of around 3-5% per decade and speeds up once one we hit the mid to late 50’s, to about 7-8% per decade. This mainly affects the fast-twitch fibers, which is the reason why an athlete tends to lose power and speed rather than endurance.
Sadly, no amount of swimming, cycling or running will help preserve fast-twitch fibers, because endurance activities generally don’t provide sufficient load for that type of muscle adaptation. Instead of doubling down on the long slow distance (LSD), Dr. Stacy Sims suggests LHS (“lifting heavy sh**t”) as you age to preserve muscle mass. This means exercises like deadlift, squats, leg press, seated or bent-over rows, with a heavy (for you) load and a low number of repetitions. Dr. Sims’ work (and her excellent book ROAR) focuses on female athletes of all ages, but the concepts apply to men as well.
Many aging athletes feel that lifting in such a way may actually cause them injury, and of course, if you have a poor lifting technique then that might happen. But if you have good technique, then heavy work in the gym can have a number of wonderful benefits. Maximal strength can improve, and with it, power. Heavy weights can also lead to improved resilience in connective tissues, which will be a big help in the battle to stay injury-free. At the very least, one can slow down that loss of muscle mass—and in some circumstances, you may even gain new muscle.
Maintain Range of Motion
With age, our joints tighten up and the range of movement (ROM) around a joint or series of joints can be reduced. This has implications for all three triathlon disciplines but especially swimming and running. If velocity is measured by limb frequency and length of stroke or stride, a loss of ROM (coupled with that loss of speed/power mentioned earlier) ultimately results in a slow down.
Decreased mobility also increases your risk of injury. Any athlete should aim to avoid an injury, but it’s even more important in your older years, as any lost fitness is harder to regain. To increase your mobility, Dr. Kelly Starrett recommends doing at least 15 minutes of mobility work for every 60 minutes of training each week. For example, if you aim for 10 hours of swimming, cycling, and running then your minimum would be 2.5 hours.
Don’t Skimp on Intensity
As you age, long slow distance (even for long-distance triathletes) should become less of a priority, and high-intensity training must occupy the forefront of your mind. Like with heavy lifting, this can seem counter-intuitive to older athletes but trust me, it does work and if you are healthy and injury-free then you have absolutely nothing to fear.
To retain or build in regular high-intensity interval workouts, aim to work at an RPE of 9-10 for around 10% of your total weekly duration. This, of course, will depend upon your training history and attention to other recovery factors.
You may want to be cautious about fast running, especially if you have a history of calf or achilles problems, but on the bike and in the pool there should be nothing to hold you back. Work at the same percentage above FTP or CSS that a younger athlete might. Quality is the key, so don’t be shy about taking a longer recovery interval between repetitions if you feel you need it.
Listen to Your Body
You have gained some athletic wisdom over the years, so you should use it! Recovery between workouts also requires adjustment with age. Maybe you could have done a track workout and a Vo2 max bike workout in 48 hours in your thirties, but you might need 72 or even 96 hours as you enter your 60’s. Mountain bike hall-of-famer and XTERRA athlete Ned Overend once said, “I can still do what I always did, it just takes me longer to get it done.”
The bottom line is that you have to be more compassionate to your body. You’ve been using it hard for 30, 40, or even 50 years and it has served you well. Now is the time to repay that service with some kindness. Look after those aching joints, tired muscles and well-used heart.
Listen to your body and if you’re ever in doubt about a workout or your health on that day, take it easy, or rest. As an older, wiser athlete you have hopefully learned to control your ego a bit and can be comfortable finding the path for long-term consistency.
At some point, we all must accept that we are no longer going to get faster or more powerful—but avoiding the slow down as much as possible can be just as exciting a goal! By lifting heavy weights, maintaining intensity, and looking after your mobility and recovery, you’ll be healthy and performing well into your later years.
Good luck, and see you out there for many years to come!