I have learned over the years that our performance in events like 5K races will decline as we age. It’s a sad fact that once in our 50’s we will never be able to run the speeds we did a decade earlier (That’s me running a 10K while at the University of Illinois in 1984 in the photo at the left). So to compensate (I have always felt that I should be able to run the same speed I did when I was 30!) I would use the age-grading calculators to try to make my ego feel better. It only partially works, see the 2006 photo below. My best 5K performance dropped by more than 2 minutes in 22 years.
But why do we get slower as we age? My last post talked about muscle loss due to aging (fallacy), which is really muscle loss due to disuse. Is the performance loss as we age also a fallacy? It’s not clear.
What causes us to slow down as we age? Coach Joe Friel lists the following as possibilities in his blog article on declining performance as we age: declining VO2max, reduced maximal heart rate, decreased volume of blood pumped with each heart beat, lowered lactate threshold, less economical movement resulting in wasted energy, decrease in muscle fibers and strength, less effective and less abundant aerobic enzymes, reduced blood volume and Loss of muscle mass. There is a lot of research looking at the subject of athletic performance as we age. Coach Joe Friel summarizes the reseach here.
Interestingly, one key component of performance loss appears to the intensity of exercise. A research project at the University of Illinois (Go Illini!) followed 24 masters track runners aged 40 to 72 years old and then tested them 10 years later. It was found that the runners who reduced intensity of training lost 12% of the aerobic capacity even though they were still training. The ones who maintained competitive training intensities saw no significant loss in aerobic capacity. I’m not running races as much as I used to, but have moved to cycling with the same intensity as I used to put in my 5K road races. And I feel that I have the endurance and strength that I had 7 years ago. See the Gran Fondo NY photo below (Climbing that huge hill).
The conclusion is clear — exercise intensity is important. We can’t maintain aerobic ability by going slow all the time. We must have high-intensity effort as part of your training/exercise plan to maintain aerobic ability. There are other factors in performance, of course, but this is one key part of the puzzle.
The general public consensus is that we lose muscle mass (size and strength, too) as we age. But there are notable exceptions to the rule — athletes who have performed exceptionally well into their 70’s and even 80’s. See the World master’s rankings. For example, in the 2012 10K rankings list there are 38 runners age 60 to 85 that ran the 10K in less than 40 minutes, including the US runner, Nolan Shaheed (35:26 10K, 60-65 age group) who has age group records at several distances.
Well known triathlete coach Joe Friel just posted in his blog an article about maintaining muscle mass and the notion that we are destined to lose muscle. He reviews the latest studies that actually show little or no muscle mass loss is due to aging. What, you say? There are athletes that maintain muscle mass well into their 70’s, the key is that they work at it. See the photo from coach Joe Friel’s blog at the right. The middle muscle scan photo is a stark reminder that we are too sedentary in our lives. From sitting at our desks for 8-10 hours all day then watching TV for 3-4 hours at night. How many of us do 1-2 hours of strenuous activity each day, or even 30 minutes as recommended? Less than 3% of the US population according to some studies I have seen.
There’s a second aging/sedentary lifestyle issue here, not only does a sedentary lifestyle cause you to lose muscle mass, it also causes the loss of nerve control of the muscles. Older, sedentary people have less nerve connections to their muscles, thus can’t recruit the muscles they have.
Just another brick in the wall of information that says that we must keep moving, keep exercising, keep the intensity up, and just don’t sit around. Guess I’ve been right to keep that big commercial walk-behind mower for the last 20 years. I’ve always joked that it was my exercise program — 2-3 hours a week of walking at 3 MPH in tight circles.
Just Keep moving!
Questions for all the cyclists out there as the season winds down:
- How has your cycling year been?
- Did you have a great year?
- Did you meet your goals?
- What would you change?
I, like everyone sets goals for my cycling in the early season. Usually I get excited in January about the upcoming season and the thought of getting back out on the roads, racing and riding with the local groups as the weather improves. It also comes from the fact that I have rolled my workout intensity back in the fall and in January I’m looking to get back into serious workout mode again.
This year has been very good for me and I have ridden some very strong rides, Battenkill, Trooper Brinkerhoff races, the Harlem Valley Rail Ride and finally the latest 50-miler: the “Bike for Cancer Care” group ride in Kingston NY last Sunday. It is a group ride with no timing and not a race, but the course is good with what I would call moderate climbs, only one is categorized (cat-4, but short).
I started out with no warm-up and just sat in with the second group of riders that were working fairly well together and pace-lining on Hurley Mountain Rd., waiting for my cold leg muscles to warm up and my attitude to improve. Somewhere near the left turn at the south end onto Tongore Rd., I started feeling better and stronger, so decided to work at it a bit, instead of just riding. Time to check the ol’ legs out and see if they were ready. Who knows, maybe they are actually working? After the turn on Mill Dam Road the course gets more hilly and the pack broke up. Another rider (Bill) and I, broke away on the climb and descent to Rosendale. We eventually rode together, trading pulls with each other for the rest of the ride (about 40 miles), averaging in the low 20’s for most of the rest of the ride. Eventually we picked up two more riders that were dropped from the lead group and finished strong, averaging 20 MPH for the entire ride. A nice effort and really a surprise for me, since I was not motivated and had no plan to ride that hard at the start.
The net of this long discussion is that this year’s training has been quite good and the results show it, even though I have ridden less total miles this year than last year at this time. About 500 miles less and riding 3-4 days a week. I’m also stronger than at this time last year. How did I do it? Through focused, high intensity training for strength and speed, with longer rides for endurance. This is the training that the Big Ring Riding group has been doing all season with excellent results. We have done all types of intervals: high-intensity, short, long, sprint, tempo, threshold, VO2Max, hills and more hills. In addition, we also worked on pace-lines, criteriums, and time-trials, just for the fun of it.
Here’s my offer to cyclists in the area. There are a couple more weeks of Big Ring Riding evening training sessions left this season and I am opening up the rest of the season for free to anyone who wants to try it out, no strings attached. Come out and train with us on Monday and Wednesday nights at 5:30 pm starting tomorrow, 9/18. Sessions last 1 to 1-1/2 hours, typically. Send me a message on our contact page or via FB to reserve your spot and get the details.