Like a fine red wine or collectable antique car, there is another thing that can improve with age - the Endurance athlete. Whether we are talking about swimmer Dara Torres medaling in the 2008 Olympics at the age of 41 or Brett Favre throwing TD passes as a grandpa, athletes accomplish incredible things past the age of forty. Take myself. Outside of bicycle racing, I've always been a very competitive multi-sport athlete, but I did not win my first race until I was forty-one and then did it again three more times when I was forty-two (and have managed to win at least 1 multi-sport race every year since). How-- By adapting my training as I got older. Sure, when I was an elite category 1 cyclist in college I could ride 6 to 7 times a week, amassing hundreds and hundreds of miles in the process. I could stay out all night long and live on a diet of burgers, beer and cheese (a staple for one from Wisconsin). As my twenties became thirty-something and then the forties, my ability to recover changed. Gone are the days of being able to race daily for a two week cycling stage race. It now takes me a day or two even to feel normal after a 10k running race.
What adaptations does the older athlete need to make to stay competitive?
1. Listen to your body and understand the importance of REST!
This will likely mean LESS high intensity workouts during the week, LESS racing and more recovery time. In my twenties recovery came easy and rest days, well those were for the weak minded. In my forties it is not uncommon for me to string together back to back recovery days. I am also now much more in tune with my body. I take my resting heart rate and check my body weight every morning, looking for the early warning signs of not being properly recovered (perhaps bordering on obsessive-compulsive behavior). I used to become overcome with guilt for skipping a training day (even when I was sick) and lived by the mantra that somewhere someone is training and when you meet them in competition, they will beat you. Being older and wiser, I no longer feel guilty for missing an occasional workout, and realize that some of my best performances have come after a period of forced rest.
2. Learn from your own body of knowledge.
After over 30 years of endurance racing at nearly every level, I tend to think I know what works in my own training and what doesn’t. As a cyclist, I know that I respond best from longer, medium tempo rides than a ton of high intensity workouts. However, this approach does not work for me as a runner. I have found that I need a few more structured intensity workouts to help me find my form. This is where keeping a detailed training log you can refer back to is key (mine go back 20yrs). Had a particularly good race last fall? What did your training look like leading up to it? Were you heavier or lighter? How many hours of sleep were you getting (or not getting)?
3. Get back into the gym.
The gym used to be a place I would only visit on the off-season when weather prohibited you from comfortably training outside. Never would I venture into the confines of a gym during those warm summer months, not when I could be logging miles outside on the bike! But as one gets older, less flexible, your muscles shrink. If you want to stay competitive, strength training needs to become an integral part of your year-round fitness routine. Yes, you will spend less time strength training in the heart of the racing season, but it should not be ignored. Devise a routine that can be done without elaborate gym equipment such as sit-ups, planks, push-ups, wall squats, etc. All you need is 20-30mins a few times a week during the racing season to keep you on top of your game.
4. Watch the diet.
As endurance athletes we like to think we can eat what ever we want - just look at the diet of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. As a twenty-something, this might be true, but as we get older and the metabolism slows it becomes even more important to watch what you eat. A proper diet of lean meats, fruits, vegetables and the right mix of carbs to protein will not only speed up the recovery process, it can also elevate your own performance.
5. Buy that incremental performance.
There is a reason the average age of a triathlete is in the mid-30s and their median income level is in the low six figures. Smoe endurance sports like triathlon and cycling can get prohibitively expensive when compared to others (such as running or swimming). Carbon fiber frames and wheels, wetsuits, running and cycling shoes, biomechanical insoles, aerodynamic helmets, and race entry fees (approacging $100 for some Ironman events) can add up. But, if you have the means, many of these items can lead to improved performance. A lighter more aero frame or wheel set, a professional bike fit, a compu-trainer to ride indoors, portable altitude tents or even performance testing can enhance your own performance.
6. And finally - Keep it FUN!
For most of us, we do these endurance sports not because we are getting paid or it is our full time job, but because we crave the thrill of competition. Find ways to include your family in your racing. Look for a destination race at a location your family would enjoy. Serveral years ago Duathlon national championships were held outside of Tuscon, Arizona and both my wife and son made the trip with me. We made the trip a week long vacation, tacking some extra days on after the race. Gotta tell you, having your own cheering section at an out of town event is the best motivation to race well!
As I approach 50 I still refuse to use AGE as an excuse and hope I am able to still compete at a high level for years to come. Just a few years back I competed in a duathlon versus a field of over 300 athletes, including a small platoon of lean West Point cadets who were part of the Army triathlon team. For myself, there was no better gratification than finishing ahead of nearly all of them – save a lone cadet half my age who managed to beat me by a mere six seconds. To me, that was quite a feeling of accomplishment and, as they say, priceless!