TRAIN FOR SUCCESS AT ANY AGE
THE AGING ATHLETE
NOW THAT I am in my fifties, every time I mention I have an ache or pain the response I get usually starts with the phrase “As you get older …” clearly implying that I need to get used to getting more and more feeble. It is a phrase I am really starting to dislike.
Is it inevitable that I will gradually (or maybe not so gradually) get slower and weaker until I can no longer compete in triathlons? If the answer is yes, at what age can I expect that to happen? And what about those age group athletes still going strong in their 70s and 80s? Do they have better genes than I, or are they simply taking great care of themselves? What do I need to do to be able to enjoy this sport that I love for a couple more decades?
Triathletes over 50 make up a significant proportion of the provincial triathlon associations here in Canada, ranging from a low of 16 per cent in Quebec to over 30 per cent of the members in B.C. So understanding ways to keep older triathletes healthy, and competing, is certainly worthwhile.
I began by asking Daryl Steeves, head coach of Fundy Extreme Triathlon Club in Saint John, N.B., who has seen his share of athletes age. Steeves has been coaching for forty years and has two MAS in biomechanics and pediatric exercise physiology. According to him, the short answer to whether performance decline is inevitable is “yes.” We do start to deteriorate after about age 40. It begins with our maximum heart rate, which decreases by about one beat per year. As well, our VO2 max, which is a measure of our ability to use oxygen, also decreases. One article published in Sports Medicine put the decrease in VO2 max as high as 10 per cent per decade of age.
We also start to lose muscle mass in something called age-related sarcopenia. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, by about age 50 we have already lost 10 per cent of our muscle mass. In our sixties and seventies we lose strength at a rate of 15 per cent per decade and up to 30 per cent, per decade, after that. Flexibility and balance also become noticeably worse with age. As muscles and the corresponding connective tissue get tighter, range of motion decreases, resulting in a corresponding risk of injury.
Colm Kelly races to the finish in the men’s 65-69 age group at the 2012 Ironman World Championship in Kona