It’s possible to be competitive as we age
Although this all sounds like doom and gloom, this is not necessarily the case. Very little age-related research has been conducted on trained older athletes and, according to Steeves, with the proper training program geared to both age and goals, the negative effects of aging can be minimized. To begin with, the concern about a decreased maximum heart rate is mostly to ensure we are training in the proper heart rate zone. For example, a common formula for establishing your maximum heart rate is to subtract your age from 220. Your training range would be a percentage of this number. So, to compare a 70-year-old with a 20-year-old, in theory the older athlete’s maximum heart rate is 150 beats per minute, while the 20-year-old’s is 200 beats per minute. Using a long, slow run as an example where you would typically train at about 70 per cent of your maximum heart rate, the older person should be running with a heart rate of about 105 beats per minute, while the younger person will have a significantly higher rate, about 140 beats per minute.
As our VO2 max decreases with age, the goal should shift from increasing our VO2 max to trying to improve the percentage of our VO2 max that we actually use. With older athletes Steeves puts less emphasis on interval training and more on tempo work and long slow distance, with the goal of improving the anaerobic threshold (which, very simply, is how hard you can work before lactic acid begins to accumulate in your muscles).
While we cannot really do anything to stop the decrease in muscle mass, what we can do is work to maximize what we have left. Very few of us have maximized our strength potential so, with dedicated strength work, we should actually see a very small and slow decline in strength. In fact, Steeves stresses that strength training is as important for older triathletes as cardio training. Complement strength training sessions with exercises and equipment such as BOSU balls and wobble boards to improve balance. As triathletes, most of our training is unidirectional. We do very little in a side-to-side motion so unbalanced exercises work the support muscles that we generally ignore.
After speaking with Steeves I was encouraged that with a good training program, I may be able to slow the aging process. But that only applies when we are healthy. What about injury prevention and recovery as we get older? For this I consulted with Earle Burrows, a physiotherapist and triathlete himself. Burrows has been practicing physiotherapy since 1991 and has been competing in triathlons since 1992. He has completed four full distance races and more than 20 half distance races.
According to Burrows probably 85 to 90 per cent of the injuries he treats are a result of training errors. And most of those are from something he calls the Terrible Toos: doing too much too soon. While most of the advice Burrows gives is applicable to athletes of any age, it is much more important for older athletes trying to stay injury free. Most important for older athletes is the need for recovery, which increases as we get older. Often we would be better served to skip a scheduled workout and opt for a yoga class, or even a day off. Most experts agree that at least one or two rest days per week is essential for proper recovery.
To stay injury free, it is important to have realistic goals and expectations. For example, for those new to the sport, Burrows only recommends sprint and Olympic distance races for at least the first year, leaving longer races until the second year and beyond.