Maintaining Performance with Age

In this video, Joe Friel highlights three key factors for coaches to focus on to ensure their aging athletes remain fit and well.

There’s no denying that age is a formidable opponent. As a coach, knowing how to help masters athletes continue to train at a high level as they get older will lead to huge benefits for their health and performance.

Kicking off Module 11 of The Craft of Coaching series on coaching masters athletes, Coach Joe Friel explains what coaches can expect as their endurance athletes get older and how training needs to change to address those issues.

Video Transcript

Joe Friel  00:06

One of the things I’ve become very aware of myself as I aged up was that the athletes I was seeing at races and workouts were all people who had the money to spend on coaching and were more willing to look for coaches than perhaps younger athletes were.

Joe Friel  00:22

Today I’d like to talk with you about how you might be able to leverage that, to make your business grow a little bit by bringing in more aging athletes. By aging, I mean athletes in their 40s, 50s, 60s, even 70s, who are really still competitive, but they realize that things have been going south with their performance over the last few years. What can you do to help those athletes improve their performance and therefore bring on new clients?

Correlation Between Aerobic Capacity and Age

Joe Friel  00:49

Let’s look at this slide here now, which gives us some idea of what happens to a person’s aerobic capacity, also called VO2max, as they age. If you look at the right side of the chart, you’ll see there are a group of dots that represent 16 people who were tested in their early 80s by the researchers on the study. They tested 10 athletes who are represented by the upper dots you can see there, and they tested six non-athletes, basically people who are untrained.

Joe Friel  01:22

The interesting thing to point out here, though, is that the athletes we can see have very high VO2maxes relative to those who are not exercising, or at least not exercising in a serious manner, to the lower part of the chart. That tells us something right there, that exercise has a lot to do with maintaining VO2max.

And why is this important? Because as your VO2max declines over time, not only does performance change and drop down precipitously, but you also have a change in how the person can deal with their life in general. Now there are lots of other things that go into this. But that’s the starting point for what we’re talking about with aging, is that aerobic capacity declines over time. Your purpose as a coach, one of your purposes, is to help maintain or perhaps even improve a person’s VO2max so they can perform at a higher level.

Joe Friel  01:54

There are other things though that also go into this issue of decline and performance over time. One of the things besides aerobic capacity is loss of muscle mass. We know that as people get older, they tend to lose muscle mass, and I’ll come back to that topic a little bit.

A third thing that often happens that brings down an athlete’s performance is as they age up, there is an increase in body fat. We’re more inclined to gain body fat as we age and that obviously has a lot to do with the person’s performance as the age up also.

VO2max, Efficiency, and Peak Sprint Power

Joe Friel  02:44

Now we’re going to look at things which were measured in the laboratory in 60 triathletes. The 60 triathletes were made up of 10 from each age group starting in their 20s through their 60s. What we’re measuring here is what happened to other aspects of their performance-enhancing qualities as an athlete. For example, not only did VO2max, as you can see, decline over the course of the 60 years, but also there was a change in efficiency. Now efficiency is how much energy the athlete expended at a given intensity. Every athlete was tested for that, along with their VO2max, and they were also tested for their peak sprint power.

Now, notice along the way that their VO2max declined at a rather steady rate until about the age of 60 to 69. There’s a slightly bigger drop off at that point. VO2max, even an athlete’s, seems to decline a little bit faster as they get to these upper ages. But notice also that while VO2max is declining throughout those 60 years, there’s also a drop taking place in their efficiency. But it’s not nearly as much as what we’re seeing with VO2max. The third thing being measured there is peak power for a sprint for each of these athletes. That is also dropping rather precipitously, about the same or perhaps even slightly more after about the age of 39, than VO2max. Those things are interesting, but our primary concern here again is VO2max. As those athletes got older, their capacities were declining.

Effect of Training and Racing on VO2max over Time

Joe Friel  04:28

The study I’m showing you right now, this chart has to do with a group of about a dozen athletes who were followed for more than 20 years, two decades, to see what happened to these athletes and their VO2max. What makes this truly interesting is how they divided the former national class runners into three groups. The second bar from the left represents those athletes who had quit training or stop running altogether. They became sedentary and you’ll notice what happened to them as they aged over 22 years is that their VO2max dropped by 15% per decade. Now we’ve got two decades here, so basically they had a 30% decline in VO2max. That’s rather significant, but they started very high level—they were probably, at the very start, back in the first test, around 70 VO2max, which is quite good. This would bring them down to somewhere around 50 VO2max some 22 years later. Now that’s good, but it’s not great. It’s really good that their VO2max has stayed high, but what allowed them to stay high is the fact that they started at a very high point to begin with.

The third bar to the left represents a group of athletes who are now no longer racing, but they were still running. They were doing long slow distance, we could assume that means they probably are just working on their fitness, not really being concerned at all about performance, but we all know what that means. It means you’re not going to be doing high-intensity training, you’re not going to be doing high mileage, you’re not going to be doing things that have to do with performance when you come to a race. Simply things that help you to control your body weight perhaps or to feel more healthy and more fit as you get older in life. These athletes are losing their VO2max at the rate of about 10% per decade, which meant over two decades, they lost about 20% of their VO2max from what it originally was. Again, that’s pretty good. That’s not as bad as it is for some folks who are totally inactive because they were at least doing something. The third drop of the bar on the far right is really the ones we want to look at in terms of your athletes. These are the athletes who were studied 22 years previously, who kept on racing. They maintain their performance at a high level. They kept on doing things—we can assume like intervals, high mileage. Although they were concerned about their diets, they were concerned about all the things that have to do with their performance. They were losing performance at the rate of about 6% per decade, which means they lost roughly 12% of their VO2max over the course of 22 years. That is excellent. That is really good. That’s what we’d like to see with all of our athletes—their VO2max drops, but it doesn’t drop precipitously as the previous two groups did. This is because the athletes are doing things that involve training at a high level for performance, especially doing things like intervals, like high volume training, these are the things that helped to maintain their performance over time, and why they did not lose their VO2max as rapidly as the previous two groups did.

3 Key Factors to Maintaining Performance

Joe Friel  07:39

Let’s review what you can do with your clients—your aging clients, masters athletes, senior athletes, to help them improve their performance over time.

  1. Make sure VO2max remains at a fairly high level. Or at least stop the decline from coming down as rapidly as we saw in the in the previous slides. We know, for example, that doing high-intensity training a couple of times a week is going to be good for maintaining their high performance and VO2max. I certainly recommend that you do that, you need to be cautious with how much high intensity you’re doing for athletes who have not been doing it recently, you need to kind of ease your way into that with those clients.
  2. Maintain their muscle mass at a fairly high level. In fact, we’d like to really stop their loss of muscle mass over time while you’re coaching them. If you coach an athlete for a couple of years, we’d like to see their muscle mass remain as it was when they came to you. That means doing things like doing heavy load lifting in the gym two or three times a week. Again, you have to be cautious here with an athlete who has not been lifting weights on how much lifting they may be doing. You need to work your way into that quite gently in fact.
  3. Be sure that they are getting good sleep—and healthy hormone production. Make sure you are aware of hormone production for your clients. Hormones are produced when you’re sleeping. We want to make sure that the athlete is getting adequate sleep, which also means therefore they’re getting a release of hormones in their body which controls their body fat, muscle mass, things like VO2max, changes in bone structure and so forth. That has to do with making sure your athletes are getting adequate sleep. I would have your athletes aim for seven hours of sleep every night. You need to work with them on how they can go about doing that.

How to Help Aging Athletes Achieve Their Goals

Joe Friel  09:22

The bottom line is that really what you should be doing as a coach for your aging athletes is to help them achieve goals that motivate them to keep on being active in their lives. This could be any number of things; it could be very individualized. Your goal is to help them focus on that outcome they really want to achieve. Whether it be a race, or simply doing long bike rides, century rides, for example, or doing things that challenge them in some other way. Find that goal. That goal is the key to their doing all the stuff that we’ve been talking about so far, which is having high-intensity training, having long slow distance, doing workouts in the gym to improve muscle mass, and controlling body weight. All these things are going to come about because they were excited about an outcome goal.