Triathlon for Masters Athletes: Does Age Matter?
What to pay attention to as you enter the ripest years of training and racing.
The aging process affects everyone in different ways, depending on myriad factors, from genetics to injury history, fitness level to lifestyle, current weight to having a positive mental attitude. Some aspects of physiology barely decline at all until much later in life. (For example, endurance in a fit athlete declines just four percent before the age of 55.) Power and strength, however, decline much quicker, in large part due to muscle mass loss. That said, following are the main age-related issues common to all athletes as they age. (See the book for additional material not included, covering fast-twitch muscle decline, declining elasticity, and lactate threshold decline.)
VO2 max decline
The amount of oxygen that can be used by a person during athletic activity to produce energy (V02 max) declines with age and there is nothing anyone can do to actually stop it. Some estimates put that decline as high as one percent a year after the mid-30’s. However, a lot can be done to slow down that decline. The answer is proactive, high-intensity workouts. For example, run workout sessions involving short, high-intensity interval training ranging from 30 seconds to three minutes, depending on fitness, with short, ever-decreasing recovery periods.
Bone and muscle mass decline
Humans begin losing muscle mass as young as 30 years of age. By the time they reach their 50s and 60s, they are losing muscle mass at a rate of 10 percent per decade, and even higher after 70. Proactively taking steps to increase muscle mass in older athletes helps prevent injuries by adding strength to the body, which allows for the execution of correct technique over longer periods (among other things), and in absorbing repetitive impacts—as a result of running, for example.
Resistance training can prevent muscle loss and enhance satellite cells, which will in turn allow for the rebuilding of muscles. A training program using high-intensity, multi-joint lifting will benefit the body the most. In addition, increased protein in the daily diet of masters athletes will invariably help increase muscle mass when coupled with proactive resistance and high-intensity training.
Bone mass also declines after the age of 40. Osteoporosis, where bones become denser and more porous, and therefore are more at risk of breaking, affects one in three women, and one in five men. Exercise can maintain bone, and in some cases build it, essentially preventing or delaying the onset of osteoporosis. It also requires the correct nutrition—such as calcium and vitamin D, among others.
Strength training and high-impact exercise (such as running) are most effective at building bone mass, but also the most risky, especially in masters athletes, because of the susceptibility of the body to injury as it gets older. Exercise also has to be tailored specifically to the area where the bone mass needs to be increased.
Increased risk of injury
There is a much higher risk of injury as athletes age, due in no small part to the body’s natural tendencies to become, for example, less flexible and increasingly fatigued with exercise. Recovery time and sleep need to be increased with age. Without that extra recovery, additional stress and fatigue is placed on older bodies, which increases the risk of injury. Decreasing the repetitive impact on the body (such as on the bones in feet and joints) can help reduce injuries, as can implementing more focused low-impact training.
Chronic overuse injuries are the most common injuries in masters athletes, with some sources maintaining that they account for as much as 70 percent of injuries in athletes aged 60 years of age and older.
Lack of flexibility
As the body ages it becomes less flexible in everything from joints to muscles, as well as in soft tissue generally. Lack of flexibility is one of the primary causes of injury in the older population, whether they are athletes or not. A structured program designed to maintain flexibility needs to be integrated into every masters’ training schedule. In addition, for masters athletes, nutrition can also play a large role in protecting joints from age-related damage.
Such a program can be achieved by including yoga and plenty of stretching. This can also include increased amounts of stretching in a triathlete’s warm-up and cool-down, along with stopping to stretch at an appropriate time during a workout whenever necessary. In addition, joints not only become less flexible with age, but also lose much of their range of motion if the body is allowed to become sedentary.
More recovery time and extra sleep
The simple fact is that a body requires greater recovery time as it ages. That might apply to recovery during workouts or the addition of an extra day of rest during the regular training week. The optimum time for regenerative recovery is while the body sleeps. Increased sleep for masters athletes, especially after a hard workout or race, will help the body recover and come back stronger.
The younger a triathlete, the more they hate recovery; and yet the older the triathlete, the more they love it! Recovery is a vital part of performance improvement in triathlon. Increasing recovery time will allow a triathlete to train injury-free for longer and help mentally with motivation for upcoming harder workouts.
Increased need for high-intensity and resistance training
Declines in VO2 max, muscle mass and bone mass, lactate threshold, strength and power in masters athletes can all be slowed, and even halted altogether, with regular high-intensity workouts and resistance training. Once or twice a week, a high-intensity workout, such as interval training in the pool or on a running track, or hill repeats on the bike, should be scheduled in. Care must be taken for masters athletes, though, as high intensity workouts inevitably involve increased stresses on the body, which increase the risk of injury. The day following a high intensity workout should be either a rest day or an easy day with low-impact training, such as a low-intensity and low-volume bike ride, or easy swim.
It should come as little surprise that many physical aspects of the body decline with age. However, much of that decline can be slowed considerably, and even halted, with regular high-intensity workouts and resistance training.
Staying active, and keeping flexibility in the joints, muscles and other soft tissue, can add to both longevity and quality of life.