How ageing affects athletic performance

James Witts explains the physiology of ageing, its effects on sports performance and triathlon training


Hitting 40, or even 50, doesn’t mean you’ll stride off a performance cliff, says James Witts. By understanding the physiology of ageing, you’ll be on course to prolong –  if not even raise – your peak triathlon performance


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The cardiovascular system

The key change, especially in the cardiovascular system, is the drop in maximum heart rate.” One of the world’s foremost exercise physiologists – Professor Bengt Saltin from the Copenhagen Muscle Research Centre – is talking about the ageing process. “Typically your heart beats 195-200 times per min at 20-years-old, down to around 150bpm when you’re 75. But individual variations can be huge. I studied an athlete who still had a max heart rate of 180 at 50.”

A reduction of maximal heart rate in itself isn’t disastrous. If it were a reliable indicator of fitness – coupled with the fact it’s on a downward spiral from the moment you’re born (hence the age-related formula that gave 220 its name) – it’d be debatable whether anyone would get out of bed, let alone take up sport.

Instead, factors like an increase in muscular strength, cardiac output and stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped from the heart in one beat) compensate for this heart rate drop, with research suggesting peak endurance is reached at 35. From that moment, you can expect a 10% VO2max decrease each decade until you reach 70, when that figure rises to 12-15%. With VO2max deemed the most accurate predictor of age-related changes in tri performance, is it time to replace mornings down Tooting Bec Lido with evening cribbage contests down The Queen’s Arms?

Reaching 50

“By the time you’re 50, it’s apparent that you’re experiencing several life-altering changes,” explains legendary tri coach Joe Friel. “It’s a long list that includes lower levels of testosterone, greater loss of muscle mass, increased tendency for acid-base imbalance that further contributes to bone and muscle loss, a propensity for weight gain, lost soft tissue elasticity with an increased likelihood of injury, reduced enzyme activity and more.”

Thankfully, your end point isn’t totally pre-disposed by genetics – nurture plays a significant role, too. A prime example is Professor Saltin’s noted experiment with the nomadic Lapp people of Scandinavia in 1961. Why the Lapps? Well, it’s Lapp tradition that, upon turning 55, the father gives the family’s herd of animals to the eldest son and takes up a sedentary lifestyle. Saltin recorded extremely high aerobic capacities in the 55-year-olds… before that figure dropped significantly soon after due to the lifestyle change. “It proved to me that for independence and health, daily exercise should be part of people’s lives.”

Evolve your training

So should your training focus evolve as you age, due to the stresses applied by the individual disciplines? It seems the key is to avoid junk miles. It’s well-known that a return from a lower-limb injury involves less running and more swimming and cycling because of the latter two’s non-weight-bearing nature. Should that rehab model apply to an ageing triathlete’s normal training plan? “Potentially, yes,” says Fran Bungay, head of personal trainers Goal Specific. “Research suggests that 70% of injuries in the over 60s are a result of overuse when running because of the decrease in musculoskeletal flexibility. Running long distances on hard surfaces is hard on the body, so avoid junk mileage.”

Jo Lewis of Tri50 – a London-based coaching outfit that focuses on training the over-50s – also recommends off-road running. “Perhaps join a running club, too, and get involved in a league this winter,” says Lewis, who finished ninth in the 55-59 category at the World Aquathlon Champs.

Research has shown that, of the three disciplines, age-related decline is most severely felt on the run. That’s partly due to muscle losing its elasticity and so leading to overuse injuries, but also because there’s greater atrophy (size reduction) of fast-twitch muscle fibres compared to slow-twitch. “This explains why run performance may drop off more than the bike,” says the English Institute of Sport’s lead physiologist, Jamie Pringle. “Fast running relies upon more rapid contractions than cycling, while in cycling the older athlete can shift up a gear and turn out the necessary power.”

Maximise reserves

But don’t go thinking your cycling regime should now consume 80% of your training each week. The weight-bearing nature of running does have positive repercussions. A degree of impact is needed for bone to, in Pringle’s words, “remodel itself”, which helps to allay conditions like osteopenia and osteoporosis. Ultimately, it’s vital that you try to overcome any run or VO2max shortfalls, an integral part of this being to maximise your energy reserves.

“Losses in muscle speed can be offset by an improvement in muscle economy as one ages,” says Pringle. “That is, you become more efficient, using less energy [oxygen] at a given pace. This is a common observation in the experienced athlete; their aerobic engine might be modest, but their economy allows them to convert metabolic power to speed on the ground.”

In other words, refine your technique – and that’s where swimming comes in. “Swimming should become an increasingly important part of your training,” says Lewis. “I’ve only ever had one injury and I put that down to using swimming as the foundation for everything else.”

To that end, signing up to a BTF-accredited swim coach this off-season is a wise move. Weekly lessons to teach you the minutiae of front crawl will improve shoulder mobility, strengthen your core and be gentle on your joints. It’s also safer than breaststroke, which is the worst stroke if you have back problems. In theory, this is the ideal. In practice, many veterans will be fighting history.

“The majority of over-50s coming into our coaching group don’t have a swim background,” says Lewis. “Older athletes like me were taught breaststroke at school. It’s a generation thing. But persist – it will pay off.”

High vs low intensity

But while a programme focused on technique work is necessary, it won’t give you the ability to change gears in a race. That’d be down to high-intensity training, which is debilitating enough for youngsters, let alone athletes losing their muscle elasticity. So presumably it’s moderate aerobic training all the way? “The ageing athlete actually has to do just the opposite if they’re to perform at a high level,” responds Friel. “Workouts above 80% maximum – with an emphasis on muscular endurance, aerobic endurance and sprint power – should be the basis of training two to three times per week.”

Friel’s seemingly counterintuitive training model is supported by several studies across endurance sport, one of which took place at Ball State University in Indiana. Thirty-seven elite runners had their fitness tested in 1970 and then re-evaluated 22 years later. The interim period saw 11 continue to train strenuously and 18 on a more casual basis. The remaining eight took up a sedentary lifestyle. Unsurprisingly, the eight couch potatoes lost 15% of aerobic capacity each decade; the 18 slower-paced runners lost about 9% over the same period of time. However, the keen 11 enjoyed no significant loss in VO2 max or running economy, despite maturing from an average age of 26 to 48-years-old. The key point is this: don’t neglect high-intensity training, so long as you pay careful attention to recovery.

Work on strength

Strength sessions should also become a staple of your tri training diet, but don’t worry: we’re not talking a guns-a-flexing Arnie workout. Instead, follow a programme of tri-specific strength exercises that will stimulate testosterone release to maintain muscle mass. “I recommend strength training, specifically bodyweight work,” declares Martin Hill, head of Complete Fitness Coaching (see also p49). “It’s easy to do and more functional. For the over 40s, strength work during the off-season; for the older athletes, all-year round.”

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Hill suggests two such workouts a week to be sufficient, simply tagging them onto one of your existing sessions. His school of thought is a common one, but it’s not one shared by Joe Friel. While accepting that bodyweight exercises maintain muscle mass, Friel advocates the use of heavier weights because they help to build bone density, too – key to preventing osteoporosis. And for a man still performing to a high standard in his 70th year, who are we to argue?

Between them, the coaches we spoke to also espoused the benefits of a longer warm-up, to boost bloodflow to the muscles, stretching, yoga and pilates. “It’s worth investing in a foam roller so you can work
the muscles from the comfort of your home,” says Fran Bungay.

This is all very well, but how do you fit it all in? Despite extolling the virtues of high-intensity and strength training, you must work back from recovery. Ask any age-grouper over-50 and, no matter how experienced they are, they’ll tell you that recovery now takes longer. There’s not one definitive physiological reason why, but according to Pringle, “it’s due to a combination of damage occurred over the years, and also the reduced activity of the various anabolic hormones that drive recovery, repair and adaption”.

Two days’ training and one-day rest is a tried-and-tested template to follow, with Lewis recommending two days’ rest if required. But this is where experience and background plays a part. “Someone who’s been in the sport for a long time will know their body and the tweaks that are required,” says Hill. “But athletes who are new to the sport at 40-plus will dive straight back into where they felt they were when they were 20. They then tire quickly, recover slowly and fail to progress.”

Piling up the zeds

No matter how your multisport CV reads, recovery is vital – and that includes sleep. Triathletes are notorious for their packed lifestyles, balancing training, work and family. When you’re younger, sleep is a necessary irritation. As you age, sleep is of greater importance to allow more time for physiological changes to take place. As many older athletes may be retired, a 30-60min afternoon nap is ideal. And what’s Joe Friel’s standard to determine whether you’re getting enough sleep? “If you have to use an alarm clock to wake up, you didn’t enjoy enough sleep. Go to bed earlier.”

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The final variable in the performance-seeking older athlete equation is nutrition. Fundamentally, there’s no change from junior to senior to veteran: consume enough calories to perform to your best with the focus on a healthy diet; in other words, 45-65% of carbs, 10-35% protein and 20-35% good fats from varied food sources. But that’s to over-simplify the elder athlete’s nutritional needs.

“I’d recommend more protein to recover the ageing muscles – around 1.8-2g of protein per kg bodyweight per day,” says Mayur Ranchordas, senior lecturer in sport and exercise nutrition at Sheffield Hallam University and keen triathlete. “Also, if they’re well-trained, older athletes probably need less carbohydrate as the mitochondria in the muscle is well adapted to using fat as fuel.”

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Calcium, zinc and magnesium are also vital to maintain a strong skeletal structure, while vitamin C is important for collagen formation. Ranchordas also suggests taking a vitamin D supplement – which helps the intestine to absorb calcium and phosphate – and taking Omega-3 as it’s a natural anti-inflammatory.

Lewis swears by glucosamine for noisy joints – “I creak more when I don’t take them” – while Bungay highlights an efficient fluid strategy. “Older athletes are more susceptible to dehydration as ageing inhibits your thirst sensation and can affect sweating rates, fluid and electrolyte balance.”


Yes, you may well slide from run shoes into slippers, start hating noisy pubs and begin to take a keen interest in the Antiques Roadshow, but that doesn’t mean the passage of time should inhibit reaching your goals. Train smart, eat correctly, place more emphasis on recovery, mount the turbo trainer, tune into The Archers and away you go. Goodbye retirement, hello podium…