Faster & Stronger with Age?
I've never been fearful of aging. I'm not sure why but I just always saw it as a part of life. When you're young it's easy not to think about it much. I've been an athlete pretty much my entire life. The last 15 years I've been obsessed with bike racing. I love road racing with lots of climbing but I will venture out on the dirt for gravel races and some cyclocross as well. It's my therapy, my church. I would often hear from older cyclists how things change once you start to age but I didn't really understand until I hit 40.
I turned 40 over three years ago and I started to notice that things were a little different. It wasn't huge but I could feel something had changed. I needed more rest and it was a lot harder, mentally, to make myself suffer in the way that you must to race. When I was 30 I could do to repeats of a climb, as hard as I could, 6-10 times in one session. Since I turned 40 it is hard to do 4. I also can't function as well without sleep or if I have a couple of drinks the night before. That said, I've learned a lot about how to train and eat in my 40s.
The photo above was taken of the podium for the 2017 Mount Kearsarge Hill Climb in New Hampshire. I easily won my age group (40-49) but I nearly won the overall! I finished 2nd and the guy on the top step of the podium is 18 years old and the guy who finished 3rd (a few seconds behind me) is 23 years old. How did a 43 yr old man do this well? It's not easy but just this season I saw a 43 year old win the Pro/1/2 at the Massachusetts' State championships. Another 43 yr old won Vermont Overland beating several younger pros. Finally, a 43 year old won the hardest stage of the Green Mountain Stage Race in the Pro/1 category and finished 2nd in the general classification by only a few seconds! My 3 tips to keeping your edge as you age:
- Hard, short workouts
Diet: As we age we really need to watch what we eat and drink. I have always had a pretty clean diet but I've had to really watch my caloric intake, despite all of the miles I ride (10k-12k per year). I try to make every calorie count and that means eating a lot more plants. I know I'm biased because I'm a vegetarian but nothing packs more nutrients per calorie than plants. I'm not preaching veganism or vegetarianism but adding more plants (real, unprocessed plants) and reducing some of the more fatty animal products will work wonders for your weight management. Gaining weight is usually going to slow you down if you're an endurance athlete but I've also noticed huge benefits for strength sports like rock climbing and cross fit. As we approach our 50s and beyond, controlling weight gets harder and harder. You can't exercise your way out of a bad diet in your 40s and older. The other tip that helps control weight is to avoid drinking your calories (Yes, that includes beer, unfortunately). Skip the sugary drinks and refrain from adding sugar to your coffee or tea. These empty calories add up and your body's hunger signals will not register liquid calories. So if you drink 100 calories of soda you're going to be hungry a lot faster than if you ate 100 calories of, say, chocolate (not that eating candy is the answer either but you get the point).
Short, Hard Workouts: One of the biggest things I've noticed since hitting my 40s is that I just can't recovery as quickly as I did before. It can take days to recover from a hard 100 mile ride or a really tough session in the gym. The problem with this is you really can't add gains to your fitness if you're still recovering, right? It's easy to keep digging a hole, thinking you will eventually pop out of it like you did when you were 25. It took me a while to actually be convinced of this but taking extra rest days and keeping my workout shorter with lots of intense intervals, has really helped me be as strong as I've ever been. This season I was able to break my personal records on several training climbs! Some of these were set years ago. I was also able to get my threshold power (a measure of fitness in cycling) to match my personal best and I've been racing for 15 years. The benefit to short, hard workouts is that you stress the training zones you need before you end up needing 2+ days to recover. I still love those long epic rides but I save them for the post season, mostly. There is nothing like a 100+ mile muffin ride in the Autumn.
Rest: What I mean here is you really have to take your recovery seriously. As seriously as you take your training. This is much more important than when you were 25. You know what it feels like after that first hard weight training session? I feel the soreness for 2-3 days and sometimes longer. As we age, recovery takes longer. You need to get the proper amount of sleep, also. Everyone is different and some studies suggest that we need less sleep as we age but I don't think they were studying competitive athletes. Find your optimal amount of sleep. I struggle with sleep because I did shift work for 15 years. It is a constant struggle for me. Taking your recovery seriously is probably the most import tip in this blog. That means getting to bed on time, eating a specific recovery meal within the 30 min window (I recommend Zenberry!), really sticking to your rest days, using recovery devices like the Marc Pro (save 5% w/ code: GOJIFIT), recovery boots or massages. You don't get stronger or faster during training. It's during your rest that you make gains. So REST!!!!
Pro and Olympic athletes are competing at a high level well into their 40s in many sports. This isn't by accident. Training, diet and rest are all key factors for them as well. You can keep performing at a high level for many years with some of these changes I mentioned. Personally, I know I'm only getting slower but I'm doing everything I can to slow the decline. Joel Friel said, "You're only old when age becomes an excuse."