Aging Athletes: Training and Recovery

The effects of aging on training, recovery, and performance are fairly well-known, and even though each of us is unique in many ways we all have, are currently, or will experience these effects at some point… sooner or later.  Our physiological capabilities and the effects of training and recovery change as we age.  This is the philosopy behind ‘age-groups’.  It would be extremely unlikely for a coach who is in their 20’s or 30’s to be familiar with the capabilities and needs of an athlete who is in their 40’s, 50’s, or 60’s.

As one ages beyond 35-40, there are definite reductions in maximum heart rate, VO2 max and lean body mass that reduce training output and performance.  It might be a bit sooner for those of us who haven’t already done some significant training prior to reaching this age (range).  Women typically tend to hit their developmental peak around 24-28 years old, and men just a few years (28-32) after that.  What I think is important to understand is that you will be able to make significant gains in fitness and experience the benefits at whatever point (age) you start your training.

The process of physical training involves some type of muscle overload, and then during recovery, an adaptation known as the ‘training effect’ occurs which results in greater physiological capacity.  In order to achieve fitness gains, one has to train utilizing the ‘overload principle’ (which requires stressing the muscles and energy systems beyond their current capacity) and then recover, and finally we must repeat this process over and over.  The physiological processes in younger and older muscles parallel each other with regard to training, but subtle changes in the processes within the older muscles lead to increases in adaptation/recovery time.

If recovery seems to take a lot longer as we get older, that’s because it does!   Most of us will notice these changes in training capacity and recovery time… not so much on a year-to-year basis, but definitely as each decade passes.

In short, as we age, we lose physiological capacities.  When we train, it takes longer and seems harder to achieve the training effect we desire.  It takes us longer to recover, and then we seem to lose the training effect more rapidly.

The physiological causes of these changes are not completely understood, but one of the more plausible explanations is that aging muscles are more susceptible to exercise-induced muscle damage and have slower adaptation and repair timeframes.

Even an age difference as small as 10 years can make a huge difference, especially the older you get.  Training and recovery, based on age, fitness and physiology is very individualized and you need to experiment to find out what ultimately works best for you when balancing training and recovery.

Here’s the take-away.  Your training program must be specific to your capabilities, and your capabilities for training and recovery are age-sensitive.   You need to understand this, but more importantly if you have a coach/trainer they need to understand this.  Not only are your capabilities for training and recovery unique, but so are your ‘weak links’.   You and/or your trainer need to understand and focus on your weak links.  It doesn’t do much good to focus your training on your strengths, or what the rest of some fitness class is doing, because it’s your unique ‘weak links’ that determine/limit your performance.

Here’s an idea you can think about to start finding out find out what works best for you:

Listen to your body.  ‘Listening’ involves more than just using your ears.  It is a form of attention that is also known as ‘association’ (as opposed to ‘dissociation’).  Attention, or association, is type of listening that involves paying close attention to all of the physiological/psychological signals that your body-mind is broadcasting, such as your heart rate, respiratory rate, blood lactate levels, recovery rate from anaerobic bursts of higher effort, fatigue, hunger, thirst, etc…and even things like motivation/interest and how much fun you are having with your training.

If your body-mind is telling you that you are tired and beat, or if you just somehow know that you can’t put forth the effort you were expecting to on any given day, then you probably haven’t recovered sufficiently from one or more previous training sessions.  If your resting pulse rate is two beats higher than normal, you have probably not recovered adequately.

If you decide to utilize this technique for checking your recovery status, it is important to be consistent in the way you take your pulse each day. ‘Same time, same circumstances’ is the rule of thumb.  In other words if you decide to test yourself on Monday as soon as you wake up and before you get out of bed, then you have to do it the same way on Tuesday, or whenever (you test yourself again).  You can’t be up walking around for a half-an-hour on Tuesday, and then take your pulse for comparison.

You certainly don’t have to be fully recovered before you start every workout, but you probably need to be at least 85% of full recovery.   At 85%, you will typically feel pretty good as you train.  But, if you find yourself exhausted before you even start, and your workouts are a torturous grind, you may be on the downward spiral of ‘overtraining’.  Remember, overtraining is not the same as overuse.  Overtraining is a mistake that is associated with failure to recover adequately, whereas overuse is more of a ‘too-much-too-soon’ error.

The more and harder you train, the more effectively you need to recover.  Recovery is equally important as the actual physical training, because the training effect you are seeking takes place during recovery, not during the bout of physical training.  You don’t have to approach recovery as simply just taking it easy, inactively waiting or doing something not related to your training program.  But, if this is the way you choose, understand that it is a bit unsophisticated and possibly the least effective way to recover.  Bottom line though, it’s still much better than failing to recover and ‘bombing’ from overtraining.

On the other hand, recovery can actually become another (different) aspect of your training that also requires active and focused processes, and can contribute equally as much as your physical training, to your overall outcomes, experiences, and performances.  It’s just different… more ‘mind’ than ‘body’ oriented.    It’s definitely not glitzy and social, and it’s not focused on the external, quantitative… frankly ‘shallow’ aspects of athleticism.  It takes effort, discipline, and the same type of ‘rhythmic application’ as your physical training.  True, it is a deeper, internal, qualitative experience.  Even so, you don’t have to become a yogi to vastly improve your recovery techniques, and in turn your training and performance.

Competing, or even just participating as an athlete requires us to seek and find a balance on the training continuum, that works for us.  At one end of the continuum, we have the stress that stimulates adaptation.  On the other end, we have the recovery that brings it to fruition. From one end to the other, we learn to balance ‘across’ the overall continuum.  At the stress (physical training) end of the continuum we also have the opportunity to balance (within) the quantity/quality aspect of our physical training.  On the recovery end, we also have the opportunity to balance (within) the quantity/quality aspect of recovery.

As we ‘age up’, we become more sensitive to, and affected by, this requirement for balance, both across and within the training continuum.

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