What does every Master's Level Athlete Have in Common?

The number of Master’s athletes has dramatically increased over the past two decades. And right up there in popularity are the cyclists including road, off-road (fastest growing) and triathletes. According to USA Cycling’s website, 53% of members are age 35-54 and only 19% are ages 19-34. Looking at cycling versus running clubs is always a good indicator. There are definitely not as many older runners, probably because running can be so destructive on the body over time, so a lot of older athletes (ex-runners) are finding the bike to be the key to continued activity and enjoyment. 

As far as we know, there are few longitudinal studies that measure physiological systems with a focus on performance of athletes as they age.  Most studies on athletes are done with younger, fitter athletes.  There are now more studies being done on master’s level athletes.  But few follow them through their lifetimes.  So, we are left to hear first hand from our Master’s athletes as to what actually declines with age in terms of their performance. The key is that by understanding these changes, it can allow us to adapt training programs to achieve maximal success.

As coaches, we are continuously amazed at how well master’s athletes can perform, especially versus younger athletes.  Unfortunately though, there is still a decline in performance as we get older. Let’s briefly look at some of the physiological changes that we notice:

  • Cardiovascular Function – This is made up of declines in central and peripheral circulation, maximum heart rate, maximal stroke volume, and cardiac output. Maximal heart rate is the one we notice the most, as heart rate is something we have monitored during training since the invention and increased popularity of portable heart monitors 30 years ago.

    When I ask some of my friends/athletes that I have known for years, considering the fact that they have stayed active, their maximal heart rates have all dropped anywhere in the range of 5-20 beats/minute.  This, in turn, directly leads to performance declines and heart rate zones need to be “recalibrated” periodically.

    If this subject really interests you, seek out a cardiologist with an interest in sports performance and them about intrinsic heart rate and b-adrenergic receptors as we age.  There is an excellent study here that discusses this very subject.
     
  • Body Composition – Ah, the dreaded body composition shift.  There is no doubt, that losing weight, especially, that last 2-3 kilos ranks right up there with many performance goals of the Master’s athlete. They do go hand in hand in that losing the extra weight usually requires a consistent training program.

    There are three primary reasons we gain that extra baggage. 1) Diet  2) less physical activity and 3) the body’s ability to mobilize fat.  Consider this as a side note:  If you consume just 10 calories per day more than your burn for 10 years, that’s additional 10 pounds!  So, what can be done?  One thing is for sure; it can sometimes require harder work and dedication than the physical training program itself.  Seek out a good nutritionist who has had success with athletes.  Have them review your eating habits and have them be the person who holds you accountable.  It’s important to understand that the weight you held in college may not be the weight that is currently optimal for you.  Good advice and a good program can help determine the optimal body composition. 
     
  • Respiratory Function (VO2) - There is a lot of conflicting evidence on this one, as most anything related to physiology.  But the consensus is that you lose about 10% of your maximal aerobic capacity per decade whether you are sedentary or active. Losing your maximal VO2 is usually related to a decline in your maximal HR, body composition, and amount and changes in your training programs as life gets more complicated and different priorities arise, like life!
     
  • Recovery from training – Again, there really hasn’t been that much research done on the decline of recovery as we age.  All you have do is listen to athletes and friends for the past 20 years.  It definitely declines.  The question is why?  

Remember that there are two important components regarding why we need recovery.  1) We break down muscle/tissue when we exercise, amongst other physiological systems and 2) the ability to repair or recharge those same systems. We could point to a variety of factors, including diet, amount of rest, training status, as to why it requires more time.  The bottom line is that most master’s level athletes say they need more time to recover between efforts, thus affecting the amount of training that can be done in their programs.

To us, the key is fitting workouts together like a puzzle. For example, perhaps one day the focus of the workout is strength type efforts, where the cardiovascular system is not overly stressed, but the essential component of strength is benefited.  The next day, a focus can be more aerobic.   In other words, you are working on different “systems” on different days.

One addition item.  In a recent study, 75% of athlete’s polled (not sure of the amount in the study, but it was large) said they applied some type of recovery program to their training, like recovery drinks, massage, etc.  I still thing the biggest and most important, regardless of all the other things you try is sleep.

  • Thirst – The body has an amazing ability to keep “osmolality” or the fluid balance in and out of cells in balance.  It’s called being thirsty.  That’s how the body monitors hydration status (not weight.) The problem is that as we get older we lose our ability to detect thirst and there are a lot of variables that affect our ability to detect it.  For example, how many times have you heard that a rider forgot to drink, as they were so focused on the race or event itself?

We don’t believe that monitoring weight before and after workouts should be the sole method of monitoring hydration status. The color of your urine should be slightly yellow (not dark yellow) and you should be visiting the bathroom every couple hours.

  • Heat – I can first hand attest to this one.  It really seems like the older we get, the more sensitive we are to heat.  It could be related to a decline in our sweating capacity, but it sure seems like we still sweat a lot!  The good thing about heat is that it really doesn’t take that long to adapt, perhaps a week.  Take your time doing it, stay out of extreme weather variations and make sure you continue to hydrate yourself, as you use more glycogen stores because of the loss of fluids.

Summary

First, the obvious: It’s inevitable that there will be a decrease in performance as we age and the reason for those decreases are very complicated and somewhat different for every athlete. For example, just because your teammate’s max HR has declined “X” amount, that doesn’t mean yours will by the same percentage.  The question is how much decline in your overall performance will you experience, and what can you do about it to minimize the decrease?

Second, the positive: It used to be (not too long ago) that once you were over the age of 25-30, give or take, it was all downhill in terms of your ability to be a fit athlete.  I remember a prominent figure in the sport saying that cyclists shouldn’t go to college, because it took away from their ability to be good bike racers.

The reality of today is that masters are getting into the sport at a later age and their ability to adapt to aerobic and anaerobic training and improve is absolutely amazing.  You cannot believe how many times I hear, “I wish I started this when I was younger.”   Well, if you jump ahead 10 years from now, you are younger.

So, what is in our control?

From a health perspective, there is no down side to riding a bike, except perhaps too much sun, crashing, and decreased bone density because it is not a weight bearing sport, but these things are independent of the benefits we achieve. 

By understanding and recognizing some of the changes listed above, training programs can be adapted to achieve maximal fitness.  It’s important to also understand that it’s not just one thing that contributes to decreased performance, but many things that are dependent on each other.  We are very complex machines!

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