Endurance athletes who start competing in their teens or early 20's usually hit their lifetime performance peak somewhere around age 30. They maintain that peak for several years and then, sometime between 35 and 40, they start to slow down.
What causes them to slow down? Age, of course. But while time waits for no man (or woman), there is a lot you can do to delay the point at which you start to slow down, and to reduce the rate of your performance decline. Here are five ways to stay fast after 40.
Dial in Your Diet
Many endurance athletes seem to get away with poor eating habits in their 20s and early 30s, in the sense that they suffer no obvious performance consequences. But the older we get, the more we are slowed down by dietary missteps like eating too many sweets and not enough vegetables.
That's good news, really, because it means you can prolong your performance peak by improving your diet. Whether your current diet is bad, average, or pretty good, moving it a step closer to perfect will give you a competitive advantage against your younger self. It's never too late to start giving your muscles better fuel.
Customize Your Training
Each athlete has a unique body that responds to training somewhat differently than any other's. For this reason, each athlete has an ideal training formula that is also a little different from any other athlete's. Experience can teach you your ideal training formula. By paying attention to how your body responds to different training patterns you can do more of what works and less of what doesn't until you've developed a well-customized training recipe.
You may lose a bit of speed each year after age 35, but you can make up the difference in performance for a while by applying a little more of what you've learned about your body to each year's training.
Take Advantage of Technology
There are various kinds of technology that can elevate your performance level. For example, investing in a speed and distance device or power meter can help you train more effectively in running or cycling, respectively, while investing in an altitude tent can give you a quick boost in VO2max.
Such technologies are available to younger and older athletes alike, of course, but older athletes often have any easier time affording them. Speaking for myself, I've been able to invest more in performance-enhancing technologies as I've gotten older, and it has paid off. Last year, for example, I bought an altitude tent and a high-end indoor bike trainer. Using them brought my cycling performance to a higher level than ever at age 38.
Take Recovery Seriously
Along with a dip in top-end speed, the first effect of aging on training that most endurance athletes notice is a loss of recovery capacity. While you're still able to do more or less the same workouts you've done in the past, you start to notice that you just don't bounce back from them quite as quickly.
To limit the negative effects of not being able to perform hard workouts as often, you need to take your recovery very seriously. Religiously practice all of the little measures that can help you bounce back faster after workouts, including post-workout nutrition, ice baths, massage, and wearing compression socks.
No matter how consistent you are with such measures, though, you will not be able to go hard as often as you once were. Don't force it. Listen to your body and adapt by spacing out your key sessions a little more in your training. This is a concession to aging that will actually reduce the effects of aging on your race performances compared to what would happen if you tried to train like the younger you.
Stretch and Strength Train
Our muscles and joint tissues lose elasticity as we age, and our muscles also shrink and lose strength. It's important to increase your commitment to stretching and strength training after age 35 to stave off these effects of growing older. Since many younger endurance athletes take their strength and flexibility for granted and do little strength training and stretching, you can actually reverse the aging process to some degree for a while by doing these things and maintain peak performance to age 40 and beyond.Sign up for your next race.
Active Expert Matt Fitzgerald is the author of Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run (VeloPress 2011) and RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel. He is also a coach and training intelligence specialist for PEAR Sports. Learn more at mattfizgerald.org.