What you can expect -- and strive for -- as an aging athlete

Credit: Harry How/Allsport
How fast can I expect to get as a middle-aged (or older) athlete? Everyone asks him/herself this question, and they ask it at every age.

Everyone wants to know: "What is my theoretical top speed, if all my genetics are optimized through the most diligent training my body can take?"

But let us say you're 43, or 52, or 66 years old. Maybe you're fortunate in that you have a bit more freedom in your schedule than during your younger years, allowing you to get closer to your athletic potential. What sort of peak performances were theoretically available to you in your prime? How have they been diminished by age? What is your potential today?

There is a medical answer to this question, and then a much more practical answer. We'll tackle medicine first.

The artificial boost
Certain hormones largely responsible for building a physically strong body may not be present in the same amounts as you get older. Most notably, production of human growth hormone and testosterone tend to lessen with age.

Of course you can take these hormones supplementally. I've heard of at least one traveling lecture -- conducted by a notable coach in the cycling community -- who preaches taking HgH and/or testosterone supplements.

There are both practical and ethical issues with this. There is a school of thought that says it's entirely ethical because you're only replacing what you lose with age. In fact, it's a health issue, they say. A man would want to allay the loss of muscle and connective tissue just as a woman might be advised to consider estrogen therapy to prevent osteoporosis (I'm using this only as a philosophical example, and yes, I've read the recent news about hormone therapy being linked to certain cancers).

On the other side of the ethical issue is the fact that osteoporosis is a real medical threat to women, while the only thing threatened by the natural diminishing of testosterone and HgH in men is a podium spot.

Where would I draw the line? There are those who are naturally very low in testosterone, and I think it's fair for these people to supplement at any age. If you're 50 and have normal testosterone production for a man your age, I have a problem with supplementation. If you want to supplement yourself up to the level of a 20-year-old, fine, then race in the 20-24 wave.

And then there's the legality. If you're a competitive athlete testosterone and HgH are banned substances. Period. There is no threshold. It's not legal up to a testosterone/epitestosterone ratio of 6:1. The fact that this is the ratio that signals a positive drug test does not mean you can legally or ethically supplement up to that point.

Anabolic steroids are simply synthetic substances that mimic the effects of testosterone, and taking testosterone for the purposes of enhancing one's performance is the ethical equivalent of taking steroids, EPO or any other performance enhancer.

Then there are the practical issues: a patch every day, or injections regularly (take your pick). And it's expensive, several hundred dollars per month. And, it's a regimen that you've got to hit with some precision. Mess it up and there are consequences, especially with HgH.

Benefits and liabilities
Personally, as a 46-year-old age group athlete, I enjoy the challenge of seeing what I can get a 46-year-old body to do. Yes, I have slightly diminished recuperative powers, it takes longer for training sessions to have their physiological effect, and my top (sprint) speed is diminished. Yes, it's harder to whip an out-of-shape 46 year old body into shape than it was when my out of shape body was 23.

But, there's the flip side of the coin, where age is a benefit, or at least not a liability. My endurance capacity hasn't markedly fallen off. I've got more patience and wisdom to leverage across training and racing. Most of all, I've got an accumulation of technical and motor expertise that I didn't have as a younger man.

What do I mean by that last statement? There are a lot of technique-specific time gains to be made, and swimming is the sport in which the gains are most evident. These are speed gains in which strength is only a peripheral player. As I become a technically better swimmer, I go faster. Age is not a factor.

Swimming is not the only sport in which this is the case. In cycling, my body position, learning to pedal properly, and proper use of power during the race all make me faster. They might even more than make up for what I've lost through age. I might even become faster now than I was in my younger bike racing years.

Are you at your peak?
But this still doesn't answer the question: How do you know when you've maxed out your abilities? If you came to triathlon's constituent sports late in life, you've got one very real advantage, and one minor disadvantage.

On the positive side of the ledger, it's convenient not to have a well-established yardstick for your abilities. In a recent interview with Dave Scott, if one reads between the lines, he seems hamstrung by his own fine historical efforts. Since he has already optimized his abilities, he can never successfully compete against that person with whom we all compete most ardently: our former selves.

This is why pro athletes find it so hard to become age groupers. They might be able to beat you, but they can't beat their younger selves. This is your major advantage, if you're a johnny-come-lately to triathlon: You can realistically hope to beat your former self for a long time to come.

The knowledge that you -- if you are a former pro -- were capable of swimming 1500m in 18 minutes is of some limited advantage. It means you can probably at least reach 18:30 or 19 minutes even at age 45, or 55, or perhaps even 55 (whether you'll be willing to accept 18:30 or 19 is another question).

So, sometimes it's better not to know what your potential was. But let's say you, as a middle-of-the-packer, currently swim your 1500m in 26 minutes. Are you capable of that 18:30 or 19 minutes? If not, then what? When will you know when you've gotten about as good as you're able to get?

I have two answers for you. First, whatever you think your theoretical potential is as a cyclist, runner or swimmer, you're probably grossly underestimating it. Even for very good athletes -- for those who've optimized their abilites -- it's amazing how much better they can still get. Years ago a training partner of mine, Bill Leach, was the best over-40 triathlete in the world. Yet he became a better and better cyclist, he kept beating his old course PRs, all the way up to age-50.

In fact, it is my belief that for all except top pro athletes, all the age-related aggravating and mitigating factors more or less offset up to the age of 50.

But to quantify it more, I think you'd have to pit the training you do against the sort of training that would be required to bring about a top performance. Then consider where you are in relation to that. That ought to give you a pretty good idea where you are along the performance continuum.

I'll use myself as an example. As a mid-20s age-grouper, 20 years ago, I would occasionally swim a 1000-yard time trial in a short course (25 yard) pool. I remember the first time I swam it in under 14 minutes. I thought that was pretty good. But another swimmer who'd regularly swim in the same pool also would swim 1000-yard repeats, and he'd always clock between 13:20 and 13:30. "That's 1:20 per hundred as an average," I thought. "I ought to be able to hit that if I upped my swimming yardage."

So I went from about 6000 yards a week to 10,000 yards. Within six months I'd hit my 13:20 and was quite pleased. But now I'd caught the bug, and I felt there was more improvement there. I would occasionally take a specific week and concentrate on swimming, and during these weeks I'd swim 15,000 - 18,000 yards with my master's team. Otherwise, I'd try to always hit 10,000 yards.

Over the next year my time dropped to below 12:30, and this was enough to swim with whomever was leading my wave in a triathlon. Swimming went from a liability to relative equivalence with my other two events.

(This also made me a better cyclist, by the way. I was amazed at how much faster the cyclists were at the front of the race than they were back where I was used to getting out of the water.)

Now, coming back to competitive triathlon after a 13-year absence, I'm quite slow in the water compared to my former self. It would not be unreasonable for me to think that a sub-14 minute effort was about the best available to me, except that I know a much faster rate of speed is out there, especially in such a technique-specific event.

Training time
How would I know when I've reached my peak, or at least a point where I'd get diminishing returns from the extra training I'd put in?

For you and me both, the answer lies in the training we've been doing. For me, and using swimming as an example, it will just be a case of yardage. If I'm diligent in putting in 12,000 yards per week over the next year -- with 3 or 4 weeks of 18,000 yards thrown in -- I'm quite confident I'll reach my 12:30. This is a reasonable rate of swim bulk.

Sure, I could swim 20,000 yards per week. But that would probably be excessive for age-group racing, considering the other events you have to do. But you see my point.

If you want to know what your potential is, you've got to do a diligent amount of training for an extended period of time. Failing that, you'll never know.

Can you reach 12:30 for 1000 yards? Or faster yet? I suspect so, taking into consideration that there is a lot of technique work that might stand in between you and a goal like this. Your progress might be slowed a bit depending on how long it takes you to get your swim stroke whipped into line.

Likewise, with running and cycling, you're probably capable of a lot more achievement than you think. You've just got to ask yourself whether you've really put in the training time sufficient to reach your goals.

It's not unreasonable to run sustained weeks of 25 - 30 miles, with the occasional 45-mile week thrown in. Do most of your weeks like that for the span of a year, with a lot of 5K and 10K road races thrown in to work on your speed, you'll be shocked how much faster you'll go than you ever thought possible.

Finally, there's the issue of weight and diet. Weight matters. Yes, as you get older you have a harder time keeping your body composition where it ought to be.

It's very hard for me now, at 46, to get to -- and keep to -- the same weight I carried when I was half my age. That's part of what testosterone does. It gives you 18 year old skin and an 18 year old body. Counterbalancing that, however, is the 46-year-old patience, diligence and work ethic I didn't have when I was 18.

My own view: I think it all cancels out. Yes, it's true, you don't have the cartilage in your knees you did when you were half your current age. But you also have better running shoes now, and perhaps better orthotics and running surfaces. You also, hopefully, have a lot of your cartilage still intact, if you weren't using it all up as a youthful athlete (this is an advantage to coming to a weight-bearing sport late in life).

When it comes down to it, you have one thing at 45, or 55, or 70, that young people don't have: An excuse. You can always blame your lack of performance on your age. But you don't have to.

You can fall back on the pillow of old age or, alternatively, keep as your motto that which only the sage among us know: Youth and exuberance is no match for old age and treachery.

Dan Empfield is the publisher of the online triathlon journal Slowtwitch.com, and is the founder of bike- and wetsuit-maker Quintana Roo.

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