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Managing the Aging Athlete

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Photo: Corey Sipkin / New York Daily News

By Mark Janas, Ed.D. |

It’s no big secret that in most sports athletes hit their peak somewhere between their mid twenties and early thirties.  Physiological function begins to decline. Personal bests are a thing of the past. The younger competitors knock the older ones off the podium.  It’s nature.  It’s the circle of life.  Of course, as the French entertainer Maurice Chevalier once said, “Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.”

Aging athletes often find themselves at a crossroads facing their inevitable physical decline.   Some may quit altogether.  Others might try pharmaceutical aids to continue competing.   The smart ones adapt, look for new sources of motivation, and even get creative in their quest to stay fit and competitive.

Effects of Aging on Athletes

Before diving into how to stay motivated to be active in sports and remain fit with age, it’s worth a quick primer on what exactly the aging process does to athletes.

Aging bodies don’t use oxygen as efficiently, which is a huge factor in particular for endurance sports.  VO2max, a number that indicates how much oxygen the body can use per unit of body weight, declines by an average of about 10% per decade after age 30.  The higher the VO2max, the more fit someone is.   The good news is that an active person can cut that decline in half or more.  Much of the decline in VO2max is directly related to the decline in the maximal heart rate with age, which is unavoidable no matter how active someone is. The old formula, max HR = 220 – age, holds true for most people.

For sports that require strength and power, there are other considerations. Power and strength depend on the availability of type 2 or “fast twitch” muscle fibers.  Research shows that the raw numbers of fast twitch fibers are lost with age, and they’re lost at a much higher rate than the “slow twitch” muscle fibers required for endurance sports.

Complicating matters even more, aging bodies take longer to recover, both from injury and overtraining.  (Thus, adaptation to training takes longer too.)  Competitive athletes often don’t know when to slow down or back off, leading to more frequent and chronic injuries.

But that’s it for the bad news.  The good news is that the process can be managed, but success in managing the process requires attention to both physiology and psychology.   

The Physiology 

The strategy required to manage the physiology associated with aging is largely straightforward.

First and foremost, the aging athlete must remain active.  Actually, everyone, not just athletes, must stay active if they want to stay healthy as the years advance. Research indicates that the greatest threat to the health is inactivity.  Inactivity leads to atrophy and a host of associated health problems. Estimates are that regular exercise may slow physiologic decline associated with age by up to 50%.  

As far as which activities are most beneficial, the aging athlete needs to consider cross training and active recovery strategies to engage different muscles and to avoid overuse of any specific joint or muscle group.   For example, older runners might consider adding cycling, swimming, or paddling to their routines. Weightlifting, yoga, and even interval training, where the focus is on quality over quantity, might be good options for many as well. Strength training can be particularly important to combat the loss of muscle mass and the associated loss of strength.

Equally important, the aging athlete must pay more attention to, well…everything, including things that could be taken for granted only a few years earlier.  The “no pain, no gain” mantra must be taken with a grain of salt (the figurative type, not the electrolyte type)!  The aging athlete must know when to back off or rest or risk more serious injury.  

There are many considerations, including proper stretching before exercise. The aging athlete must be sure to get enough sleep. Sleep deficiency can lead to depressed immune function and decreased mental acuity.  It can also degrade athletic performance because the human growth hormone needed for recovery and adaptation to training is secreted in the body during sleep.

The aging athlete must pay close attention to diet, both in terms of quality and quantity of food.  That includes being sure to consume the right types of nutrients, such as carbohydrates, protein, and electrolytes before, during, and after exercise. 

Supplements, particularly antioxidants should be considered to help reduce oxidative stress and free-radical damage. Excess sugar that can aggravate inflammation should be avoided.  Reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption can be helpful as well.  That’s not to say that every pleasure in life should be avoided altogether.  As Woody Allen once said, “You can live to be a hundred if you give up all things that make you want to live to be a hundred.”
 
The Psychology

The suggestions above will help manage the physical changes associated with aging, but physiology is only one part of the puzzle.  When faced with the realization of performance decline, the motivation for an athlete to train and stay active may change.  An ultracompetitive person might quit altogether, or the motivation may eventually morph into simply the desire to stay fit.  The latter of course is preferred.

There is no “one size fits all” approach to staying motivated, but there are some ways to jumpstart the process.    Trying something new may be one of the easiest ways to stay motivated, satisfy the competitive urge, and achieve cross training benefits at the same time.  

That same aging runner discussed earlier might take up a new activity, such as stand-up paddle boarding.   He or she will likely quickly become proficient at the sport by simply applying the same training habits applied in their running.  The athlete will become a faster paddler, achieve new personal bests on the water, and otherwise meet the need to compete.   Of course, the aging runner will also reap the benefits of active recovery that will reduce their chance of injury and possibly extend his or her running career.

Sure, for a fleeting moment, the aging runner might consider the fact that he or she might have been a faster paddler had he or she paddled decades earlier, but that’s only hypothetical.  The fact is that this paddler is as fast as he or she has ever been.   (Side note, stand up paddle boarding didn’t become a real “thing” for the masses until the 2000’s, so there’s always that too.)

NBA great Reggie Miller comes to mind in this discussion.  Miller loves to compete and has missed the action on the court since retiring from the game.  He took up mountain biking and now in his fifties competes regularly and has even earned a podium or two in his race class. Miller is a better mountain biker than he has ever been.

But, that “something new” may not necessarily have to be something that is overly physical in nature.   It could be pickleball, racecar simulator driving, golf, or just about any activity that engages competition.

That’s not to say that a 60-year old athlete can’t get what he needs out of running circles around other 60-year olds (and other younger runners) at the local 5Ks.  But for many it may be easier to exercise and remain active when not as pressured to compete.  Exercising for the sake of staying healthy and fit might be enough if the competitive itch can be scratched outside of sports that require more physical prowess.   The bottom line is that staying motivated requires some internal retrospection, and it might involve more than a single activity or hobby.  The most important thing is to keep moving, no matter what it takes.

Mark Janas, BS, MBA, EdD is an amateur endurance athlete and founder of In3 Investments, LLC, a technology and business development firm based in Raleigh, N.C. with holdings in several sport-related businesses. Dr. Janas also teaches in the Sport Management program at Saint Augustine’s University. He earned his doctorate in sports management from the United States Sports Academy.

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