The effects of age on training

Understand the changes that occur over the years and how they affect your results.

Aging is associated with a series of structural and functional changes in the body, which are directly reflected in physical performance. However, a little less obvious than these changes, is the way aging affects the way you view training. After a certain age, depending on the person’s training history, the body no longer tolerates the same training load, and starts to require longer recovery periods between one session and another.

Physical decline

One of the most notable changes over the years is changes in body composition. Regardless of maintaining the training level, people start to lose muscle mass from 35 years old, and this decline intensifies from 45 years old, being more accentuated in men than in women. In addition, there is the accumulation of body fat, which accentuates the percentage loss of lean mass.

These losses are the result of the sum between a “natural” effect of age, added to the
typical decline in the levels of physical activity that occurs at this age.

The cardiovascular system also experiences a loss of capacity over the years. The maximum heart rate decreases by about one beat per year, and the “potency” of the heartbeat also drops, although to a lesser extent, causing the volume of blood pumped by the heart, per minute, to decrease considerably with passing of the years. With less circulating blood, less oxygen is made available to the muscles during exercise.

Effects on performance

From a physiological point of view, performance in long-term races depends on
the maximum oxygen consumption, the fraction of this maximum that the runner can sustain during the race and his running economy.

Of these three factors, the decline in maximum consumption is by far the main contributor to the decline in performance due to aging. Studies following veteran runners for long periods (ten years or more) found no differences in the running economy of these runners over time, and also found no differences in the lactate threshold (an indicator of the fraction of maximum consumption that can be sustained in a race ). It is estimated that the maximum oxygen consumption falls at a rate of approximately 1% per year, starting in the early 20s.

Furthermore, since there is a natural decline in income, the simple attempt to maintain the same performance over the years can transform an unknown amateur runner into an elite athlete for his age group.

In the different age groups of the master world record in the marathon, for both
men and women, there is a mild decline in performance, between 35 and 50 years old, which accelerates in rhythm until 80 and after that increases exponentially.
Of course, as we get older there are fewer and fewer people training to reach a record, which affects the quality of the data we are using, but on the other hand, there are fewer people training because others are often no longer able to prepare!

To explain the problem of this relative performance, let’s use
a 35-year-old runner as an example ; for her, 4 hours in the marathon means a mark about 42% slower than the world record. This same runner, if she continues training until she is
55 years old and tries to make the same mark, will be running just 29% slower than the world record for her age group! Proportionately, she will be a much better runner!

Effects on training

In general, elderly individuals respond to training in a similar way to younger individuals, despite having a lower “roof” for
their adaptations. Despite this, it is necessary to take into account some aspects, such as
the recovery time between sessions and the relative load of a given effort. In addition, it is necessary to consider whether an individual is coming from a
history of stronger training or if he is “advancing” in his preparation.

An individual who has trained since puberty can reach the age of 50, running a marathon in four hours, already far from his peak. In the same way, he could have reached the same result having started running in his early thirties and being the 4 o’clock in the marathon, in his fifties, his best mark ever. Despite the same target result and age, these two “versions” of the same person, would possibly do better with different training plans to achieve your goal.

Adjustments to training loads

The same objective can be achieved in different ways. Thus, the age of the runner must be taken into account to adjust factors such as the volume, frequency and intensity of training sessions.
While it is a reality that to run a marathon around 4 o’clock, a runner needs to be able to do a half marathon in approximately 1h50m, this goal can be achieved with a little more volume and less intensity, or the other way around.

With age, the amount of more intense workouts should decrease, or be performed in separate blocks from the periods of volume gain. Intense workouts can be reduced to up to once a week, but not less. Intensity stimuli only every 10/15 days are very disconnected, and the adaptive response is almost nil.

A more appropriate possibility in this case would be to decrease the number of
interval series , for example for one or two series of 1 km, instead of four or six per session. Moreover, the volume of training and the pace of running and other lighter workouts are largely defined by the race objective and the runner’s history.


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