Recently it seems like quite a few things have been conspiring to nudge me into writing a post about ageing and athletic performance.
I turned 40 last year so have moved up to Veteran/Masters status for most endurance events and I've been trying for a quite a while now (with a varying degree of success) to understand and come to terms with the decline in my athletic abilities as I get older.
Also my 72 year old Dad, Vic, recently impressively completed an arduous 14 mile cross country fell run called ‘The Charnwood Hills race’ with my brother and I and that got me thinking about his performances over the years.
Getting slower is a subject I think about often and it has been in evidence for me personally for about a decade now, but I do feel like I'm starting to get to grips with it and so I wanted to share my thoughts and discoveries on the slippery slope so far.
My hope is that some of it might prove useful to anyone else in the same boat, trying to derive satisfaction from training and competing when PRs and visits to the podium are largely a thing of the past...
Why do we tend to get slower as we get older?
Whilst there's no completely universal agreement on the finer details, there's a general consensus in the research literature that, as far as endurance performance is concerned, most people’s abilities seem to peak somewhere in their late 20s or early 30s. There's then a significant and almost linear decline that kicks in from around 40 onwards.
Whilst amazing performances are possible post 40 - like Halie Gebrselassie’s 1:01:09 half marathon when he was 40 and Chris Horner winning the Vuelta a Espana at 41 - and of course there are those who come to sport late and buck the trend significantly, these do tend to be exceptions and not the rule.
After half a century, things continue to tail off at a similar rate to the decline after 40 but then beyond 60 (or maybe 70 depending on who’s papers you read/believe), the drop-off can start to get a lot steeper.
There are numerous plausible theories for why this relatively predictable performance decline kicks in as you advance in years. These include...
- the actual physical deterioration that happens with the ageing process (i.e. reduction in VO2 max, changes in hormone balance, loss of muscle mass, increase in body fat, changes in biomechanics, increased recovery time etc)
- the dramatically increased likelihood of injuries interrupting training regimes (the cliche ‘before 40 you bend, after it you break’ comes to mind here...)
- common changes in lifestyle that hamper the ability to train effectively (parenthood, increasing work responsibilities, accumulated life stress, diversified interests and so on)
- psychological factors that reduce the basic drive and desire to push your body as hard as younger people are willing to do (decreased motivation and lack of goals to shoot for once it's obvious that lifetime best performances are no longer on the cards, for example).
Some or all of these factors work in combination with the net result being that you just…get…slower.
If you’re interested in delving into the science behind the decline in athletic performance as you age, here's a further reading list:
Further reading on the science of ageing and athletic performance
But what I mainly wanted to do in this piece is to come at the subject from a personal perspective, starting with looking at my Dad's performances over the years...
Case study #1: My Dad
Victor Roland Blow was born in November 1946 and, although he was always pretty fit and active, it wasn’t until 1986 (at age 40 and when I was 8 years old) that he really started ‘training’ for anything.
The catalyst for getting properly fit was him doing his Football Association (FA) referee qualifications so he could ref my Sunday league soccer matches. He preferred this option to standing around watching in the wet and cold and he found he needed to improve his running to keep up with the youngsters on the pitch!
When I moved away from playing football in my early teens, my Dad carried on running to encourage my participation in county cross country races and also, I assume, just because he found he got something out of it.
In around 1993 he joined a local running club, Beaumont Leys RC. I have ‘good’ memories of him cajoling me around both a 1 and 3 mile running loop near our Leicestershire home, with me often needing to stop and tie my shoelaces when the going got tough!
Dad gradually honed his training regime and gained more experience, getting faster over the initial 8-10 years and hitting his lifetime PBs for the half and and full marathon aged 48 (1:28 and 3:34 respectively), for the 5km (18:40) aged 49 and for 10km (39:41) aged 50.
At age 55 he did his first triathlon (following me into the sport) and continued to sporadically enter multi-sport races until around 2016.
Despite much of his athletic career predating Strava, my Dad is a rich source of data. He has a bookcase full of ring binders containing race results, photos and fitness test results stretching back to the early 90s and still loves a good hard copy print out of his results today, even though it’s basically all available on the internet. (I'm not sure he fully trusts ‘The Cloud’...)
Importantly, he has always been committed to training and competing throughout his entire athletic career, with no significant periods of inactivity to speak of since he was 40.
And, in general I would say that his attitude towards training and competing has been pretty consistent in that sport matters very much to him and is a big part of his life, but it’s also always been just one element amongst many (with work, family and other hobbies also being important).
As a result, he hasn't really gone through the ‘obsessive’ to ‘disillusioned’ athlete cycle that so many of us fall victim to when we get sucked into endurance sports. These cycles tend to drive big swings in performance over time.
Of all of the stats in his folders, the running times are probably the most interesting for analysis as he has a lot of comparable data points gathered over a period of about a quarter of a century, particularly over 5km and 10km.
His times are summarised in this graph and clearly show the drop off in his best times each year for the distances:
Whilst his performances have dropped off over the years, he's still running bloody well for a 72 year old at the moment, clocking 28:41 for a 5km Parkrun at the back end of 2018!
Although obviously much slower than when in his fifties, he also got round the aforementioned 14 mile Charnwood Hills race in a respectable time of 2:42. Having raced it myself, I can confirm that the course is no walk in the park!
Looking at the drop off in my Dad’s times, the decline in performance is pretty much linear from his fastest period around age 48-50 up until he hit 62-63 years of age (as the science would suggest it should be).
His times then seemed to have dropped off more steeply in his early sixties before plateauing a bit from age 65-69, before slipping noticeably again after he turned 70.
I asked him what he felt has slowed him down over the years and he cited a number of key factors including...
- A significantly increased incidence of injury in his later years (particularly calf and Achilles tendon niggles)
- The absence of performance goals (e.g. his running PBs all came around 2 attempts at the London Marathon, when he stepped up training significantly for specific periods of time)
- Changing overall goals such as aiming for swimming events or multi-sport events instead of just running events
From my perspective I think I would say I’ve also seen a gradual overall reduction in his training load and most importantly his training intensity over the years as well.
For example, he used to regularly run track interval sessions for speed and do club training sessions in a group before moving to an area where he does not really have other people to run with, or easy access to a track.
I’ve also noticed that, although he's in good shape for his age, he has probably gained a few kilos of body fat and lost a few kilos of muscle mass, both of which are likely to start to have taken their toll on his running performances.
Lastly, whilst he's still generally very motivated to train, I do get a sense that he’s gradually become marginally less bothered about aiming for specific goals and tends to do things ‘just to get round’ now.
Case Study #2: Me
Like my Dad I’ve also peaked and seen my results start to drop away in recent years.
In the mid to late 90s (when Dad was setting his PBs), I was young, energetic and keen enough to start pushing my body really hard and to strive for absolute maximum performance, training full-time for some of that time.
I really put the hammer down when I went to University and was able train with facilities, training partners and coaching guidance.
I found that in my early 20s I was able to go at it incredibly hard, very often and, although I did suffer the odd illness and had more than a few flirtations with over-training syndrome, I basically improved dramatically just by battering myself day in, day out.
When I left University I also managed to train essentially full time for a couple of years and continued to apply the ‘more is better, harder is better’ training philosophy, with decent results.
By my mid 20s I’d got my 5km and 10km running times down to about 14:50 and 30:20 respectively and could place in the top 10 of B grade pro triathlon races like Half and Full IRONMAN UK.
It was in my late 20s when I started to feel the effects of my regime and started to encounter injuries.
Prior to the age of about 26/27, injuries where largely something that happened to other people as my body always seemed to soak up whatever abuse I threw at it. My first major issue was tendonitis in my knee that periodically flared up during periods of heavy bike and run mileage at the age of 26/27.
This was followed by a spate of calf pulls and tears and numerous other lower limb ailments that crept into my life around the same time.
To cut a long story short, I did what many enthusiastic athletes do when faced with a persistent niggle; I attempted to ignore it and to get short-term, pain-killing medical interventions to manage it whilst I continued to train as hard as I could.
In the end this dubious approach lead down the road of further injury to knee surgery. My surgeon told me that it would be prudent to think about stopping competing in running as I’d probably end up back on his table again if I wasn't sensible about it.
Post knee op, I’ve learned to paddle a kayak and surfski (and have raced in both of those from time to time) and done a number of multi-sport and lower key running races but all of it has been done with a reduced level of intensity and commitment than when I was training flat out in my 20s.
At the age of about 34 I got my post surgery 5km time down to about 16:30 (~90 seconds away from my lifetime best) and have picked my swimming up periodically - seeing times that would not have been too far off when I was racing triathlon seriously - but I’ve always struggled to get anywhere near as competitive as I was at my peak.
When I sit back and analyse why that is I think that it comes down to a combination of factors all working together. The main ones being:
- The inability to train consistently hard days without getting injured
- Having a lot less free time to train due to having 2 small children and a busy job growing a business
- Having a deep rooted fear of re-injuring my knee and ending up in surgery again by overdoing it
- A lack of the psychological drive to push myself quite as hard as I used to
- A lack of desire to directly compare myself with ‘past me’, who was able to train and race a lot harder
In broad terms, where my performance graph differs a lot from my Dads (to this point at least) is that, soon after my peak performances my line fell off a cliff as I had to stop training and competing for about 3 years pre and post surgery.
I then saw a small resurgence in my mid 30s as I got back into training and competing again (before I had the kids) and tried to regain some of my past fitness.
But I also figured out pretty quickly that it was highly unlikely that I'd ever get back to where I was and it was around that time that I found the biggest psychological challenges came in.
For a while I struggled to reorientate my thinking away from looking for constant improvement, PBs and hitting other lifetime bests, to figuring out what other motivations I could still tap into to continue to keep fit and to turn out at races from time to time.
For a long time I definitely kidded myself that maybe ‘sometime soon’ I’d have one last go at getting an Ironman or marathon PB, but that never transpired into meaningful action and now that I’ve crossed the 40 threshold I think I'm getting into a better, more productive mindset about why I'm still doing sport and what I'm getting out of it.
5 ways to mitigate and adapt to a drop in performance as you get older
Here's what I've learned from my own experiences and watching my dad...
1) Taking on very different challenges is a great way to stay motivated
This involves learning new skills and training in new ways. It also allows you to compete with yourself and others in an environment that's free from the baggage of past performances that you can otherwise compare yourself unfavourably with.
2) Training more consistently by remaining injury free should be a goal in itself
This seems to be possible through a combination of not over doing it, mixing up the sports you do and by careful management of niggles with sports therapy and technology. (I love a pair of softly padded Hoka or Adidas Boost running shoes these days...)
3) Embrace the challenge of finding ways to use ‘brains over brawn’
When I do race or train with younger/fitter people I try to execute more intelligent pacing strategies than them, deploy better nutrition and hydration practices and technology/gear to help me to be as competitive as I can realistically be.
I may be racing the ÖTILLÖ Scilly Isles race with JP (who's 15 years my junior) this year and will be needing all the brains I can get to stay with him over that course...
4) Aiming to set a positive example for my kids has also really helped
Because my wife and I both train and compete and all their grandparents and other role models in their lives are very active, they believe that going out exercising on a daily basis is ‘normal’ which I think is very important for setting them up to do the same and seeing sport as something that's fun, pleasurable and part of a normal life.
5) Gradually re-orientating your goals as you get older helps
I've moved from extrinsic goals (like winning races or setting PRs) to more intrinsic ones like simply feeling fit and healthy, enjoying the outdoors, appreciating the mental release from work and family stress that exercise allows for etc.
A big thing for me is also trying to set some much longer term goals that include seeing how close I can get to my Dad’s running times over 5km and 10km as I move through the older age brackets.
Dare I say it now, I feel pretty confident I can stay ahead of him in the 40s (he did only start out at that point after all and I reckon I still have a few years in the tank), but I do admit I look at some of his times in his 50s and beyond and wonder whether I’ll be able to match them!
Dad has also thrown down the gauntlet of going back to the Charnwood Hills race when I'm 72 to see how I get on against his recent effort! I think that’s a worthy life goal so get ready for a follow up blog post in March 2050 with an update on how I get on with that…