I’ll turn 60 in several weeks and am more avidly engaged with swimming than ever. For one reason because I’m pursuing concrete and specific goals — Adirondack Masters records in the 60-64 age group. For a second, I appear to have lost a good deal of speed in the past five years.
Year ago, I would have found that discouraging. Now it simply makes me curious. Focusing on times, rather than just efficiency, allows me to explore a question universal among performance-oriented (or Masters) swimmers in my age range: How much of our declining performance is an unavoidable fact of aging, and how much may be ‘preventable’ by purposeful training?
The relationship between age and athletic performance is of increasing interest because ‘seniors’ are the fastest-growing age group in the U.S. and worldwide, and senior athletes provide invaluable clues on how to slow the aging process. Active people age more slowly than those who are sedentary. Those who train for performance seem to age most slowly of all.
Intensive – and organized – training takes commitment and motivation. I find this kind of motivation is stoked by both the possibility of improvement and a sense of empowerment. The idea that I can take mindful steps to slow the clock in measurable ways is powerful.
There’s been little study of age and swimming performance, but studies that followed serious runners over several decades, and analysis of age-group records, has shown that performance in events from the mile to the marathon declines about 1% per year from age 25 to 60, then nearly 2% per year beyond age 60.
So I know there’s a possibility that my markedly slower times from five years ago may simply reflect ‘natural’ aging. However, it’s also true that my training the past four years has been more oriented to health and enjoyment than speed, so ‘speed rust’ – absence of the neural and physical capacities required to swim faster – may also explain some.
For the next six months, my training will be speed-oriented in a way it has not been since 2006. Twice a week, for 30 to 40 minutes each time, I’ll do practice sets that are markedly more physically demanding than usual. (Note: Rather than simply try to raise my heart rate, I’ll seek to systematically improve how I combine stroke count and stroke rate, working at the very edge of my ‘neural capability.’ Testing my nervous system this way also causes my physiological systems to work near their limits.) At my age, I need to be just as attentive to recovery between those sets as to the work I do during them.
How much speed I manage to recover will provide clues as to how much of my performance is related to normal aging and how much to how I train. Those insights will be useful not only to me, but to many people my age.
I’ve also noticed that I have less interest than I used to in what it takes to swim fast at, say, age 25, where ‘elite’ swimming happens. Rather, I’m far more curious about the needs and challenges of people my age. I suppose this will remain true as I move into my 70s and 80s. I’m not surprised about this development; it’s highly personal. But it also feels significant — as the population ages along with me, you could argue this is the true cutting edge of human potential.