My last post Slow Swimming: Is it age . . . or activity? brought a larger than usual response. One seemed particularly worthy of becoming the subject of a followup post.
Glenn Gilchrist wrote: I think the common wisdom on degradation of performance due to aging is dead wrong. Where does this 2% decline after 60 come from? Could there be other factors? Maybe as athletes age they just don’t try as hard. Maybe winning, and the work that goes into it, just isn’t that appealing anymore. Maybe being just a little more sore than at 40 turns the effort down a notch. Finally, there is the power of belief. If you believe you will get slower — and most people do — you will get slower.
I am 61 and only started training at age 54. I learned to swim using TI and became a triathlete. After two years I stopped competing, but now am at it again. I train 2-3 hours per day, 6 days per week. My interval work gets my HR over 90%. I have never been in better shape in my life. I did a half IM 5 years ago and was fast enough to win my age group, yet I am now faster then I was then. I have no athletic genes or history. But I do the work, every day. And every day I am more and more amazed at just what our bodies are capable of.
I hope Glenn is right and common wisdom is wrong. Besides the performance studies, physiological studies have suggested an accelerating decline in certain physical capacities somewhere around age 60.
Glenn is among the outliers – those who refuse to believe studies like those should determine what we think is possible. Since the great majority of those over 60 tend to be less active than they were at 30, any sampling of that population will paint a portrait of ‘normal’ aging influenced more by human inclination than human biology.
As I’ve noted, my decision to train more intensively has two motivations: One, to discover how much my marked loss of speed is due to aging and how much to several years of simply not trying to swim fast. Two, my growing Addiction to Arduous Experience – to pursue activities that take me out of my comfort zone.
Training less intensively – and more extensively – isn’t something I’ve only done as I aged. It’s been my preference since I first became a serious athlete at age 18. I learned early on that I was more competitive in longer, than shorter, races. Thus I always preferred what’s called “steady state” training, where you focus on maintaining a constant pace for a very long time. It’s not just physiological. It’s a skill — both maximizing efficiency and developing a keen sense of pace and effort.
Committed practice over many years brought Mastery of Pacing. Disciplines in which we’ve achieved Mastery are highly satisfying so we tend to do more of them and seek Continuous Improvement.
Physiologically speaking, in steady-state, your HR stays in a relatively narrow range for a relatively extended period. After doing that for 40 years, it’s much harder to, essentially, put my heart on a roller-coaster. A short bout of very high HR training, then a recovery period — well below your normal aerobic range.
I’m making that choice precisely because I have so little experience with it. Thus the potential to grow new neurons – both cognitive and motor – while also keeping the mitochondria in my cells higher functioning and more ‘youthful,’ is probably greater than with steady-state.
If my experience also suggests the aging process responds positively to intensive training, who could fail to be encouraged?