aging · athletes · fitness · racing

On turning 56 and thinking about age and speed

I’ve been 56 for almost a month now! And as is the case when each year ticks over, I seem to spend some time thinking about aging and what it all means. Today’s musings are about speed.

There’s a thing that people say about older athletes. They say you lose your peak performance, your top end speeds, your ability to sprint.

You keep your endurance. The older athlete can go forever. We just can’t go as fast.

That’s the received wisdom and you hear it from masters athletes themselves.

But the problem is that this isn’t quite true. Studies show that older athletes who lose top end speeds do so because because they stop training for performance at those speeds. They keep the long rides and long runs but drop the speed training. Almost nobody keeps training at 60 as much as they did when they were younger. When they conduct studies and test older athletes responsivity to training, older athlete do make the same kinds of gains they did when they were younger. They just don’t feel like doing it.

What’s missing, it turns out, isn’t the phsyiological ability to respond to training. What’s missing is the desire to train hard.

As I’ve noted elsewhere that doesn’t necessarily make it an easier problem to solve or understand.

In one of my very first blog posts–Is Aging a Lifestyle Choice? (written 8 years ago!)–I reviewed Gretchen Reynolds’ book The First Twenty Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer.

In discussing her chapters on aging, I wrote: “What exactly is the connection between exercise and aging? The old view was that muscle loss and a decline in aerobic  capacity were inevitable with old age. We slow down with age and become more frail, starting in our 40s, it seemed. But new research suggests the connections may run the other way. We become slower and more frail because we stop moving. Older athletes get slower and less strong, not because they’re older, but rather because they train less than younger athletes.

We age because we stop moving, on this way of thinking about the connection. It’s as if aging is something we choose to do. That’s a very intriguing idea. What’s positive about this is we could choose differently. We could choose to keep moving and avoid some of the physical decline we associate with old age. But what’s less clear is why older people slow down and take to their rockers. It may be that the psychological urge to rest is stronger than Reynolds and the researchers think. If aging brains are the problem, then slowing with age still might be inevitable.”

But lately I’ve been wondering more about aging athletes and what gets in our way. I don’t think the psychological barriers aren’t real. I just think they’re not the whole story.

Our older bodies are just more demanding, higher maintenance, fussy! Cate described some of this in her post on generative aging. Reading about her aches and pains, I felt recognition. Oh, me too! I’m not alone in this.

I need the right amount of sleep, the right kind of sleep. I have to eat a certain way before I ride my bike. I need to stretch. And most annoyingly, I need to rest after riding hard before I can do it again. It’s a scheduling nightmare. I’m only sort of joking.

In addition to the onging saga of my knees, I am always nursing small aches and pains. Goddamit, I even have arthritic toes and toe physio. In the before times, I had physio appointments and massage therapy appointments. I still have daily knee stretches I need to do to feel okay just walking the dog.

I can’t just do what I want when I feel like doing it. I laugh when people say, listen to your body, as if it spoke with one voice. There’s an order, a schedule, and lots of moving pieces. My toe wants no pressure on it. My knee needs movement. My stomach wants food an hour before I ride, not twenty minutes before, and two hours before won’t do either. Part of me wants yoga but it has to be the exact right kind of yoga to match my aches and pains!

So while it’s true that age shouldn’t be the only factor determining what exercise you do, it definitely plays a role. Age complicates things. Sports training won’t be tucked into the corners of your life. If you take it seriously as you get older it takes a lot of time and mental energy in addition to the physical exertion. It’s why I think middle age is extra tough. We can envy the resilience of the young who barely need to sleep or eat and the older folks who are retired and who have time to train. Guest blogger Mary Case makes it look tempting.

A good guide to speed after 50, by the way, is Joel Friel’s Fast After 50: How to Race Strong for the Rest of Your Life. It says “racing” and the cover features a bike but that’s bad marketing. It’s really about peak performance across endurance sports and it’s not just for those who keep racing.

Why care about speed? That’s a different question, of course.

There’s the health argument that interval training and intense efforts are good for us, at all ages. But you can aim for intensity without caring about speed.

Let’s just take it as given that some of us do care about speed, that it’s an aesthetic thing that doesn’t need an explanation, like preferring chocolate ice cream to vanilla ice cream. You can say what you like about chocolate but that doesn’t give reasons for the vanilla ice cream lover to switch.

That said, lots of us do care about speed and keep caring about speed as we age. From that point of view, this is mostly good news. Training still works, you can keep your speed, and slowing down isn’t a physiological necessity. Yay! There are bad news bits. Getting in that much training and the right kind of training becomes a lot more complicated. You don’t just have to care, you have to REALLY CARE. And there’s the rub.

I’m going to blog later about what I like about racing and speed. My pitch for chocolate ice cream as it were. I want to be clear what it is I’m doing when I do that. I’m describing what I get out of it, and what you might like about it too, but there aren’t reasons or arguments. It’s totally okay not to care and like what you like.

Boy riding on bike near shore

7 thoughts on “On turning 56 and thinking about age and speed

  1. This is a great post– partly because it’s what I’ve been thinking about lately too. Going slower for me is the key to going longer and going more happily– whether I’m on two wheels, two feet, or one boat. I’ll blog about it soon– maybe we can do the case for chocolate ice cream and the case for vanilla ice cream (actually my favorite).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Someone said to me today, “Well your sprained ankle will heal, but it will never be as good as it was before, because that’s the way it is when we age.” Oof. That was depressing. And though I like to think I’m realistic about aging, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think I’ll run my beloved trails in California again with just as much agility and strength next summer (and Mont Royal in a couple of weeks, though probably still tentatively, because I’ll be scared of re-injury for a while). Anyhow, I love this post and Cate’s on generative aging. Much on my mind as I deal with various aches AND keep working to stay as strong as makes me happy.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post, Sam. You know I don’t like racing because #performanceanxiety. (Seriously: my heart rate spikes if a cyclist passes me on a hill! Just because I perceive the potential for a race! It’s total pants.) But I have found that as I get older I’m less fussed about riding with the super fast folks in my club, because I know it will be more stressful than pleasurable, even if it helps me get faster. I’d rather do my ride at my pace (as Cate says!), and really look around and enjoy. I love the many and super varied routes near my home and discovering them all; I love the challenge of punching a hill and then just noodling the next one. Perhaps it’s an aging-into-mindfulness thing? Not sure. Anyway, I’ve noticed my inner riding voice becoming more zen. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.