How old is “older?” It seems it depends on the sport. A gymnast would be considered old at 20. The average age of a Mr. Olympia is 34 years of age. In contrast, a professional cyclist might be considering retirement at 34. In fact, Firmin Lambot is the oldest person to ever win the Tour de France in 1922 at the age of 36. This year, Lance Armstrong will be competing at 37. Dara Torres made Olympic history when she won three silver medals in swimming at age 41. More and more athletes are continuing to compete as they get older. Although different sports and organizations vary in their definition of a Masters athlete, in this article the term “older athlete” is someone over the age of 50.

Changes as we age.

As we get older, joint cartilage and bone density decreases and our tendons and ligaments become less elastic. All persons over 40 show some type of degenerative joint disease. Bounding sports like basketball or football become more dangerous with an increase in orthopedic injuries. We start losing muscle and gaining fat. The stresses and demands of life increase and our physical activity decreases. According to the center of Disease Control, more than 60% of American adults don’t get the recommended amounts of physical activity.

The relationship between behaviors and biological processes may affect the persons drive to exercise, which means the desire to work out is less. Our hearts beat slower and pump less blood. Our lung capacity also decreases. Oxygen is the life fuel for muscles; without it, they simply can’t work. What a bleak picture. I’m getting depressed already.

Endurance sports such as cycling and swimming are much less damaging to the body. Although athletic performance declines inevitably as we age, studies show that swimming performance declines exponentially a full ten years later than running. (1)

Aerobic exercise improves oxygen consumption in the body as well as its use in energy for metabolism. However, maximum aerobic power starts to fall predictably beginning in middle age, decreasing about 5mL/kg/min every decade of life. In a typical sedentary man, by the age of 60 years, the maximal aerobic power will have dropped to about 25mL/kg/min – this is almost half of what it was at age 20.  When this ability drops below 18 in men or 15 in women, it becomes very difficult to perform daily tasks without severe fatigue.(2) This is one of the main reasons we slow down, get weak and lose stamina as we age. The good news is, research shows that high intensity aerobic exercise over a long period boosted maximum aerobic power by 25%!

Training Tips

At 50 or older a general warm-up is mandatory. If needed, a specific warm-up may follow. The greater the intensity of the event, the longer the warm-up needed. When I perform a time trial in cycling (which is an all out effort) I warm up for an hour with at least three, hard, one minute intervals.

Before a specific warm-up, try these global, multi-joint, medicine ball, full body movements. Here are five movements that serve as a great general full body warm-up.

  • 1. squat with a chest press
  • 2. wood chop
  • 3. lateral flexion
  • 4. standing twist
  • 5. 45 degree wood chop
  • 6. circles

Self massaging with a foam roller is also a great way to loosen up the muscles and make the tissue more pliable. Before exercise, I recommend to always foam roll the entire body for six to eight minutes.

Once you’ve finished foam rolling, perform a specific dynamic warm-up for the particular event you are planning to do. If it’s baseball, warm up the arm slowly and practice some short accelerations, cutting to the left and right. Be specific and slowly add speed to each effort.

Stretching

Stretching feels good, but according to the latest literature it’s best to not perform static stretching before an athletic event. I recommend stretching after the event. The goal is to maintain normal ranges of motion for all the joints. Dynamic movement in my opinion is a better choice than static stretching.

Resistance Training

Resistance training now becomes mandatory even for die-hard endurance athletes. Muscle power is a key aspect to most competitive events. Power declines earlier and faster than strength. Balance can be an issue. Before squatting, juggling and whistling Dixie on a Bosu ball, start with the basics. Consider training the body from the inside, out. Start with stabilization exercises. The most stable place is the ground. Master that first. For older athletes a full body approach is best. Squats, dead lifts, presses, rows, sit-ups, pull-ups, etc. Make sure to concentrate on range of motion and proper technique, including breathing. Modify the exercises if there is an injury.Rest and sleep are more important than ever. Schedule and consider it as part of the training. This is critical. Older athletes don’t recuperate as quickly.

Nutrition

Sound nutritional strategies remain the same for the older athlete. Caloric intake may be less for a 50 year old than a 20 year old of the same height, weight and body fat.

Training for the Senior World Games, I personally didn’t adhere to the “five-six meals a day” plan. I’m always fairly lean so I had to lose muscle. Breakfast was a small bowl of cereal with a half of banana, strawberries and blueberries. Lunch was ¾ cup or a ½ cup of pasta with meat sauce and dinner was a large salad and one boiled egg. Not many calories. I carried food with me on my bike rides in case I needed additional calories. I don’t drink a ton of water otherwise, I’m in the bathroom too much.

Most older athletes are similar. Here are a few examples.

George Pomel is a French 80 year old cyclist. “I still ride 150-200 miles a week; 35 miles one day and then 50 miles the next. I always warm up for twenty minutes in the morning.” For breakfast before his ride he eats a fruit bar. After the ride he has a bowl of fruit, yogurt and peanuts, then he naps. For dinner, broiled chicken or fish with pasta, rice or potatoes and has peanuts for desert. He barely drinks water during the day. On the ride he drinks one bottle with electrolytes. “I hardly drink during the day. I’m rarely thirsty. I do have four small cups of coffee a day and a glass of wine when I feel like it.” Not many calories. He’s 5’6 and 140 pounds. When I asked him what the key to his fitness was, he told me “Never lie. Always go to bed with a clean conscience and know your body. If there is pain, back off and rest.”

Michael Lukich is from Yugoslavia and was a world-class power-lifter and many times World Champion cyclist. He is 5’5 and a solid 160 pounds. He cycles 15-20 hours a week, lifts weights twice a week and daily works his core. For breakfast he has a bagel and cream cheese or a low-fat muffin with decaf coffee before the gym. Two to three hours later he has another bagel or muffin before his ride. After the ride, he eats fruit; watermelon, grapes, cherries, oranges, etc., and yogurt or nuts. Sound familiar? For dinner he eats broiled or roasted chicken with rice or beans. He never eats red meat or vegetables. For a snack he eats more fruit. With all the fruit he consumes, Mike doesn’t have to drink as much water.

Karen Lester, like me is 50. She just placed 4th overall in the National Fitness America Paegant. She is 5’5, 125 pounds and 10.8% body fat! Karen ate every three hours. For breakfast she had oatmeal, five egg whites and four ounces of orange juice. Her mid-morning snack was a protein shake. Lunch was five ounces of chicken with steamed spinach and a yam. Afternoon snack was four ounces of ground turkey on a leaf of lettuce. Ooh, yummy. Dinner was six ounces of fish or five ounces of chicken and asparagus. Night time snack was another protein shake. Karen however, did drink almost a gallon of water a day.

As you can see, all four of us don’t consume a lot of calories. Interestingly enough, the three cyclists who do much more exercise, ate less frequently than the fitness woman who trained less. Karen needed to maintain or build muscle and lose fat, while we aren’t as concerned with muscle or our upper body.

It’s not over.

Yes, we age, and yes, our performance will decline, but at 50 and over, an athlete can still make progress. In 2008 I turned 50. In 2007 I set a goal to compete in the Huntsman Senior World Games. The Huntsman World Senior Games is a world-class, Olympic-format, international sporting event for athletes ages 50 years and older.  Founded more than 20 years ago, the Games currently hosts over 9,500 athletes annually.  Each October, for two weeks, the event is held in colorful St. George, Utah, less than a two-hour drive from Las Vegas, Nevada. At the 2008 Games, athletes competed in 25 different sports.

Here is how I won 4 gold medals, one silver and two bronze medals at those games.

Fail to plan, plan to fail.

I based my plan on a Periodization model. The roots of Periodization design date back to Eastern Bloc countries in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Tudor Bompa has a great book about the subject. The primary goal is to progressively and systematically overload the body for specific periods of time.

Here is what my general plan was.

  • January – March: Volume. Progressively longer rides with one to two days of intensity.
  • Rest: one week of rest at the end of March.
  • March-May: Decrease volume and increase intensity to build strength by riding very steep hills and progressively adding more volume.
  • Rest: 3-5 days of pure rest.
  • June: Substitute motor-pacing or speed for the hills on the intensity days.
  • July – August: Compete or do group rides three to four days a week.
  • August 21-30th: Compete in the Master World Games in Austria.
  • September – October: Altitude training and mountain biking in Park City and Brian Head, Utah.
  • October: Huntsman Senior World Games.

The best laid plans………….don’t often go as planned.

We had the coldest winter in 60 years and it rained a ton. I couldn’t accumulate as much volume as I had intended. On my first scheduled rest, I tore cartilage in my left knee presenting to trainers in Sao Paulo, Brazil. This was a major problem. I had a paid for a cycling trip to the Dolomites in Italy scheduled at the end of my “hill” period. I would need a knee for those mountains. I had knee surgery April 15th. While rehabbing I was hired to teach and consult for a hospital in Doha, Qatar at the end of May. A desert in the Middle East isn’t the best place to cycle, hence, I gained weight. Four days before my trip to the Dolomites I tore my pectoralis major training some national team athletes. Great! Now I could barely move my arm. After the Dolomites I returned to the U.S.A. and recovered. I lost 17 pounds, got down to 3.5% body fat and did fairly well in August at the Masters World Championships in Austria. In September, I crashed hard on my second mountain bike ride in Park City, Utah and landed on the bad knee again! With two weeks to go before my event I iced and rehabbed it enough to make it to the World Games; won 4 gold medals in road racing and one silver and two bronze in mountain biking.

Not bad for an old guy.