Nutrition, Podcast, Science, Training

The top-5 challenges for masters athletes and how to overcome them – Bo Falck Hansen, PhD | EP#176

 April 8, 2019

By  Mikael Eriksson

​​The top-5 challenges for masters athletes and how to overcome them - Bo Falck Hansen, PhD | EP#176

TTS176 - The top-5 challenges for masters athletes and how to overcome them - Bo Falck Hansen, PhD (1)

Bo Falck Hansen, PhD, is a researcher and cycling coach with a special interest in training and performance for the aging athlete. He describes the top-5 challenges that masters athletes in triathlon and other endurance sports face, and how to tackle them.

Discuss this episode!

  • Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments at the bottom of the shownotes. Join the discussion here!

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • Reducing the rate of decline in aerobic capacity (VO2max) with the right kind of endurance training.
  • Reducing the rate of loss of lean muscle mass with the right kind of strength training.
  • Reducing the impact of the insulin response while still making sure you perform in training and racing with periodised carbohydrate intake.
  • Maintaining flexibility, coordination, and balance.
  • Having the right attitude to ageing. 

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About Bo Falck Hansen

4:45  -

  • I am almost 60 years old now! 
  • I"m a researcher by background and am currently employed by a pharmaceutical company. 
  • I have a PhD in glycogen metabolism. 
  • I started as a sports physiologists looking at the storage of glycogen - what it means to have a high glycogen level and how we can achieve this. 
  • I then went into the industry and worked with type 1 diabetes. 
  • I now look at the longevity and the impact of age on muscle size and aerobic capacity. 
  • I am also a certified trainer from the Danish Sports Confederation. 

    I mostly train young athletes, but lately I have started to work with masters athletes. 

    I've found there is quite a big difference between these two groups. 
  • Young people are very eager and enthusiastic, and it's often about controlling them to train them the right way. 

    With masters athletes they have some other challenges which I find interesting. 

What age do you start applying changes

6:45 -

  • For myself, my peak performance was probably around 43 - at this age I had my highest VO2max. 
  • For most athletes, they won't feel any set backs until they are around 40. 

    It depends on the sports, but endurance athletes generally follow this rule. 
  • In women's sports there are quite a few athletes who are above this age. 

Top 5 challenges that come with age

8:08 -

  • There are 3 big challenges, and 2 minor ones that aren't as well investigated in the scientific literature. 
  • The three biggest challenges are:

    1) The decline in VO2max.
    2) Shrinking muscles.
    3) Slowing of metabolism.
  • The two minor ones are:

    1) Decreased flexibility, balance and coordination. 
    2) Mental attitude towards getting older. 
  • The mental attitude has an impact on the other four challenges. 

Decline in VO2max with age

10:18 - 

  • VO2max is very important for athletic performance, it sets the ceiling. 

    If you have a high VO2max your ability to increase your anaerobic threshold will be much higher. 
  • In most endurance sports, the aim is to have the highest VO2max possible. 
  • The issue is that it starts to decline early - usually around 25 - and it will eventually get to a low value. 
  • There is a 'danger zone' of 20ml of oxygen per minute per kilo, which is where you don't want to reach as it's associated with an increased risk of death and other diseases.

    Ageing athletes are not generally in this zone but their VO2max is still likely to decrease over time. 
  • The rate of decline is very dependent on how you behave.

    If you stop exercising, you will decline more rapidly, which has been examined in longitudinal studies up to 30 years in length. 

    You may be down to the sedentary level within 5-10 years if you stop exercising, even if you're starting with a VO2max of 60. 
  • A normal individual will start with a VO2max of 25ml of oxygen per minute per kilo, and maybe get up to 45. 

    You will probably not reach the danger zone until your 80's. 
  • If you continue with high intensity exercise, studies show your VO2max can remain in the 50's even at 70 years old.
  • The decline will be there whatever you do, but doing hard training can keep the decline slower. 
  • There is an interesting study of a 101 year old French guy who had an oxygen uptake of 30. 

    He wanted to make the world record of 1-hour racing in the velodrome so he went back to training for 2 years - riding 5000km per year. 

    His VO2max increased 13% over this time. Even at the age of 100 you can still do it! 
  • If you are not an elite athlete, you are likely not at the top of your abilities so you can still improve and increase your VO2max! 
  • Very few of us are at our genetic potential, older athletes included. 

Using intensity 

17:31 - 

  • Most of us know our anaerobic threshold. This is the difference between being able to perform for a longer time, and performing for a few minutes. 
  • There have been several studies looking at well trained people (VO2max of 60) and they have divided them into different groups. 

    One recent study had 4 groups:
    - High volume - lots of training at low intensity
    - Threshold - slightly lower volume but lots of threshold training (tempo training)
    - HIT - lots of high intensity training but less overall volume
    - Polarised training - 2 hard training per week, remainder at low intensity. 

    They did this for 9 weeks and then assessed VO2max. 

    They found that the polarised group had a 12% increase, HIT had a 5 % increase, high volume was 6% increase, and the threshold training showed a 4% decrease in VO2max. 
  • Several studies have shown similar results - that this type of threshold training (tempo) does not increase VO2max.
  • If you do hard threshold training, it will likely have an effect. 
  • If you are trained and you want to increase your VO2max, you need to include short sharp intervals - 4 minutes long at high intensity. 

    If you want to induce the genes responsible for increasing VO2max you need a certain amount of intensity. 
  • For people who are not trained, there will be a significant increase in VO2max even at a low intensity. 
  • With masters athletes, who normally need more recovery, I tend to do 2 hard weeks then 1 easy week. 
  • The hard weeks will include 2 sessions of hard training, and in the recovery week there would be 1. 
  • With triathlon, it may change as there is a limit to how much hard training you can do, so aiming for 2 hard sessions per discipline may be too much. 
  • Running is particularly tough on the body, whereas swimming and cycling are slightly easier on the body, especially for older athletes. 
  • For masters triathletes I would tend to go easier on running intervals to decrease the risk of injury, and go harder on bike and swim.  

    There is a carryover effect from cycling on the cardiovascular system which will have a positive impact on the run. 

Losing muscle mass 

26:32 - 

  • As you get older you will discover that your muscles are shrinking, even without changes to your lifestyle. 
  • This has a lot to do with hormones. 

    If you are male, your testosterone levels will go down. For both genders, your growth hormones will go down too. 

    These factors have an impact on your muscle size. 
  • Most endurance athletes are afraid of gaining weight as it can be a limited to performance. This leads to the question of whether or not to do strength training. 
  • If you are a masters athlete, there isn't a big risk that you'll develop big bulking muscles because of thr natural muscle shrinkage, so it makes sense to do some strength training. 
  • As with the 'death zone' for the VO2max, there is the same with muscle. 

    When you get older and your muscles shrink, at a certain point you will be unable to sustain yourself and complete your daily activities. 

    This impacts your survival and longevity. 
  • A review study shows that strength training can be very beneficial as an endurance athlete - it won't increase your VO2max but it will help with other areas. 
  • For masters athletes it can be key because it will counter act the muscle loss. 
  • The review article notes that endurance athletes do not bulk up when doing strength training, due to the general calorie equilibrium or deficit endurance athletes are usually in. 
  • If you limit the amount of repetitions, and do explosive movements with high weight, the major change you will see is an increase in power and strength, and not muscle mass. 

    Keep your repetitions to 6-7, and do heavy weights, and your signal from the brain to the muscle will get better. You will get stronger, not bigger. 
  • As you get older, move into 8-10 repetitions, but still try and do it with explosive movements. This is what trains the brain. 
  • This training should be done year round. 

    Personally, I hate it! So I do more sessions in the winter when the weather is bad, and just 1 session a week in the summer. 
  • Muscle loss can be rapid. If you put someone my age (late 50's) in bed for 14 days, they will lose 25% in that time.

    The hormone levels you have in your body at this age do not favour muscle growth, they favour the opposite. 
  • I tend to try and make the strength training as simple as possible. 

    6 exercises: 2 for arms, 2 for legs, 2 for stomach/back. 

    Using heavy weights for legs and arms, and lighter weights for back/stomach but you can increase the repetitions. 
  • Arms:
    - One where you pull with your arms (e.g. sitting row)
    - One where you push with your arms (e.g. bench press/push ups)
  • Legs:
    - Squat - if you can, it's the gold standard.
    - Leg press - if you have weak knees or are new to strength training. 
  • Stomach/back: 
    - Stability and core work - e.g. yoga ball balance work. 
  • If you are new, start with 12-15 repetitions, but aiming to get down to 6 with heavier weights. 
  • 3-4 sets with a couple of minutes between each will be ideal. 
  • If you get to a heavy weight that you can barely do for six repetitions, it can help to just do one exercise at a time - rather than alternating between exercises. 

    This is both for the physical and mental side. It can help mentally to relax completely between the sets. 

Changes in metabolism

38:50 - 

  • There are a lot of recommendations on what you should and shouldn't eat in terms of performance, so it's a very discussed area. 
  • From a scientific point of view, there are various correlations for endurance athletes between pre-exertion muscle glycogen levels and time to exhaustion. 

    The more glycogen you have in your muscles before you start exercises, the better for your endurance and performance. 
  • Fat burning is a big part of triathlon - more so than other shorter disciplines. 
  • There has been discussion around whether you can adapt your body to burn fat, and whether this produces as much energy as carbohydrate burning. 
  • Louise Burke did a big study on this.

    She took well-trained athletes and put them on a protocol where they increased their VO2max for 12 weeks.

    She had them on different diets - high carb, low carb, periodised carb intake.

    She found that low carbohydrate diet meant you were less economical, which can limit your performance. 

    In a test race, the participants on high carbohydrate diet were 190seconds faster, whereas low carbohydrates were 20 seconds slower. 
  • Louise did comment that this study simply proves what is already in the biochemistry textbook! 

    It is known that when you look at the ATP production of a muscle, ATP is the source of muscle contraction. 

    If you burn only carbs compared to burning only fats, there is a higher ATP level per second with the carbs. 

    You are able to produce more energy per second with carbohydrates. 
  • The problem is that the carbohydrate store in the muscles will only last for 60-90 minutes if you go at a very high intensity. 

    This is why for a triathlete or cyclist it's also important to be able to burn fat.
  • If you're at 70kg male, you will have around 400g of glycogen. The upper limit in human muscles is 4%, if you are completely loaded. 

    In my PhD we infused glucose and insulin for 8 hours and it reaches a limit of 4g of glycogen per 100g of muscle - 4%. 

    Most people won't reach this high value in a daily session. Usually people will be at 3% if they're well loaded. 

    Depending on how much muscle you have, it will give you a figure of 400-600g glycogen. 
  • If you cycle, most of what you will use is what you have in your legs.

    Swimming uses the stores in your arms more, and running engages a few more muscles that cycling. 
  • If you go at your anaerobic threshold, you will use all of your glycogen stores within 60-90 minutes unless you take in glucose. 

    Most of us do this via gels or glucose/carbohydrate drinks drinks. 

    This spares the use of glycogen in the muscle. 
  • When the glycogen in the muscles runs out, you will hit the wall. In this situation your glucose may drop because there is no glycogen in the muscle so the glucose from your blood has to move to the muscle. 

    The liver cannot produce anymore glucose once it has sent it all out, so you experience a drop in blood sugar. 
  • The idea is to cross the line at the exact moment you've used all the glycogen in your muscles! However it's difficult to time this precisely. 

    Generally, we try to eat more glucose during the exercise than we will need, to be sure we won't run out. 
  • The use of glycogen can either be with or without oxygen. 

    When you use oxygen you get a lot of energy out of each super module. If you do it without oxygen you don't get as much energy. 

    I.e. If you go too hard - above anaerobic threshold - you will use your glycogen stores more rapidly. 

    This is why it is not economical to go above your anaerobic threshold. 
  • This is the game, trying to find exactly the right balance. 
  • In order to have as big an oxygen delivery as possible, you need to train your heart - this is increasing VO2max. 
  • In Ironman you're unlikely to be near your anaerobic threshold, but with a Sprint distance you are probably going to be at or above this line.
  • In mountain biking, the energy output fluctuates a lot - you are constantly going up and down hill which makes it very variable. 

    Mountain bikers therefore often have a big anaerobic capacity. 

    When you do triathlon, you try to pace yourself at a pace you know you can handle for a long time.
  • In draft legal sprint races you usually have a similar situation - and may need to consider your fuelling. 
  • I did some testing with a triathlete I coach, and I assumed he would not have a high anaerobic capacity.

    Much to my surprise he had one of the highest anaerobic capacities I had ever tested! 

    In triathlon, even if you think it's a very steady output, there must be power surges when you're trying to catch others perhaps. 
  • With ATP production you cannot decide for yourself which mechanism will produce the ATP you use - it is a question of intensity and training condition alone. 

    If you're well trained, it will take more to get into an anaerobic state and you can therefore save your glycogen stores. 

Nutrition for the ageing athlete

54:35 - 

  • The message is quite clear: you need to be able to eat enough carbohydrate to perform. 
  • As you get older, the hormones in your body change and there is a tendency that your muscle will turn to fat. 
  • Many people about 50 have noticed this - suddenly there is more fat and you have not done anything to cause this, it's the hormones. 
  • If you eat something with a high glycemic index, or carbohydrates in general, your body will produce insulin. 

    Insulin is a very efficient way to stop fat oxidisation. 

    If you have a small amount of insulin in your body, your muscle will stop burning fat. 
  • If you eat a lot of carbohydrates, you tend to have a high insulin level all day long. 

    For people around 50 this is not good as they won't have any fat oxidisation at all. 
  • This has led to discussions around ways to decrease insulin levels to get the body to increase fat oxidisation and reduce body fat. 
  • This leads to a difficult: Your optimal performance as an athlete requires that you eat carbohydrates, but the optimal performance for your lifestyle requires you to eat minimal carbohydrates. 
  • If you go on a paleo or ketogenic diet, you will control your insulin levels and will likely reduce your weight. 

    However, if you want to be the guy at the front of the race, you may not succeed as you're toeing the starting line with low glycogen levels and won't perform as fast as you could. 
  • Therefore, you need to do your carbohydrate intake at certain points in time - periodised carbohydrate intake. 

    This allows your body to have periods of low carb and insulin, so you can burn fat. At other points you will fill the stores so you are ready to compete. 
  • For example, if you know you're going to train hard Tuesday afternoon, it is a good idea to start eating carbohydrates the day before, so your glycogen levels will be high. 

    If you try to do VO2max training with low glycogen stores, you won't have to quality in your training that you need. 
  • For other sessions, such as long training rides, it's okay to have a low glycogen level. 
  • If you have a triathlete who has hard training days on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, they should introduce a bit more carbohydrate the evening before each session. 

    After workouts, you can limit your carbohydrate if you're not in a hard training block. However if you're in a key training block or race season you will need to replenish the stores after the session. 

    There is a risk that you could slow down recovery and decrease your immune function if you don't fill up the glycogen stores.
  • If you're in a heavy training camp or training week, 8g/kg/day carbohydrate would be ideal. 

    If you're in a period where it's not as important for you to perform, you can go as low as 2g/kg/day. It depends on the individual.

    For a 75kg athlete this would be 150-225g per day. 
  • As you get older it's important to focus on protein intake as well. 

    There is evidence to suggest that when you get older the stimulation of muscle synthesis with protein intake is less in older people. 

    For younger people you only need 15-20g protein to stimulate protein synthesis, whereas if you're a little older it may take 30g of protein to stimulate protein synthesis. 
  • The evidence suggests it's better to spread out your protein intake - ideally 4 x a day with 30g per meal. 

    For example this would be 3 eggs/can of tuna. 

    It has to be quality protein, ideally it needs to be dairy or meat. If you are vegetarian or vegan you need to make sure that all the amino acids are in the food you are eating. 
  • For masters athletes, I'd recommend 2g/kg/day of protein. 
  • If you want to train your fat oxidation, there is a protocol by Louise Burke where you complete hard training sessions in the afternoon (e.g. 4x5 minutes) which aims to empty your glycogen stores.

    After that training, you eat something with no carbohydrates.

    The next morning you go for a 1-2 hour steady ride. 

    You will be starting that training with low glycogen stores so you will be fat burning from the start. 
  • Personally I find that easier than going for a long steady ride and waiting for the glycogen stores to get depleted. 
  • It has been shown to increase the economy of your exercise. Additionally it can be easier to do as most of the fasting happens at night. 



  • As you get older you become less flexible and can have difficulties with balance and coordination. 
  • However, this is trainable! The major reason for us as older adults being worse in these areas is because we've stopped doing what we did when we were younger. 

    We don't go on a merry-go-round anymore, or run up and down slippery rocks, and this is why we're bad at it! 
  • I've personally been trying to stand on a yoga ball over the past month - initially I couldn't do it at all but I'm managing now, showing that this is trainable. 
  • These skills are needed as an endurance athlete as it limits your injury risk. 

    If the range of your joints is bigger, you will be at lower risk of an over-stretching injury. 

    Additionally, if you fall, your speed and reflexes will cover you from injury. If you don't train this you will lose it. 
  • For cycling, balance is very important for corning and other technical skills. 
  • There are not as many studies that show this, but I've seen as a coach that athletes who focus on their flexibility are technically more skilled with things like corners. 
  • For your general life, the evidence shows that balance and flexibility training can help you and reduce your risk of falls. 
  • Getting a yoga ball can be really helpful - they're cheap to buy and there's lots of things you can do with it regarding balance and coordination. 

    There are lots of sites where you can find exercises for flexibility and balance on a yoga ball. 
  • You should continue to challenge yourself! You should not say 'I'm too old for that'. 

    Play soccer, climb tress, go mountain biking, as these will all help maintain these skills. 
  • Try to stand on one leg when brushing your teeth, or walk on the lines on the sidewalk - do anything to practice your balance. 
  • If you cycle a lot there is a tendency that the back of your thigh will be short, which can give you back pain.

    This is why doing static stretches of the legs regularly can be helpful - even doing it daily where possible. 

    You should be able to feel the stretch, but it should not be painful. 

    You can hold the stretch for 30 seconds, repeating 3 times. 

    Fit it into your daily life - you can do it while watching TV or even while at your desk at work. 
  • You need to stretch your upper body just as much so make sure you also include this. 
  • Mobility before swimming and running is also a good tool to utilise. Doing more active stretching can help at these points

Mental attitude to ageing 

1:17:01 - 

  • Your attitude to ageing is important. If you reach 50 and decide that you can stop taking care of yourself, that is a problem. 
  • Your attitude should be that there is a lot of possibilities left for you and you should therefore do the hard intervals and lift the heavy weights. 
  • It's important not to fall into 'protect yourself' mode, or 'I'm too old of this' mode. 

    This is the direct route to getting old too fast. 
  • Have the attitude that you need to train hard as you did when you were younger, which will keep you on the forefront of fitness. This will keep you young. 
  • Of course you have to take care of yourself because your joints and bones are a little more fragile, but you can still work hard. 
  • The take home message is 'use it or lose it'. 

Rapid fire questions

1:19:17 - 

  • What is your favourite book, blog or resource related to triathlon or endurance sport?
  • ​What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success?
    • My attitude - I have always felt I was 20 years old inside!  
  • ​What do you wish you had known or done differently at some point in your career?
    • I would have liked to coach sooner, and worked with younger athletes when I was younger myself. 

Key takeaways

  • The top 5 challenges for a masters triathletes are:

    Major challenges
    1) A decline in VO2max - this can be tackled with maintaining high intensity workouts.

    2) Loss of strength and muscle mass - this can be tackled with the right kind of strength training. Explosive strength training, high weight low rep. See the Scientific Triathlon strength training programme.

    3) Nutrition - have a periodised carbohydrate intake to ensure you have glycogen on board for training/racing, but lower insulin response in day to day life. Aiming for 2-3g carbs per kg body weight per day. 

    Minor challenges
    4) Losing flexibility, balance and coordination - keep working on it! It's trainable so keep challenging yourself. 

    5) Attitude - it is possible to stay fast or even get faster! Have the right mental attitude. 

Links, resources and contact

Links and resources mentioned

    Connect with Bo Falck Hansen

    Connect with host Mikael Eriksson


    Hi! I'm your host Mikael,

    I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.

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  • On the whole a very reassuring listen, with much of the ground covered fitting with the prevailing advice, such as Joe Friel’s Fast After 50 book.

    On the subject of weight training, Bo’s emphasis on explosive moves seems to correlate with Seb Weber’s advice on how to increase VLaMax, so might it be at odds with Triathlon goals, perhaps?

  • Thank you for this podcast: it was highly relevant and informative.

    I have a comment / query about the carbohydrate recommendations that your guest made.
    I quote: “If you eat something with a high glycemic index, or carbohydrates in general, your body will produce insulin. Insulin is a very efficient way to stop fat oxidisation.
    “This leads to a difficulty: Your optimal performance as an athlete requires that you eat carbohydrates, but the optimal performance for your lifestyle requires you to eat minimal carbohydrates.
    “Therefore, you need to do your carbohydrate intake at certain points in time – periodised carbohydrate intake. This allows your body to have periods of low carb and insulin, so you can burn fat. At other points you will fill the stores so you are ready to compete.”

    With that long quote out of the way, the comment is this: I thought that that the insulin reaction was mostly prompted by high GI foods [rather than carbs in general]. So the advice I’ve always had is to restrict myself to low GI foods. In the case of carbs, this would be whole grains.

    Any now a question: do you think that your guest’s comment is a little too general? That it could be phrased as: ” always try for low GI foods; but when you are ready to compete, fill the stores with carbs”?

    Thanks for all your good work on these podcasts. I’ve become a regular listener.

  • Great discussion. Really like Bo’s solid viewpoints on pretty much everything. He is, however, a bit out of date regarding a couple of things.
    1. There’s no such thing as a non-carbohydrate food, unless you’re going to drink straight olive oil. Even the items he mentions have carbohydrates.
    2. Regarding amino acids & ‘quality protein’, there’s no need to combine plant sources. It’s been shown that the body stores AA’s for use at a later time to use as necessary. Also, just because a plant source has a lower percentage of certain AA’s doesn’t make it lower quality. In fact, plant sources are often more absorbable by the body, and they come packed with more nutrients that the body needs in order to recover and build.

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