Podcast, Science, Training

Masters Athletes: How to minimize the performance decline for aging triathletes | EP#20

 May 6, 2017

By  Mikael Eriksson

Masters Athletes: How to minimize the performance decline for aging triathletes | EP#20

Let's face it, at some point in your triathlon career, you will face an inevitable decline in endurance performance due to age.

But how big a decline it is and at what point it happens is in your control to a much greater extent than you may think. Today we discuss just how you can minimize that performance decline as a masters triathlete.

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • What are typical endurance performance changes for masters athletes?
  • What are the main physiological and non-physiological reasons for these reductions in performance?
  • What should you do and what should you not do to counteract these changes?
  • Endurance training, strength training, nutrition and hydration for masters triathletes.


What are the actual performance declines and their underlying physiological reasons?​

07:16 -

Key takeaways

  • Endurance performance is primarily dependent on VO2max, anaerobic threshold (as a percentage of VO2max), and economy (oxygen cost of endurance performance)
  • Of these three, by far the most important reason for declining performance with age is a reduction in VO2max.
  • This is partially inevitable due to a decrease in maximum heart rate.
  • However, the decline can be slowed down significantly with the right kind of training.
  • Another very important physiological reason for the decline in endurance performance with age is a reduction in lean muscle mass.
  • Basically, in endurance sports, peak performance is maintained until about 35 years of age. There is obviously a broad spectrum and range but we are generalizing here. Then there's a modest decrease until 50 to 60 years of age but progressively steeper declines after that.​
  • There is data from the Ironman World Championships that shows that the performance declines are less pronounced in biking compared to swimming and running.
  • The physiological reasons for these declines, let us just quickly repeat what determines endurance performance.
  • So we have, VO2max, which is maximum aerobic capacity, which is how well you can uptake oxygen in your lungs and how well your muscles can utilize that oxygen.
  • Then there is the anaerobic threshold or lactate threshold which is where the blood lactate starts to accumulate and increase and that is a very important determinant of endurance performance.
  • Then we have economy which is basically the oxygen cost of endurance. Let us say you are running and you are running the same pace as your friend but he is a more economical runner so he is actually using less oxygen than you are even if you are the same weight. Weight plays a role here but VO2max takes weight into account intrinsically so the exercise economy is basically like a car running on fuel and another car that needs more fuel to go the exact same distance at the exact same speed. So that is the same with endurance.
  • When endurance performance declines with age, there is no reduction in exercise economy compared to when you were younger and there is a small reduction in lactate threshold. So that is the intensity at which blood lactate concentration increases significantly but the main contributor to this decrease in performance is the decrease in VO2max.
  • The reduction in VO2max is around about, if you maintain your training regime, it can be as small as five percent per decade which is still significant but in a sedentary population it will be ten percent per decade. So just by keeping up with your training, volume and intensity wise, it doesn’t have to be the exact same but basically maintaining your training as best as you can, it will be reduced by as much as half the reduction of VO2max. So that is the main point that I will get to shortly when it comes to non-physiological reasons.
  • The VO2max will decrease no matter how you train and the main reason is that your maximum heart rate will inevitably decrease with age and there is nothing you can do about that really. Approximately one beat per year is taken as the average reduction in maximum heart rate.
  • The other physiological reasons for the decline in endurance performance for masters athletes includes stroke volume of your heart, which is how much blood it can pump in one single stroke, active muscle mass reduction which is basically reduction in lean muscle mass in your body, reduction in type II muscle size, slow twitch muscle fiber size and total blood volume.
  • A few more points on the physiological side of things are the reduction of both slow and fast twitch fibers with age, but the loss of fast twitch fibers is greater so your percentage of slow twitch fibers will actually be greater as you age. So although there is a reduction in the absolute amount of muscle mass, you will be more geared to perform well in long distance events with age.
  • Another thing to keep in mind on the muscle mass side of things is that women tend to lose lean muscle mass faster than men, especially post-menopausal women. This is when the estrogen levels in the body starts to be reduced and this causes a cascade of effects in the body that really reduces the lean muscle mass maintenance and protein synthesis that promotes muscle mass maintenance. There have been studies that show that post-menopausal women who are on estrogen replacement therapy the amount of growth hormone that is released is increased which in turn stimulates that protein synthesis so they maintain muscle mass significantly better than women who are not on estrogen replacement therapy. In summary, there are hormonal differences between men and women that cause women, in general, to lose muscle mass faster than men.
  • Finally, and this is an interesting thing that I had absolutely no idea about and I just found out when I was researching and preparing for recording this episode. This potentially contributes to decline in athletic performance because it can impact training on how well training is performed and also racing. Masters athletes tend to not be able to drink to thirst as well as young athletes. Water output by the kidneys is greater and individuals become less sensitive to their thirst mechanism. Those two work together so you really need to basically stay on top of hydration and not just rely on thirst because you are not retaining as much water as you used to and your thirst mechanism may not work as well as it used to. So staying on top of that and being aware of how you are hydrating is really critical. This is something that I am so happy that people have asked me this question so that I had to record this episode because this is mind blowing. I did not know this but this is really important so this is something that I will definitely pass on to my athletes.


Non physiological reasons for the reduction in endurance performance for masters athletes.

15:23 -

  • Simply put, it is training. The reduction in performance is associated most closely with direct reduction in exercise volume and intensity. This is probably a consequence of a number of changes in physical and behavioural factors. For example, increased prevalence to injuries for masters athletes and the reduction in energy and perhaps time and motivation to train and a lot of social obligations.​
  • Just to be clear, this is based on a lot of research that has been done. It is not just my own opinion, I am just stating what has been proven by science.
  • In one study, they studied 53 highly trained and competitive distance runners when they were young. Then, 22 years later, they classified these runners based on how much they had trained in those 22 years. So basically, if they were highly trained, moderately trained or untrained. They also measured the VO2max when they were young and competitive and when they were older 22 years later. They compared the reductions in VO2max and they were 6%, 10%, 15% lower per decade. The 6% reduction per decade was if you were one of those athletes who trained a lot and still highly fit, 10% if you were training moderately, and 15% if you really let it slip by the wayside. This goes to show that there is a big difference in your VO2max which is the main determinant for reduction in performance as you age and there is a big difference in how it will decrease depending on how you keep up with your training regimen.
  • In summary, a lot of the decline in performance that people see and might think of as age related performance decline may actually be training related. You get out what you put in. If you keep up with your training regimen and making sure that you both have adequate volume and intensity in your training program then your reduction in performance in endurance sports may not be anywhere as big as you would think that it might be. If you take nothing else away from this episode, take that away.​

Key takeaway

The decline in VO2max that you see with age is highly dependent on how well you keep up with your training regimen. In other words, it is in large part training related, not just age related.

What to do as a masters athlete to minimize the reduction in performance

​18:33 -

  • Keep training with adequate volume and intensity. You probably need to put intense sessions further apart than you used to when you were younger to make sure that you get the amount of recovery from intense sessions that you need because that need for recovery increases with age. There is no getting around that. A smart training program and a good coach will do that for you. If you program yourself, just being aware of what your body can handle and making sure that you think about that as you plan your training.​
  • Obviously, a large part of this is about injury prevention because that is the best way for you to maintain your training volume.
  • You should not think about skipping or reducing intense workouts even though they may be a bit fewer or farther between, but you should do them and do them regularly. VO2max intervals are super important to reduce that decline in VO2max. Along with training volume, those VO2max intervals will improve your VO2max or in the case of masters athletes, minimize the decline in VO2max.
  • If in doubt, focus on quality of training rather than quantity. You can try to be smart about it and keep increasing the cycling training volume and reduce running training volume because that is where injuries occur most. Just ensure that you get your quality runs in. This is just one suggestion and I am not saying this is right for everybody.
  • You absolutely should be doing strength training. This is super important both for injury prevention and for maintaining lean muscle mass. Reduction in lean muscle mass in one of the big factors in reduced performance. On the hormonal side of things, strength training is very good for testosterone and estrogen release which is important. This is reduced in masters athletes and affects so many things in the body but we are not going to go into detail now.
  • As I mentioned, I have a strength training program that I am developing right now and we are having testers from the news letter who are going to try it out, so I will keep you posted on that.
  • Also, on I have a core training program that you can sign up for which is completely free.

22:59 -

  • Next on things to do is nutrition. As you age, your metabolic rate will decrease so you can’t eat as much or you will gain fat and your body composition will not be the same as it were. Your proportion of lean muscle mass will be reduced. Make sure that you get the right amount of calories in, not eating too much, obviously not underfueling because that is much worse. Focusing on really high quality food will be the best way to help you do that.
  • There is some evidence that we need greater protein as we age, so increase the amount of proteins slightly. You don’t need to overdo it but it is something to keep in mind. Again it is related to that loss in lean muscle mass.
  • Some vitamins and minerals that you may consider supplementing with or just think about what you eat that in older athletes may be reduced or you may not get an adequate amount of are vitamin D, definitely that is something that I highly recommend that all endurance athletes take as a supplement. Then Vitamin B6 and B12. Vitamin B6 you get from meat, bananas, poultry, fish. Vitamin B12 you get from chicken, beef, fish, milk, and eggs. Dietary calcium, which is very important for bone density and prevention of osteoporosis. This is something that you can get from dairy if you use dairy products, leafy greens and soy products.
  • Then hydration, as we talked about, this is a mind blowing insight for me at least, that you can’t rely on thirst as you age. Think about it, are you hydrating enough during the day and your training sessions? This was actually from a review in the highly esteemed Sports Medicine.

Key takeaways

  • Keep your training volume and intensity at a similar level to where it has been before, but add increased recovery between intense training sessions. If in doubt, choose quality over quantity, especially in running.
  • Do VO2max intervals
  • Lift weights
  • Focus on high quality nutrition and hydration. Increase your protein intake slightly. Realize that you need to reduce your overall calorie intake since your metabolic rate will decrease.

Links and resources

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Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

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