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?
- 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.