Recovery and the Ageing Athlete


It’s only been in recent weeks that I’ve realising once again just how much age has an impact on training. This is particularly the case when attempting to do sudden increases in training loads, rather than ‘textbook’ incremental amounts.

Of course there are a lot of factors involved. One would be the time frame and/or mesocycles followed. For example, is an athlete trying to go from a sprint-distance training program to a marathon+ program within a few months, and do they have regularly easy weeks to allow the body to both recover and adapt/over-compensate.

Another factor is the age of the athlete. When I first started competing in my late 20s I would regularly hear from fellow club members and friends about various frequent injuries they would pick up, particularly in their 40s and 50s, and the fact they just couldn’t recover from the hard training sessions like they used to. I knew as you get older your times would drop, especially in the shorter distance races. It’s only natural. From what I’d gleaned, age seemed to start having an impact (at least on race times) from anywhere between late 30s to early 40s. But as I mentioned, this was more prominent in the shorter distance races. I have since met and raced against athletes in Ultra running races who can still perform to a high standard in their late 40s and 50s, and even win events and break course records. General loss of muscle mass and drop in maximal heart rate occur the older you get. You can of course work a lot more on strength training and speed drills to counter this, but there is also a greater risk of injury as you get older, and (usually) an increase in recovery time.

Through my mid 30s when I considered I would hit a performance peak (a physical peak, alongside greater experience and knowledge of the sports) I admit I almost felt invincible in what I could achieve. My training was still contained (I wouldn’t for example go over 16hrs/week, unless it involved block cycling) but I was constantly trying to break personal PBs in training or races almost on a daily basis. I felt like there was nothing I couldn’t achieve.

One such period was the summer of 2009. In July I did an 8:58 Ironman. Three weeks later in at the beginning of August I set out to try and break the Double Iron UK record from the year before (21 and half hours to cover 7.6km swim/224 mile bike/52 mile run). Despite a steady sub 2hr swim I picked up a virus during the bike and pulled out during the run. After 10 days recovery I got back into training and at the beginning of September I tried to run the length of Offa’s Dyke (follows the border of England and Wales, around 178 miles in length) on my own with just a small backpack of provisions. Unsurprisingly I didn’t make it, but I did get to 80 miles before my knee popped.
This ‘youthful’ exuberance (although I was 36 at the time) may have been seen by some as asking for trouble, but it’s quite common in ultra-racing terms these days, and I have to admit that I gasp at some of the things my friends and clients are trying to achieve. Ultra-running (distances over marathon) have become increasingly popular in recent years and the bar is being set higher and higher.

My ability to recover during this period of time (up until circa 38 years of age) I considered to be fairly quick. It was rare that I would get injured and the colds and flus I suffered a lot more in my teens and 20s were a lot less common. I am very aware of what my diet should consist of and although I like the occasional treat as much as the next person and have my vices, I’m good at maintaining my race weight. It’s helped that I’ve had a couple of good sponsors over the years who have helped maintain my fitness levels. 9bar provided me with healthy sports bars and some important information on healthy eating for athletes, particularly organic. Eladon, who I’ve been sponsored by for 10 years now, supplied the various pills required to aid recovery and boost athletic performance. More on them in another blog.

When I quit Ironman in 2011 and switched my focus to Ultra running things may have changed. The melanoma in 2012, inguinal hernia in 2013 and a couple of other long-standing injuries and health issues may have been as a result of the increase in running load, may have been as a result of my age, or both. I may have got the melanoma and hernia anyway, whether I ran a lot outdoors or not. Some would say it is my body finally catching up with me.

But I like to think of these things in terms of periods of time. You ride the rough with the smooth, and sometimes those rough journeys can go on for long time. Although I had a run of bad luck in health terms I’ve started 2016 relatively fresh and in very good form, despite now being in my early 40s. I’ve already broken an old 5km PB and from my training data I’m in the best running form I have ever been, at any distance. I decided to drop swimming after the recent Aquathon and cycling is now at a minimum. In my old age I’m finally becoming more sensible with specificity of training, although only by sport, and not by distance.

There are a number of variables that can affect overall athletic performance, but I’ve recently introduced a couple that are not so common. At least you wouldn’t say they are common amongst athletes. One is a food type, prevalent on any shop shelf, and currently undergoing local performance-related trials (one that I may be involved in). I’ve experimented myself in training. It may be circumstantial but my easy paced running is about 30sec/mile quicker than it was a few months ago. If this can be substantiated then I will mention again in another blog.

But going back to recovery and age, with regards to racing fitness I like to think in terms of an equation. The negative variable of (increasing) age can be countered with any number of other positive variables. If you’re unable to increase the amount and/or intensity of training then find other factors that can work in your favour. For instance, improve your flexibility eg yoga, improve your balance eg plyometrics, improve your overall health eg a better ‘diet’ and supplementation, reduce stress in your life and increase rest, etc.

My next race is the Top Grun Ultra on Thurs 12 May. It’s a 6hr run back and forth (1 lap = 3.3 miles) along the Thames tow path with a Top Gun theme (hoping my aviator sunglasses will stay on!). I’ve not run over 30 miles since May 2014, so although I feel good about my form on shorter distances, I have no idea how my body will handle running up to 6hrs. Will be fun all the same.



2 thoughts on “Recovery and the Ageing Athlete

  1. As I’m going through one of those illness periods and getting frustrated. It was good to read this article. Reminds me i haven’t had had any long term injuries since a bad bike accident 10 years ago. More sensible now. back then 3 days out of hospital and same amount of time after having a chest drain removed with broken ribs and shoulder i decided a run was a good idea!!!

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