I spent a couple of days last week being a member of the “worried well.” During a routine check up, my doctor became concerned at my low resting heart rate and sent me off for an ECG and blood tests.  She thought it might be a sign of an underlying heart problem, despite my protestations that it was because I am fit for my age. Thankfully the ECG came back normal, and I was very relieved.  So since then I’ve been reading up on the effects of ageing and the physiology of older athletes.

What have I learned?  As always, the research confirms the obvious; as we get older we get slower, weaker and less fit.  It takes longer to recover from exercise and the risk of some types of injury increase as muscles weaken and bones become brittle.  I also discovered that researchers have learned a lot from studying masters athletes, because this helps them untangle two confounding factors – the process of ageing, and the fact that most people become more sedentary as they age.  Because Masters athletes are not sedentary and in many sports there are performance records at different ages, it’s possible to isolate and identify the performance effects of ageing.

The good news is that the effects of ageing are not fixed, and the right sort of training can slow down the inevitable decline in performance.   It seems that performance in sprint and power sports declines less than endurance events with age, which I found surprising.  Reassuring for a slalom paddler!  In fact the ageing impact on the physiological determinants of slalom are nearly all positively impacted by training.

Here’s what the research is saying about ageing:

High intensity training 

A key performance factors is VO2 max, the maximum ability of an individual to take in and use oxygen.  This normally declines by about 1% per year after the mid twenties, but interval training with short, intense bursts of effort slows down the natural decline.  This is more effective than long, slow distance at lower intensity. High intensity training also helps the body’s cells to produce short bursts of energy – again a factor that normally declines with age.

Strength training

One effect of ageing is a decline in muscle mass, which is why older people simply aren’t as strong as youngsters. Fortunately, there’s ample evidence that strength training helps to maintain muscle mass and muscle glycogen levels (which allows the muscles to work hard).  Weight training is also helpful in maintaining bone density, so all the more reason to get into the gym regularly.

Heart rate

The only ageing and performance factor that can’t be changed by training is maximal heart rate.  No matter what we do, the heart’s maximal rate declines with age.  Training helps sustain the volume of blood pumped with each heart beat, but because an ageing heart simply can’t beat as fast, older athletes can’t sustain the same volume and intensity of training.  I’ve certainly noticed this already! My own experience also shows the need for more recovery sessions, stretching and core work.

All this is great news because it’s in keeping with good practice for slalom training for athletes of any age.  Because slalom is a highly technical sport, training needs to be highly specific, much of it at the same speed as racing.  So doing plenty of short, intense whitewater courses hits all the marks for technique and countering the negatives of ageing.  Strength training in the gym also plays an important role, because it allows a muscular overload that can’t easily be achieved on the water.

The other big benefits of exercise as we age are the positive impact on mood and cognitive functioning.  Older people who exercise, feel better and think more clearly than those who don’t.

What’s your experience of maintaining physical training as you’ve got older?  What works, what doesn’t?  Comment here or on the  Facebook page