Age & Athletes


More than once in the past few months I’ve felt a sense of terror and awe. Athletes like Terrell Owens leave me in awe. At 46 years old, he runs faster than I have ever dreamed of running. Moments of terror come when I’ve felt the need to pray for the soul of a stranger because they were in imminent danger. One of those times was the exact moment I saw footage of Mike Tyson hitting the pads again at 53. All this before announcing he’s looking to fight again. I sat there in disbelief. Desperately praying for whatever gullible fool is stupid enough to get in the ring with MIKE TYSON. No word of a lie he STILL looks like a straight killer.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise to me. After all we’re talking about a former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. I witnessed first hand my kickboxing coach who at 56 would pull off moves in training with a ferocious intensity and skill level guys half his age (including myself) struggled to keep up with. It’s a sobering experience watching a punch or kick fly inches past your face and all you can think is ” what the **** were you like when you were my age?”

Yesterday I woke up to videos of former NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens training and racing with current NFL wide receiver Tyreek Hill. Terrell Owens ran the 40 yard dash in 4.47, and Hill ran it in 4.37.  Why is this worth mentioning? Well, Terrell Owens is retired and is 46 years old, Tyreek on the other hand is 26, is the fastest receiver currently playing in the NFL and is nicknamed “CHEETAH”.

Athletes and regular people too are suddenly not the same athletes they used to be when they reach a certain age. This story is not a new one. Muhammad Ali once said this to Howard Cosell

” And you’re always talking about, ‘Muhammad, you’re not the same man you were 10 years ago.’ Well, I asked your wife, and she told me you’re not the same man you was two years ago!

Clearly it even happens to the greatest among us. Yet I’ve personally had clients in their 60’s do 100km bike rides, weekly whilst holding down a job as the CEO of a global company. My aforementioned coach would still do serious damage as a fighter in his (then) 50’s. At the truly elite level we have a long list of examples, Terrell Owens, Mike Tyson, Tom Brady won a Super Bowl in his 40’s. LeBron is still the best in the world in year 17. Serena Williams won a grand slam at 35 whilst she was PREGNANT! (To be fair, that last one is godlike behaviour never to be repeated). You get my point. Ordinary people are doing extraordinary athletic things later on in life.

“I’m old” that’s what you’ll probably hear someone say when they’re a certain age and have let themselves go. A lack of motivation, managing kids’ schedules and busy work demands, men and women generally have a trifecta of reasons that all end up with the same consequence, less time available to devote to training. OR Is there a physiological reason people in their mid-40’s are no longer able to compete in most sports. Is the body really changing so much through the years that it makes world-class performance less possible? Assuming you’re not going off the wall like Mike Tyson did when he was going through his “HANGOVER” phase.

As we get older our bodies get less efficient at using oxygen. Now, seeing as using oxygen is the way we stay alive this fact is hugely problematic, and not just for competitive athletes and weekend warriors. Generally speaking, a persons VO2max tends to decline by about 10% per decade after the age of 30. Athletes who continue to compete and train hard can reduce the drop by about half, to 5% per decade after the age of 30. VO2max is a predictor of endurance performance across ages. VO2max is a numerical value that describes how much oxygen your body can use per kilogram of body weight. The higher the VO2max, the more “aerobically fit” a person is. Meaning, they can do more endurance work for their body weight.

Additionally researchers have shown that the ability of your muscles to efficiently utilise the oxygen they do get relative to a given workload doesn’t really change even as late in life as your 60’s and 70’s. The amount of oxygen delivered to muscles is the major variable that noticeably goes down as we age. Which means:

Training efficiently reduces the effects of ageing by about 50%. A proper training programme is better at this anti-ageing lark than Oil of Olay could ever be.

If you’re like Mike Tyson and Terrell Owens does this apply to you as well. Not so much. For competitive athletes over the age of 40 in Boxing, NFL, Football, Basketball etc performance drops much more quickly than it does for endurance athletes such as runners, swimmers and cyclists. The most likely reason is because these sports draw on type II muscle fibres (called “fast-twitch” muscles) to produce strength and power. Research indicates that these cells decline in number and function with age. This absolute medical fact is why what Mike Tyson and TO are doing is even more remarkable.

Do you remember your last hangover? However much you drank that night before, I would bet every penny I had that at one point in your life you could drink the same amount and wake up the next morning like nothing happened. You’re not alone. As they age, many athletes complain that their ability to recover from hard training sessions diminishes. To get better at anything in training, your body needs to be outside of your comfort zone. You need progressive overload to break your muscles down and build them back up stronger again. With a lot of types of training, that sort of progressive overload needs proper time to recover to fully reap the benefits.

Older athletes need longer to recover and adapt to any training to fully maximise recovery. So whilst workout intensity may not necessarily need to change, workout planning definitely needs to change with age. Recovering from injuries and the cumulative effects of hard hits in training becomes the limiting factor in continuing to compete at the highest level. Or in the case of regular folks, compete at any level. Experiencing more training-associated injuries leads to reduced training intensity and volume, and consequently poorer performance come game day.

Athletes that are highly fit but accumulating a lot of fatigue will perform worse and sustain more injuries. Understanding this reality is critical. Load management is now a thing in basketball and it’s not going away. Squad rotation in football has been a thing for 20 years. Now we have different technologies to monitor athlete training loads and look for signs they might need more rest. I personally use a WHOOP strap, which tracks your HRV (Heart rate variability) to gauge your recovery level. This is a great article about HRV and how it works.

An emphasis on “active recovery” strategies (an easy run or swim on your rest days) and improved sleeping habits are important for athletes of all ages, but become essential for older athletes. Cross-training, such as combining weightlifting and yoga, can help to maintain muscle mass and flexibility, and reduce overuse injuries. In turn, this can help maintain the intensity and volume of training of all athletes.

Performance decline isn’t just about physical changes, however. As we age, our intrinsic motivation to train diminishes. Even in athletes, the motivation to train may shift somewhat from setting personal records to remaining active and healthy. And that’s a great motivation for any athlete at any age.

Although all athletes will eventually lose the age versus performance race. Mike Tyson and Terrell Owens are still fighting the good fight but as the old cliche goes father time is undefeated. However, by “training smarter, not harder,” athletes can reduce the chances of injuries, maximise gains from training and minimise the effects of ageing. I’m convinced we will see more athletes in their 40’s stay competitive at the highest levels of sport. Heck, if Sister Madonna Buder is still running triathlons and Ironman competitions in her 80’s, you’ve got no excuse.

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