Is 60 the New 30 in Endurance Sports?

Endurance sport legend Mike Trees provides his guidance on the effects of age and fitness in triathlon

AgeGrouper Mike Trees triathlon endurance

You can try to control many aspects of life but one that remains untouchable is time. However, the effects of time and aging are surprisingly misunderstood when it comes to endurance sports.  

Few know this better than coach (NRG Coaching) and all around elite endurance athlete, Mike Trees @run.nrg. As a runner, Trees competed at Britain’s top sports University, Loughborough. He went on to race and coach all over the world, most recently in Japan. After 15 years racing as a professional triathlete, Trees eventually took up coaching triathlon and has coached Olympians and world champions, as well as National level and top amateurs.

We had a chance to get his thoughts on aging in triathlon and the effects it has on performance. You’ll see, 60 is the new 30.

AG: Do you think there is this misconception about age and fitness potential in endurance sports? 

The misconception about age is that many people accept that as we get older, we get slower; so in my view, they let themselves get older and slower before their time. Yes, we do get slower as we age, but too many people use it as an excuse to get lazy.

The oldest finisher at the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii was in his 80s and the men’s marathon best is now under 2:30 for a 60 year old. This year, my good friend Cam Brown will become the first male pro triathlete in his 50s.

It takes about 10 years to reach your peak in sports, so for people starting in their 30s or 40s this means that they have many years of advancement ahead of them.

AG: How much of the general public do you feel is near their maximum fitness potential for their current age?

Very, very few. Our body sets its limiter so far below our limit. This is to protect our vital organs. One or two athletes have the ability to override our body’s safety mechanisms but most of us, including me, stop short of our physical limits.

The performance regression from age is much more gradual than people think and there are things you can do to slow the process to some degree.

AG: What are the biological effects that age has on fitness performance and how quickly does deterioration occur? 

We lose about one percent of our VO2 Max every year, over the age of 30. This means our aerobic capacity declines as we age. With each passing year, your engine gets smaller, so you will get slower. However, you can combat this process by becoming more efficient and using less energy with each stride. 

Over time, we also lose bone mass and are unable to build up calcium in our bones; thus making us more liable to injury, particularly stress fractures.

We lose muscle mass and flexibility, too. This happens at an alarming rate for men over the age of 40, and slightly older for women. This means less power, which results in slower speeds.

AG: What training exercise most directly impacts and mitigates those biological changes?

Strength and conditioning is by far the most important. 

A research study done on a group of 90 year olds revealed even at that age, they were able to add muscle mass, proving that at any age we can get stronger.

It’s my belief that strength and conditioning can also help to elongate our muscles and help with flexibility and range of movement. It’s the single most important exercise for an older athlete to do.

When adding in strength training, make sure to hit all muscle groups by incorporating full body workouts. As a runner, I particularly like goblet squats, kettlebell swings and lots of core work, including planks, bird dogs and mason twists. My favorite movement is the Romanian Deadlift, which targets the glutes  and is great for increasing hip mobility. 

Combining strength and conditioning with aerobic exercise is the holy grail. This keeps the heart strong and helps with circulation. It may even protect the internal organs. In my view, this is the perfect combination for a long and healthy life. 

So, if we continue to train as we age, we can regain or maintain flexibility and build muscle mass, thus slowing the aging process.

AG: Are PR’s still possible over 50? 

It takes 10 years to reach your peak in one sport. It probably only takes about seven years to reach peak in a second sport, and about five years if it’s your third sport. So if you’re 50, new to running, and have not done much exercise, it’s possible that you can reach your peak at 60. 

I have been running for 50 years and reached my peak between 37 and 42. 

For reference, I ran in the Olympic 10,000m trials in 2004 at age 42. I came in last. However, I ranked 2nd in the world as a pro at Duathlon at the age of 41. My best 10 mile time was run at age 37.

But each year since age 42, I have seen a slow and gradual decline. As I hit 60, there is no way I can set any records unless I start a new sport I have not done before.

I am a big fan of age graded running. It is a way to compare the performance of runners of all ages and genders with one another on a level playing field. You’re given a percentage so that as you age you can compare the percentages year over year.

AG: What’s next for you?

As I get older my times may be getting slower but I try to become more and more efficient. So my age graded percentage gets better, and I am able to keep myself motivated. I think it’s a great technique for anyone that has been running for a long time.

For me, the real goal is about finding something you enjoy doing while keeping fit and active all your life. It’s not just about racing fast. It means living an active life and doing all the things you want to. I may not add years to my life but I fully intend to add life to my years.  

Mike Trees:  @run.nrg