Even though science suggests that, on average, our physical performance decreases significantly year to year after age 40, you do not need to be average.
Sure, if you have been performing in a sport like running at a very high or elite level for many years, you may experience a decline in your speed or more nagging pains than when you were under 40. As we get older, time away from training causes more rapid muscle deconditioning and further setbacks than when we were younger. However, if you are just picking up a sport or trying a couch to 5K, you can definitely improve your speed and your health at any age. It’s all relative, but we must shoot for improvement continuously to keep Father Time from catching up with us.
Age Is a Little More Than a Number
I’d like to say that age is just a number and we should just imagine ourselves as being 29 until we are 80. That’s great for our minds, but doesn’t always work for our bodies. We should always keep our real age in the back of our minds, as it helps us to be proactive in avoiding both injury and losing valuable time away from the activities we love.
A number of biological changes that occur as we age can affect our training for performance.
- First, levels of anabolic hormones like estrogen, testosterone and growth hormone start to drop. This makes it more difficult to recover from catabolic states like high-intensity training.
- Second, we become less sensitive to the recovery effects provided by our food. That is, we become less sensitive to the branched chain amino acid leucine that turns on muscle protein synthesis to maintain muscle mass and metabolic currency. (Read my book “The Leucine Factor Diet” for more information.)
- Third, our tendons, ligaments and cartilage become more prone to injury over time. This could be due to chronic overuse or just due to aging and the lack of stimulation by anabolic hormones.
Six Tips for Top Performance After Age 40
In order to keep training after age 40 and beyond, we need to take some considerations in mind.
- Have regular follow-ups with your physician. After 40, we really should have a good physical exam and comprehensive blood work each year. Make sure your lipids are healthy. Even though you may work out every day, your cholesterol and triglycerides could be affected by your genetics, which may mean you need to be more aggressive in preventing cardiovascular disease. If you are struggling to recover from training or having recurrent or chronic injuries, you may need an in-depth hormonal evaluation.
- Increase the quality of protein in your diet. All proteins aren’t created equal. Whey protein has 30 percent more leucine than soy protein. Beef has more leucine than tofu or nuts. Since we become less sensitive to leucine as we age, we need more leucine in our meals to respond to build or maintain tissues like muscle. Consider adding a protein supplement like whey isolate to your diet. Try adding some to your breakfast and then immediately to a meal after your training. Consider a five meal-a-day diet that delivers the leucine your body can use every three hours.
- Add stretching, balance and core training to your routine. Since our tissues become more brittle and our balance suffers with age, we should work on stretching, proprioception, balance, agility and core strength to avoid injury. One of the best ways to do this is to take yoga and/or Pilates classes. You can see a physical therapist for more specific exercises and diagnostic evaluations of your movement patterns. For instance, finding a physical therapist familiar with running technique and gait analysis can be essential to aging gracefully for avid road-runners.
- Change things up. Variety is the spice of life. First, change up your training intensity day to day and week to week. Going all out all of the time is a perfect set up for overtraining syndrome and injury. The “terrible toos” can also lead to injury: doing too much, too soon, too often. Recovery is the key to success. Proper nutrition, sleep and cross training are needed to let muscle groups and joints recover from day to day. If you feel pain in a joint, don’t stop moving all together; train around it to work core, flexibility and other non-painful muscle groups.
- Protect your foundation. As we age, our bodies are more affected by impact. Add cushioning and rigid support for your feet. Prevent problems common to the aging athlete like plantar fasciitis, knee and hip pain, and low back pain. Avoid these by using more supportive athletic shoes. Consider adding a custom orthotic for even more individualized support.
- Listen to your body. As we age, we need to be a little more cautious that certain pains are ones we shouldn’t blow off. The tendency to mask pain with anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen or naproxen only promotes the “terrible toos.” If you experience sudden unexplained pain or persistent numbness, tingling or burning; have unexplained weight loss or gain; or painful or unstable clicking, popping or locking in joints, see your physician. Note: This list is not inclusive of all the red flags of disease or injury; when in doubt, get it checked out.
Don’t be afraid of aging — 40 is the new 30, and we can still age with grace like a fine wine. We need to strive to be better than we were yesterday.