by Betsy and Bob Youngman
As aging athletes we often hear that, as we age, our recovery from training and racing is diminished and that this lack of recovery accelerates with age. In fact, we have espoused this same mantra here on this site and elsewhere when interacting with masters athletes. But there was always something unsettling to us about that: neither of us actually felt that “diminished” recovery, even now that we are well into our 60’s. Our recovery from training and racing is similar to that when we were young, pink-lunged elite endurance athletes aspiring to excellence at national and international races. Why is it that we feel this way and why is our recovery essentially unchanged with age? And why is this in such contrast to many of the published articles on the topic, the recommendations of “experts,” and the personal observations of many masters athletes?
Not having fully investigated the body of research on this topic, we thought it worthwhile to take a look and critically analyze the available data and the concepts being put forth that support diminished recovery in aging athletes. What we found is, (and as is often the case in the field of experimental physiology) very weak data and many unfounded conclusions – some that have been promulgated through the years and that have led to the current general acceptance of diminished recovery in aging athletes. What we also found was significant, strong, data that the sub-population of aging athletes (and even just physically active aging populations) show no evidence for diminished physiologic recovery in response to training stimuli.
In the remainder of this article we will critically review the work on this topic, provide some guidance on how to interpret the available data, and suggest some preliminary alternative hypotheses that are in alignment with the reality of a very diminished “diminished recovery” paradigm for aging athletes. But first, a few thoughts about stress.
stress is stress, no matter the origin
Stress is critical to development, whether it be physiological, emotional, or intellectual in origin. The response of the human body to these stressors allows for adaptations that typically lead to incremental increases in physical ability, emotional resilience, and enhanced thought platforms, respectively. However, these adaptations will only occur if the challenge presented by the stress is less than some critical value defining physical, emotional, or intellectual breakdown for the individual and, importantly, that we allow for recovery from the substantial work required to accommodate the applied stressors. One must also ensure that further stress, applied later, can be similarly accommodated. This leads to the well-known simple equation:
STRESS + REST = GROWTH
Generally, motivated athletes are very good at applying physiologic stress. We enjoy the challenge of the workout and the physical and mental satisfaction of completing a training session and building our abilities towards a goal.
What many athletes are not good at is ensuring sufficient rest in advance of planned workout sessions. Other elements of our lives often interfere with necessary rest and limit our capacity to fully recover prior to the next scheduled training session. In addition, the “more is better” mindset can invade our psyche and athletes can slowly (but surely will) follow a path to serial over-reaching and the associated negative consequences (increased tiredness, depressed heart rates, irritability, “bad” workouts, and eventually breakdown). Extreme cases of this lead to over-training and, often, the end of athletic careers. The importance of rest can not be overemphasized.
Getting back to stress, it’s important to point out that stress is stress, no matter the origin. Although, as athletes, we focus on physiological stress (our workout sessions), we also must be cognizant of any other stressors in our lives, be it emotional, intellectual, societal (e.g. family and friends), or atmospheric (e.g. weather and air quality). Some of these stressors can lead to increased secretion of “stress hormones” like epinephrine and cortisol that, when chronic, produce secondary physiologic stress which is in addition to any primary physiologic stress from the training load. Such chronic stresses keep what is known as the “HPA axis” persistently active at a low levels. The “HPA axis” is the system consisting of the hypothalamus in the brain, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands that work together to signal the body to produce both epinephrine and cortisol in “fight or flight” situations.
All of these stressors – training load, emotional load, intellectual load, and other things that add stress to our lives – add together and lead to a net total stress that must be accommodated by appropriate rest in order for growth to occur.
stress in young vs. masters athletes
When thinking about the typical life of a young, committed, athlete, it is clear that indirect (secondary) physiological stressors are limited when compared to a typical masters athlete. Such young athletes will often have focused their lives on athletic goals as the primary driver of their existence and therefore have limited most extramural activities to very minimal levels. This naturally results in lower levels of net total stress that will help allow an athlete the capacity to engage in challenging training regimens and ensure full recovery between training sessions and therefore maximize one’s growth potential. (Note: indirect (secondary) physiological stress can be significant for some young athletes depending on their individual situation: funding concerns, significant travel, family objections, etc. and this often plays a role in success.)
The situation for the typical masters athlete is quite different. Usually a full-time job is occupying a large fraction of available time and can bring with it significant emotional, intellectual, societal, and physical stress, all of which can lead to secondary physiologic stress. In addition, many masters athletes have active (and often growing) families that add significant additional stress and time constraints to their lives. And, importantly, motivational drivers typically change for masters athletes from a primary (almost singular) focus on athletic performance to a larger spectrum of drivers associated with other important elements of a masters athlete’s life, such as career advancement, parenting, and hobbies, among others.
The “bigger” your life, the “bigger” the stress. Professional athletes are acutely aware of this and often become “monastic” about their training and recovery, with extremely limited outside interests and activities. Most masters athletes do not have (nor do many want) this level of singular focus and will therefore need to deal with all of the consequences of an active “big” life that comes with a career, a family, and athletic pursuit. The additional (secondary physiologic) stress for masters athletes is important to consider when comparing younger athletes to masters athletes. A masters athlete will typically have a much larger “baseline” stress level relative to a younger, committed athlete or professional. This “baseline” (secondary physiological) stress is additive to any further primary physiologic stress from training. Therefore a masters athlete will likely need more rest than a younger athlete for an equivalent training session load.
This is the origin of the “myth” of diminished recovery for aging athletes. As will be discussed below, published studies and data support that there are only very small differences in physiologic recovery from training stimuli between young and old athletes. The real difference in our opinion, and the difference that many masters athletes feel, lies in the secondary physiologic stress that a typical aging athlete experiences. This is true for a “typical” aging athlete, but not for all aging athletes.
What this means is that, with a lifestyle situation that minimizes the net total stress in one’s life, some masters athletes could be able to execute upon and recover from even elite-level endurance training. A masters athlete will never become as fast as the elite athletes (the reason for this is the subject of a separate forthcoming article), but one could potentially train in a similar manner and therefore see the same relative level of increases in endurance, race pace, and skill. So don’t let a bunch of unfounded “folklore” prevent you from aspiring to challenging training and racing experiences. You will likely have to make some changes to your life environment, but if athletic performance is an important part of your life then the sacrifice of targeted reductions in “big” life activities will be worth the effort and lead to accomplishment, reward, and satisfaction. These “life reductions” typically become much more feasible as one ‘ages-out’ of the high-time and emotional commitment years during child-rearing and career-building. This is when an aging athlete will have much more flexibility to “rearrange” aspects of their lives as careers and other responsibilities can naturally evolve to a less structured and driven environment. This is also a great time, if one is so inclined, to consider putting additional focus on one’s athletic pursuits. Engaging with a coach is recommended to ensure that proper progressive cardio, strength, and plyometric load increases are adhered to.
Note: One of the distinguishing characteristics of professional/elite endurance athletes is the ability to functionally absorb prodigious amounts of training. Not all aspiring athletes will have this ability and pursuit of elite-level training regimens as a masters athlete could be a recipe for over-training and disappointment. It is best to work with an experienced coach and develop a personal training program that is well recorded and monitored. Approaching elite-level training volumes and intensity is, obviously, extremely challenging and will be possible only for a small fraction of aging athletes, just as such training levels are possible only for a small fraction of young athletes.
The “science” of recovery for aging athletes
One of the basic concepts put forth in attempts to explain observed diminished recovery in aging athletes is something called “anabolic resistance.” Muscle remodeling (building/repair of muscle) is controlled by the dynamic balance between muscle protein breakdown (MPB) and muscle protein synthesis (MPS). “Anabolic resistance” is proposed as a physiologic process by which an aging individual exhibits reduced muscle protein synthesis (MPS) per unit of physical activity and/or nutrition (primarily protein) intake. The imbalance in MPB and MPS can yield both positive and negative net protein balance (NPB). In response to training stimuli, positive values of NPB lead to muscle building and repair whereas negative values will result in loss of muscle and deficient muscle repair. The concept of “anabolic resistance” is based on the assertion that, as one ages, the native ability of the body to respond to physical activity and complimentary nutrition intake to produce new/repaired muscle tissue is reduced. For the aging athlete, this means that for the same training stimulus, a smaller amount of muscle mass (relative to a younger individual) will be evident and, importantly, less muscle repair will be experienced. With a lack of muscle repair, an athlete will potentially not fully recover from a training stimulus before the next scheduled session and this is what has been proposed as the basis for an aging athlete’s reported “diminished” physiologic recovery. But do the data support this thesis?
The answer to the question above is NO. For athletes, and anyone who habitually exercises on a regular (approximately daily) basis, the data clearly show no difference in MPS between old and young subjects provided sufficient nutrition is habitually consumed. One of the issues with the research in this area is that the populations of subjects that have been studied are not representative of aging athletes, competitive masters athletes, and, importantly, not representative of “elite-level” masters athletes. Given data on aging athletes (and not general populations of aging individuals) it is found that there exists significant overlap between young and old subjects in many factors that are known to be indicative of whole body function (e.g. VO2max) and therefore MPS and positive NPB. Additional studies in this area where properly selected subjects that represent committed masters athletes that regularly compete at a high level are needed, however, currently available data indicate that physiologic recovery from properly dosed training stimuli are not generally compromised in aging athletes. Other processes may be affecting the overall response of these athletes to training, but the fundamental process of MPS/muscle repair is not significantly diminished*.
There are data that suggest, in sports that induce muscle damage (e.g. running or other high-impact sports), that muscle damage recovery is slower in masters athletes than that observed in younger athletes. As is usual, the studied population sizes are small and often do not include “elite-level” masters. It is proposed in these studies that the observed diminished MPS rate is insufficient for masters athletes to fully recover prior to subsequent training sessions in these high-impact sports.
Cross country skiing, for example, has historically been considered a low-impact sport, and it is low impact for the lower body muscle groups. However, the increased use of double poling in classic skiing, as well as the development of poling technique and dependence thereon in freestyle skiing, has changed this, at least for the upper body musculature. Modern double poling technique in skiing on groomed snow and roller skiing on pavement is clearly a high impact activity. We can attest to there being no issue with upper body muscle recovery rates in our skiing and roller skiing even when we (often) do double pole-specific interval and endurance workouts and after classic races and time trials where we have double-poled the entire race on hilly terrain (including World Cup homologized courses). We have similar results with trail and mountain running (and the associated lower body muscle groups), an activity that is dominant in our “dryland” training for cross country skiing. So our experience stands separate from the studies noted above and, based on interactions with other masters athletes, we expect this to be true for at least some (as yet undefined) sub-population of masters athletes. Large longitudinal studies of postprandial MPS are needed to further understand the variation in MPS as a function of age across the masters athlete population (including “elite-level” masters). The small cross-sectional studies of MPS in masters athletes that are currently available do not provide sufficient statistical power for any sort of meaningful conclusive statements for such effect sizes. Our personal observations and input from other masters athletes indicates to us that it is likely that the “diminished” recovery reported in numerous studies of masters athletes is a result of the selected population in the studies and cannot be uniformly applied across the entire masters athlete population, and particularly not for “elite-level” masters athletes.
*Note: There are studies that suggest that type II MPS is compromised in aging populations. This important observation will be addressed in a separate forthcoming article about power and speed declines in masters athletes.
Again, stress is stress
So why do so many aging athletes claim that they “just cannot recover like they used to” or that they cannot support structured training volumes similar to when they were young? We propose that this response is due to secondary physiologic stress; those stresses described above that, although negatively impactful on overall response to training stimuli, are not due to a diminished physiologic process but rather are due to other lifestyle realities (full-time job, family responsibility, mental/emotional issues, etc.) that can lead to non-optimal or even low-quality sleep as well as other parasympathetic system deficiencies. Dealing with these additional stresses places a greater burden on one’s ability to fully recover from training because the “baseline stress” level is high and the training stress/recovery required to successfully compete at a high level is not achievable or results in chronic over-reaching (and eventually over-training). No one can support chronic over-reaching and perform well at events.
Addressing one’s lifestyle in the context of athletic goals is a very important process for an aging athlete to attend to, particularly if one wishes to perform at high levels of achievement nationally and internationally. Just as the younger skier is making difficult choices on what lifestyle activities are appropriate or sustainable given certain athletic goals, the master skier must also make such difficult choices and sacrifices to optimize training and maximize performance at events.
goal alignment with life and physiologic stresses
Approaching your athletic goals within a process that accounts for the reality of your chosen lifestyle will lead to an achievement level that is well-aligned to what you can actually do, not necessarily what you could potentially do. Unfortunately, many aging athletes have goals that are just not consistent with their other lifestyle choices and this will clearly lead to disappointment. This also applies to young athletes as well.
An assessment of your lifestyle realities (e.g. job, family, etc.) along with addressing and reducing those aspects that lead to high “baseline” stress will allow you, as a masters athlete, to minimize the net total stress that you experience and therefore optimize your training and recovery for the achievement of whatever your well-aligned athletic goals may be. The realization that one’s “lack of recovery” is not an inevitable product of aging, but is something that we have significant control over is the first step toward achieving athletic success as a competitive masters athlete, however you choose define it.
Train well, be well!