Age Is Irrelevant When It Comes to Fitness
“There is reason to believe that the major contributor to the performance decline in athletes as they get older is nurture, with nature playing a smaller role.”
By Nick Heil, Outside Magazine
In February 2015, 59-year-old Ned Overend, aka “The Lung,” aka “Deadly Nedly,” won the first National Fatbike Championships, held in Ogden, Utah. Fat Bike Nats isn’t exactly the Tour de France, but it’s no charity ride, either. Overend had to compete against a field of much younger pros, including former national mountain bike champion Travis Brown, 46, on a tough 19-mile course.
It’s tempting to dismiss Overend as a genetic freak, an outlier who defies comparison with the rest of us. He has dominated nearly every sport he’s entered since the early ’90s, from cross-country mountain bike racing to off-road triathlon. But even among the genetically gifted—and many elite athletes are—Overend is unique in his competitive longevity. Which is the reason he’s also one of the dozen or so athletes spotlighted in Joe Friel’s book, Fast After 50 (Velo Press), part of a growing library devoted to salt-and-pepper chargers past (and occasionally well past) the half-century mark.
I recently spent a few weeks immersed in Fast After 50, along with a few other books on the topic, including Margaret Webb’s Older, Faster, Stronger, Lee Bergquist’s Second Wind, and Bill Gifford’s excellent and entertaining Spring Chicken. My interest was both professional and personal. I was staring down the gun barrel at 50, the ominous milestone, just a year and change away. Should I prepare to surrender to backgammon and bocce, or was there still hope for my lifelong addiction to biking, skiing, climbing and other outdoor activities and races?
While all the books were informative, and even inspirational, chronicling many aging athletes who still excelled at their respective sports, Friel’s was the only one dedicated to mapping out a plan of action. A few years ago, Friel, 71, author of the classic Training Bible series and one of the most respected figures in endurance coaching, noticed that his own power on the bike was fading. His training group, which varied from young to old, routinely started dropping him on climbs, which had been rare in the past. Compelled to see if science offered any solutions, he dove into the research literature, which was limited but enlightening. Were there ways to beat time, the ultimate foe?
The news, it turns out, is good & bad. Good, because, yes, there are ways to fight the fade. Even if you can’t quite turn back the clock, you can actually slow it considerably and maintain a high level of performance deep into your sunset years. The bad news is that senescence—aging—remains, for now at least, inexorable, and effectively battling it requires diligence and work.
Friel lays out the science before launching into his trademark blueprint for sustaining, and even improving, high-end performance through your 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond. The main factors that conspire against you are declining aerobic capacity, more body fat, shrinking muscles, and decreased mobility—the four horsemen of the fitness apocalypse, deterioration that accelerates as you get older.
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