How to Stay Fast After 50

Written by Christopher Kelly

Oct. 12, 2015

Have you ever marvelled over the perpetual fitness of that older guy who somehow is able to mix up it up with athletes half their age? How does that happen? Are they a freak of nature or is there something this athlete is doing to enable a high performance despite the accumulating years?

In his latest book, “Fast After 50,” Professional Performance Coach Joe Friel writes to encourage older athletes that their time of high performance and serious competition doesn’t have to come to an end just because they are aging.

In fact, he believes that by following certain training and lifestyle practices aging athletes can offset the natural declines typical to their age and keep going strong for many years.

The primary determiners of performance decline with age according to sport science:

  • Declining aerobic capacity
  • Increasing body fat
  • Loss of muscle mass

Let’s take a look at what Coach Friel says about the reasons for each of those changes and what can be done to mitigate them. For all three of these it comes down to two basic things: lifestyle and training.

Diminished aerobic capacity doesn’t have to be a given.

A study done in the 1930s [1], and many studies conducted since, have shown that aerobic capacity declines as athletes age.

How high can you get your aerobic capacity? Your VO2max potential is largely dependent on who your parents were. This is a conclusion based on classic research showing that identical twins have nearly identical aerobic capacities [2]. It means you have a genetic ceiling, but don’t get hung up on that--so does everyone. Instead, focus on the task at hand, which is to strive in your training to achieve a VO2max as close to your maximum potential as possible.

How is that accomplished? By high intensity training.

The tendency in athletes is that as they age, they gravitate toward long, slow distance training. Seldom is it intentional, it just happens, even with the best of athletes. That’s a change in training style that dramatically impacts aerobic capacity.

The answer is to go against that natural tendency by doing high intensity interval training.

In other words, doing things that are very intense, very fast, in short intervals. These exercises could be as short as 30 seconds long up to as much as 3 to 4 minutes long, with high intensity and fairly equal recovery time.

Joe suggests at least once a week and perhaps as much as three times a week for athletes on the younger side of the “aging” scale - in their early 50s.

How older athletes can deal with the increase in body fat that naturally occurs.

The aspect of the aging process that causes us to increase in body fat as we age is purely a hormonal change. All people have a hormone called Lipoprotein Lipase (LPL), and its purpose is to help our bodies store fat in the case of starvation.

When we are younger, it’s production is kept in check at least in part by the body’s production of testosterone. But as we age, testosterone production decreases, but LPL does not [3].

One of the main things that can help reduce the accumulation of body fat is to cut down on the consumption of processed foods, which are one of the main culprits that cause our bodies to store excess body fat. Sugar, grains and industrial seed oils are the things to watch out for.

It really is that simple.

When we eat the foods our bodies were intended to consume, we naturally drop the excess body fat.

This goes for older athletes as it would for anyone else.

What causes loss of muscle mass in older athletes and how can it be curbed?

There appears to be no genetic inclinations that cause muscle mass to be lost. So why do older athletes tend to lose muscle? It’s purely because of lifestyle changes.

What does that mean practically? It means as we age we begin to do less things that require the use of our muscles even in everyday tasks. The natural result is that muscle mass (and therefore strength) decreases.

The solution Joe advises is that aging athletes include some sort of strength training in their routines on a regular basis. This could be as simple as going to the gym to do regular weight lifting, especially in the larger muscle groups. You could also avoid the expense of a gym membership by doing bodyweight exercises that accomplish the same thing.

Aging athletes need to do this type of strength training all the time, no matter the training or performance season. But that doesn’t mean they need to do the same exercises throughout the year.

During the first part of a season (the base season) these exercises should mainly be typical strength training (weight training) 2 to 3 times per week. This will ensure that strength and muscle mass is adequate for the activity level of their competitions.

When the active part of their season arrives they can switch to a less intensive strength training routine, perhaps once a week with only 3 primary exercises. This is done to maintain the strength achieved earlier in the season and allow time for performance related training.

Balancing the two categories of strength: Core strength and Performance strength.

Though strength training in general is important for aging athletes, it’s also important to understand and focus on the two different types of strength needed.

With aging, diminished capacities are to be expected, but they don’t have to be accepted.

  • Some athletes have very poor core strength. For example, they can’t maintain body posture well when they are running. That’s a functional strength issue that requires functional focused training.
  • Athletes that don’t have those kinds of issues need to do more performance related training: focusing on quads for a cyclist, etc.
  • For aging athletes it’s vital that they figure out a way to include both types of training to ensure that nothing is diminishing as time goes on.

In all three areas of aerobic capacity, body fat, and muscle mass, things can be done to ensure that aging athletes maintain their strength and the ability to compete. The amazing older runner or cyclist is not a freak of nature, but a committed and disciplined athlete who is willing to do what it takes to stay competitive.

Exercising with intensity, strength training, and a diet devoid of sugar and grains. Sounds simple, but are you doing all three? Let me know in the comments section below.


[1] 1. H. Kaplan, K. Hill, J. Lancaster, and A. M. Hurtado, “A Theory of Human Life History Evolution: Diet, Intelligence and Longevity,” Evolutionary Anthropology 9 (4) (2000): 156–185.

[2] 5. C. Bouchard, R. Lesage, G. Lortie, J. A. Simoneau, P. Hamel, M. R. Boulay, L. Perusse, G. Theriault, and C. Leblanc, “Aerobic Performance in Brothers, Dizygotic and Monozygotic Twins,” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 18 (6) (1986): 639–646.

[3] T. J. Yost, D. R. Jensen, and R. H. Eckel, “Tissue-Specific Lipoprotein Lipase: Relationships to Body Composition and Body Fat Distribution in Normal Weight Humans,” Obesity Research 1 (1) (1993): 1–4.

Join the discussion on the NBT forum when you support us on Patreon.

Register for instant access to your FREE 15-page book, What We Eat

© 2013-2020 nourishbalancethrive