The Mature Athlete: The Physical Changes Female Athletes Face As They Age

The effects of aging can be challenging as a female athlete, but it’s possible to get the upper hand.

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This is part of a series on issues specific to older athletes. Last week, we talked about the physical issues male athletes face as they get older. This week, we’re tackling the challenges female athletes have to address.

At age 60, Jill Voorhis plans to keep going with triathlons until “it wrecks my life balance.” She has a long way to go before she reaches that point: a typical season for the Florida-based yoga studio director includes a couple of sprints, a couple of Olympic-distance races, a 70.3 or two, and in the off-season some half-marathons.

Voorhis began her triathlon career at the same time the sport itself was just getting off the ground, in 1978. “I entered my first race for a $2 entry fee,” she said. “I liked that the sport was a good way to stay healthy and was also balancing for me.”

Like many other women who have aged with the sport, however, Voorhis has had to adjust her training over the years. “I’ve learned that the strongest muscle is the mind,” she said. “For me the secret has been improved self-awareness—I acknowledge when I’m tired, or that my Achilles is flaring up, and I do something about it.”

Aging Female Athletes See Drops In Estrogen and Progesterone

While Voorhis might serve as a model for aging successfully in sport, many women struggle with the reality and don’t adapt their training. This is a mistake, said Stacy Sims, an exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist, and author of ROAR. “As women get into the period leading up to menopause, they often find they’re fatigued and that their training isn’t working for them,” she explained. “Their times get slower, yet it feels like they’re working harder.”

What’s really going on, Sims said, is that levels of estrogen and progesterone are dropping precipitously, up until menopause, at which point they “flat line,” according to Sims. “You experience metabolic and physiologic changes and begin to lose the ability to build lean muscle mass,” she said.

The key to counterbalance those changes, said Sims, is switching up the stimulus you’re giving your body. “This doesn’t mean more long, slow distance training, but rather more strength training,” she explained.

Aging Female Athletes Need to Up Strength Training

Meghan Weiser, DPT, and coach at Recharge Modern Health and Fitness in Ellicott City, Maryland, agrees. “You’re going to lose muscle at a rate of about three to eight percent per decade after 30, and even faster after age 60,” she said. “Strength training can help mitigate the loss, however, and it’s never too late to start.”

Her prescription for muscle health is to strength train two to three times a week, usually at a weight that equates to 60 to 80 percent of your one-rep max of that exercise.

This added weight training helps with a whole host of symptoms that go along with age-related hormonal drops. “You can experience issues with thermoregulation, cardiovascular health, fat accumulation, and higher cholesterol if you don’t do things to offset them,” Weiser said.

Aging Female Athletes Need to Adjust Their Diets

Sims also recommends dietary changes as you age. “You’re going to naturally develop some insulin resistance with age,” she said. “So be smart with your carbohydrate intake and time it with your training to get it back into your muscles and liver. Also increase your protein intake from about 1.5 to 1.8 grams per pound of weight and make sure you’re ingesting it throughout the day.”

Voorhis has experienced issues with both thermoregulation and digestion as she’s gotten older. “I make sure I’m scheduling my runs for earlier in the morning to avoid Florida’s heat,” she said. “With food, I drink less alcohol, eat minimal gluten and less raw food in general.”

And Do Their Maintenance Work

She also offsets muscle imbalances by spending plenty of time on her yoga mat. “I practice restorative yoga and pay attention to where I have tight spots,” she said. “I do this frequently with hips, hamstrings, and other big muscle groups.”

Weiser also emphasized the importance of not only noticing, but listening to your body and giving it the recovery it needs. “Those who recover well are those who manage their life stresses well,” she said. “This means eating enough, hydrating, and sleeping enough. Your body doesn’t know what workout it was supposed to do, so if you wake up tired and sore, back off. It’s ok.”

This is something Voorhis lives by. “More sleep and more recovery time are essential for me,” she said.

And lest you get the impression that everything about aging is harder, Voorhis sees plenty of upsides, as well. “My life stresses have slowed,” she said. “My life as a business owner and endurance athlete was pretty crazy from my 20s on up until about 50. Stress equals inflammation and both have come down substantially across the board.”

Follow Voorhis’ lead, and you too might be thriving at age 60, still racing frequently and at a high-level. “Being an endurance athlete does require more maintenance now,” she said. “I acknowledge it and it pays off.”