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

Aging doesn’t have to spell a death sentence for your athletic career. Here’s what you’re facing as you age.

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No matter when you begin in triathlon, there will come a time when you’ll ultimately begin slowing down. We’re talking about aging here, which can chip away at muscle strength, cardiovascular health, and various other factors, all of which take their toll on performance. While you can’t outrun age, you can push back.

Plenty of triathletes continue not only to remain competitive well into their senior years, but some blow the lid off the perception of aging. If that’s your goal, know that it may take some changes in your approach to training and living. But ask any triathlete toeing the line in his or her 60s or 70s, and they’ll tell you it’s all worth it.

We’ll be breaking down the various issues again athletes face, from emotional to physical—starting with the changes male aging athletes confront. We’ll dive into the specific physical changes women face as they age next week. Stay tuned.

Aging Male Athletes See Loss in Strength and Speed

While 65-year-old Dave Walters of Lisle, Illinois, will tell you there’s no magic bullet to staying healthy and competitive in your later decades, he’s clearly doing something right. Walters has been at it since high school, taking on his peers in a steady mix of running events, triathlons, and duathlons. Quite often, you’ll find him on top of podium, having bested his age group, even at the international level.

Still, around age 35, he started to notice subtle changes. “I figure I might have peaked at that point,” he said. “I was putting in the same efforts and workouts and not achieving the same results. By my late 40s, it was quite apparent I needed to change the way I was training in order to achieve the results I wanted.”

Walters was on to something. A recently released study on aging elite runners demonstrated that men begin a continuous decrease in speed at 35 that accelerates at about 70. A decline in speed is just the symptom, however, of a host of changes the body goes through with aging.

One of the most impactful is sarcopenia, which occurs in three stages: pre-sarcopenia, a loss of muscle mass; sarcopenia, which is loss of muscle mass in conjunction with loss of strength or physical performance; and severe sarcopenia, when all of the above occur. 

The muscle loss hits hardest in fast-twitch muscles, which can be OK news for endurance athletes. “With aging, you’re going to see a shift in the muscle fiber make up to slow-twitch muscles, which coincides with the anecdotal evidence we have that endurance sports are something we can do well into our later years,” said Ryan Smith, DPT, and co-owner of Recharge Modern Health and Fitness in Ellicott City, Maryland.  

To offset this loss, strength training needs to take a bigger role in your life. “I spend much more time strength training today than I did when I was younger,” Walters said. 

Smith said the goal of strength training is to determine the “minimal effective dose that allows you to maintain the speeds and times you want.” That may look different for every athlete, but most men would be surprised to learn that a heavy weight load is needed in order to achieve their goals. 

Aging Male Athletes Need More Recovery

Another area that changes for most triathletes as they age is their rate of recovery. “The time you give yourself between hard bouts of movement needs to get longer,” said Smith. “The intensity doesn’t have to change, however, which is good news.”

Jason Bahamundi, a 46-year-old vice president of sales and marketing from Dallas, has been at the sport for a decade, interweaving ultrarunning events along the way. “When I was younger, it was just race after race with little break,” he said. “Now recovery is built in to my routine.”

For Bahamundi, this requires paying close attention to the cues his body sends him and reacting accordingly. “I use a Whoop band to give me a recovery score,” he said. “If I wake up and it’s low, I’m going to take it easy and let the body heal. In the past I’d wake up exhausted and go for a run.” 

Sleep, in fact, is one of the key ingredients for an aging athlete and one of the simplest recovery tools available. To that end, Bahamundi has added in products with CBD and melatonin.

Walters has found that swapping out some of his runs for cross-training has been another essential way to offload stresses on his body. “I used to run twice a day,” he said, “but now I hit the elliptical instead of that second run.”

Diet and Cardiovascular Health Are Especially Important for Aging Male Athletes

Both men are steadfast about their diets, as well, with a heavy focus on getting in adequate nutrients to support their active lifestyles. This is important for both men and women, but males tend to add visceral fat more readily than females, particularly after the age of 50. The danger with this type of fat is that it is linked to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. Even while active, then, paying attention to nutrition is key in helping minimize this risk. 

In that regard, Smith reminds male triathletes to keep on top of overall cardiovascular health as they age. In spite of participating in endurance sports, there’s still wear and tear over time. “Keep up on regular blood pressure checks and physicals,” Smith said. “There are many cardiovascular issues that arise from the simple accumulation of life and it’s important to monitor regularly.”

As both Walters and Bahamundi can attest, aging does require some attention. When carried out, however, training and performing well at races is well within reach. “I’ve definitely slowed down and tweaked components of my training,” said Bahamundi. “But there’s less wear and tear, and there’s a longevity pay-off for that.”