Ask the Coach: How Can You Train Like an Elite Athlete Over the Age of 65?

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How do I keep from psyching myself out on race day?

—Laura, Durham, North Carolina

This is an amazing question to start with—acknowledging performance anxiety is the first step to gaining control over it. To understand how to overcome race-day (and race-week) nerves, it’s key to zoom out and look at performance psychology.

A 2017 article in the Journal of Sports Medicine took a deep dive into sport-related anxiety and provides a theoretical basis for understanding race-day nerves. First, realize that it’s normal. That article quotes hockey star Sydney Crosby as saying, “I don’t think you’re human if you don’t get nervous.” Breaking stigma in your own brain is an essential goal at the outset.

The next step is grouping it together with mental health more generally. A little bit of nerves could actually improve performance; a lot of anxiety could be debilitating, and not just in sport performance. Just like with other facets of mental health, talking to a mental health professional could be helpful for many athletes.

Short of mental-health treatment, after recognizing the issue, the next step is to gain power over it. There are tons of methods in psychology that vary by the person, but one great option is to practice positive psychology. A 2011 article in the World Journal of Sport Sciences even called for a new field based on positive psychology in sport performance.

The end goal of that practice can vary. For athletes I coach, including top professionals, the goal is to reach a point of unconditional self-acceptance and love (often including working with a mental-health professional). An athlete might write down, “I am enough, no matter what,” then follow that up with affirmations or mantras he or she can use in training and racing.

On top of that, it can help some athletes to think about what they are actually fearful of. Often, it’s “failure” or “pain” or “humiliation.” Through positive psychology, it’s possible to flip the narrative. Failure can be a friend that adds richness to life, pain a teacher that helps you grow, humiliation a manifestation of a lack of unconditional self-acceptance. The end goal is to gain power over self-judgment, understanding it’s OK to care, but not to define your self-worth based on races … or anything else. Because, after all, you are perfect the way you are.

How can you train like an elite athlete, over the age of 65?

—Michael, Nederland, Colorado

In pediatric medicine, there’s a saying: “children are not just small adults.” Similarly, in training, athletes over 65 are not just 20-somethings with a bit more back pain. At 65, the body responds to training entirely differently.

There are two primary things to think about when training over 65. First, injury risk is higher. Muscles, tendons and bones go through a process of weakening over time. Training can reduce the losses, but it can’t reverse them entirely. Second, aerobic capacity and maximum power output trend downward. Studies indicate that process starts as early as 25 or 30 years old, but picks up later on. The only things that are certain in life are death, taxes and a reduction in VO2 max with age.

When training over 65, you are fighting a trendline. While reductions are inevitable, that doesn’t mean you can’t improve relative to a past year.

There is no set training methodology that works for everyone, but a few things are usually present across training plans of successful 65-plus athletes. First, they don’t just run. Cross training options can include biking, stairmill, elliptical, rowing machine or anything else that reduces weight-bearing load. Additionally, weight lifting can counteract strength losses.

Second is a leaky-bucket problem. If a bucket has 100 ounces of water and loses an ounce a year, you could imagine two options: patch the hole, or add more water. With aging, you can’t patch the hole and reverse aging entirely. So add more water! That means some higher-intensity training that works on VO2 max and max-power output.

Third, their easy days are truly easy. Gray-area training is when you’re not going hard, and not going easy. When you have more gray hairs, gray-area training is more counterproductive because it increases injury risk and fatigue without significant fitness improvements.

A template to start from could be this general plan used by some star 65-plus runners I have coached:

Monday: Easy hike.

Tuesday: Hills, 3 mins or less / weights.

Wednesday: Cross train.

Thursday: Easy run / short hill strides, 20 to 30 seconds for max power output.

Friday: Cross train easy.

Saturday: Long trail run / option to include moderate tempo sections. Sunday: Easy run plus short hill strides or cross train / weights.

Father Time is undefeated. But with smart training, we can give him a run for his money.

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