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Fast in Your Forties: Getting Older Doesn’t Have to Mean Getting Slower

By Rebecca Rusch

I am living proof that 40 can be fast, and that older doesn’t have to be synonymous with slower. In fact, there are many other examples of athletes “killing it” well past the typical racing age.

Think Ned Overend, Dara Torres, Kristin Armstrong, Wayne Gretzky and Martina Navratilova. My own race times in Leadville have gone from 8:14:53 to 7:28:06 over the past four years, and my power numbers and performance test results have kept improving.

Medical specialists tell us that men reach their physiological performance peak in their early 20s and women reach theirs in their mid 20s. I know if I had lined up for the Leadville Trail 100 at 25, I would have struggled to make it even halfway. Science also states that after 40, human performance declines approximately two percent per year. I know that this statistic doesn’t match what I’m seeing athletes do on a regular basis.

How can you keep getting faster and fitter and defy scientific evidence? In my opinion, there is a big difference between a person’s physiological peak and their performance peak. If we were just purely machines, then the switch would be turned on and we’d perform exactly as expected until the machine broke down. The biggest and best machine would always win, but we know that this is not the case. Sometimes the most physically unlikely champions grace the top step of the podium.

Peak performance is a cocktail of hard work, scientific recovery, specific training, mental preparation, race experience, motivation, sound nutrition, good technique and tactical savvy.

Some of these traits take many years to develop and, like a fine wine, the learning curve cannot be rushed. If you are striving for increased performance, leave no stone unturned and take a look at areas where you can improve and develop. No matter what age or level you are, there are always areas that you can tackle and address to gain performance benefits.

Here are a few things I have focused on in recent years that have been most beneficial in keeping me fit and fast.

  • Work on your weaknesses, but race your strengths. In training, I have focused on improving my technical skills and on shorter, faster efforts because those are some of my weaknesses. However, when it comes to chasing peak performances, I choose events that suit me and play to my strengths.
  • Learn to properly rest. I cannot emphasize this enough. Rest is actually what makes us stronger. More time and effort does not mean better performance, unless you are getting enough rest. Skip days off or lose sleep and you end up tired and flat. Remember that family, work and lack of sleep are all factors that affect our performance as much or more as hard training days. Eliminate stressors and learn to give yourself a break. Sometimes a day off can boost performance more than squeezing in another workout can.
  • Race yourself, not your competitors. A performance is yours alone.  You only have control over what you are doing. Dictate your own pacing and race strategy that capitalizes on your strengths, not someone else’s. Use your knowledge and experience to race better and smarter.
  • Train for quality, not quantity. In my mind, training with a coach is essential for efficiency and results. I compare it to baking without a recipe: you can toss ingredients in a bowl, but if you don’t measure them and have the proper ratios, the results won’t be the same. Don’t waste your time training without a plan, whether it’s provided by a coach or not. I train fewer hours per week than I used to and get better results with specific training.
  • Meter your strength and power and strike at the right time.  Oftentimes, your younger competitors are like baby rattlesnakes that don’t know when to strike and end up shooting their venom without a target or proper timing. Be the older, wiser snake and use your experience to draw the most out of your performance in an intelligent, patient and effective way.
  • Use it or lose it. Scientific studies do show that athletes who maintain training volume and intensity also maintain muscle fiber strength and distribution. Exercise economy and efficiency is also a trait and a benefit that is honed over time. Continue to move and challenge yourself regardless of your age or performance level.
  • Mind over muscle. An athlete with mental toughness and skill often dominates over an athlete with more physical prowess. You all remember the story of David and Goliath, right? The small, scrawny David defeats the giant, well-armored Goliath by simply throwing a stone and hitting him in the head.  Hone your mental and technical skills and put them to use.

As George Bernard Shaw said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” Embrace your years and the knowledge and experience you will continue to gain, because after all, we can’t stop the clock. What we can do is continue to strive and challenge ourselves to be better than we were yesterday.

Here’s to your best race times yet in 2013.

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