Recent research studies define the outlook for masters endurance athlete training and the rest of us for performance and longevity.
For many of us, cycling, running, and keeping in shape are lifelong passions. We can’t go without exercise or training for a day or two and don’t want to. Our bodies crave it, and so does our mind. For dedicated masters athletes, endurance training is a way of life and living a long one.
For others of us, regular exercise is something we do because they tell us we have to. Guidelines say you must put in a total of about a little more than two hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise throughout the week to stave off the effects of aging and a sedentary lifestyle. So you won’t die young of cardiac issues, we do it begrudgingly.
Despite which category you find yourself in, there comes a time when we feel we are fighting an uphill battle. As we get older, our strength, endurance, and cardiovascular fitness will worsen, and there’s nothing we can do about it, even when it comes to a masters athletes’ endurance training. Or so some may think. It brings us to a crossroads, and aging individuals intent on maintaining their health and mortality have a choice.
Masters Athletes and Average Joes Have the Same Goal
The masters endurance athlete picks the road they often travel and continue to exercise and train, but with changes that often include not doing as much. For the health-conscious, exercise may go from something we have to do for a while, a few times a week, to a different form that’s more enjoyable and convenient. Recent research tells us what we may find along the way.
Masters endurance athletes are the pictures of optimal healthy aging. They maintain a higher level of cardiorespiratory fitness, assessed by individual maximal aerobic power (VO2 max), in older age than the average active and sedentary population. For them, it’s a matter of optimizing performance, and they take the longevity benefits because that’s the ultimate goal. A long, enjoyable life is the priority for the average person looking to live a healthy lifestyle also.
Can we all have our cake and eat it too? Yes, but with a healthy portion of realistic expectations. A September 2022 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health attempts to define the outlook for masters endurance athletes. Let’s say the forecast is partly sunny with a silver lining.
Declines in VO2 Max Are Unavoidable Even With Masters Athlete Endurance Training
Sports scientists analyzed the results of several long-term studies on the effects of changes in VO2 max with aging and related changes in masters athletes’ endurance training. The cloud front began to roll in on the author’s conclusion that declines in cardiorespiratory fitness are unavoidable for masters endurance athletes. The silver lining is that 70 percent of the VO2 deterioration is directly related to training-volume changes when considering the age of the athletes.
The researchers took the next step and defined what the masters endurance athlete should expect and what they can do to prepare for the storm on the horizon. Athletes who reduced their training by more than 20 percent or stopped completely saw a decline in VO2 max by between 15 and 46 percent per decade. Those with a moderate decrease in training (11 to 20 percent) declined 8 to 26 percent per decade.
The athletes that kept their regular training plan (not more than a 10 percent reduction) only lost 5 to 6.5 percent of their VO2 max per decade. The decline is similar to what’s seen with the age-related effects of sarcopenia. After age 50, there’s a 4.7 percent decrease in peak muscle mass per decade in men and a 3.7 percent decline in women. In healthy sedentary individuals older than 25, VO2 max decreases by about 10 percent per decade.
Age-Related Endurance and Strength Decreases Can Be Improved With Masters Athlete Endurance Training
Although the authors attribute the drop in cardiorespiratory fitness to factors other than muscle loss, like reduction in cardiac output, fewer mitochondria, and atriovenous-oxygen difference, the message was the same. To maintain lean muscle mass, repeated bouts of resistance exercise increase muscle growth (hypertrophy) through elevated formation rates that exceed the breakdown rate (Brook et al., 2015; Wilkinson et al., 2014) in older athletes.
For masters endurance athlete training, VO2 max rapidly improves after a few weeks of training after stopping for a while or starting from scratch. An 8.4 percent increase was noticed after three weeks and jumped to 29.3 percent after 12 weeks of training reuptake. Masters athletes can salvage the benefits of their previous hard work to regain performance and longevity, and it doesn’t take long.
As for those whose priority lies in exercising for life and not living to exercise, a recent study lets some sunshine in. A July 2022 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine shows that it’s okay to pass on the weekly exercise grind. Go ahead and be a weekend warrior. It’s okay.
It’s Okay to be a Weekend Warrior
The authors found that in terms of longevity, exercising only on the weekend is enough to counteract a sedentary lifestyle during the rest of the week if you meet the recommended guidelines—a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity—for physical activity. The researchers analyzed the self-reported physical activity of over 350,000 Americans between 1997 and 2013 and divided them into two groups based on their exercise frequency—”regularly active” and “weekend warriors.”
The researchers tracked mortality data and compared their analysis. They found no statistically significant difference between weekend warriors and regularly active participants. Both groups had lower mortality rates than the inactive and sedentary participants in the study, showing that the total amount of physical activity is more important to longevity than pattern or frequency.
Some Exercise Increases Longevity More Than Others
It’s not masters athlete endurance training, but it’s something an average Joe is more likely to stick with, especially if it’s fun and convenient. Now that you know, what is a weekend warrior to do?
A recent study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings by the Copenhagen City Heart Study followed over 8,500 people for more than 25 years to formulate the ranking. The participants who enjoyed playing tennis added 9.7 years to their lives, followed by badminton (6.2 years) and soccer (4.7 years). A bonus for masters athlete endurance training is that cycling came in fourth with 3.7 years.
Conclusion—Use It or Lose It
It’s never too late to use it unless it’s never, and then you risk losing it. When it is your cardiorespiratory fitness, VO2 max, and performance, losing it is not a matter of life or death. It may seem that way, and although declines are inevitable, they can be mitigated and recovered with consistent masters athlete endurance training. In the case of the average Joe, the stakes are higher. It’s good to know that exercise longevity benefits can be enjoyed on your own terms.
What does use it or lose it mean to you?
Comment below! Your fellow cyclists want to know.
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Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, Endurance.biz, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!