Do older athletes take longer to recover?


I don’t know about you, but as I’ve gotten older, I find I need longer to recover between hard or long training efforts and races. While I use all the recovery strategies I suggest in my book and know they help me enormously, I’m still finding in my 50’s that I can’t bounce back like I used to in my 20’s.

While the area of recovery in older athletes is wide open for research (I’m starting to look at this in 2012 myself if anyone is interested in doing a fee-free Masters or PhD with me at CQUniversity?), to date it appears older and younger athletes recover at the same rates from hard training or racing. Here is some research from France that looked at recovery of the muscle and aerobic systems of young and older triathletes 24 hours after doing an Olympic Distance Triathlon. They found similar rates of recovery in both systems.

The Research

The aim of this study was to compare muscle strength and measures of aerobic performance (VO2max, speed at VO2max, thresholds, and running economy – oxygen used at a running speed) between older (52.4 +/- 10.0 years) and younger (28.4 +/- 6.1 years) male triathletes before and after doing an olympic distance triathlon. Each of the tritahletes had done at least 5 triathlons in the previous year and there was no difference in there training volume per week – 15.4 +/- 2.3 hr (young) and  13.6 +/- 1.7 hr (masters). Each of the 9 younger and 10 older triathletes did strength testing on their legs and a treadmill VO2max test in a  lab 24 hours before and 24 hours after the race.

The Results

As expected, prior to the event, VO2max, speed at VO2max, speed at thresholds, and running economy (oxygen used at a running speed) were lower in the masters athletes. However, the muscle strength was no different between the age groups. The day after the event, where the younger triathletes did 2 hr 28 min and the masters 3 hr 00 min, both groups had significantly lower VO2max results (by about 5%) and both had lower speeds at VO2max (about 8% lower). However, leg muscle strength in both groups didn’t drop significantly. The percentage drops in all the aerobic system values were similar in both groups with VO2max dropping between 3-6% and speed at VO2max 6-9%. The only difference between the groups after the race was that the speed at ventilatory threshold (race pace) dropped by 8.4% in the masters triathletes and only 2.5% in the youngsters!

So What?

The researchers concluded that in well-trained people, the fatigue following a triathlon appears independent of age. However, rightly so, they did suggest the age group used for the older athletes was relatively young (50’s) compared to what might happen in much older athletes (70’s). For more on recovery strategies and developing an understanding of recovery in masters athletes, read Chapter 15 of my book – it examines the nuts and bolts of what science says about recovery and aging.

Source: Sultana et al. (2011). Age-related changes in cardio-respiratory responses and muscular performance following an Olympic triathlon in well-trained triathletes. European Journal of Applied Physiology. Published online: 19th August.