Just when you thought it was time to slow down - 'Fast After 50'

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How do you stay fast after 50? To be fast you have to train fast. Following a high intensity training plan, eating the correct foods and getting enough quality sleep seem to be the best options. A celebrated triathlete argues that high-intensity interval training can reduce the effects of aging on performance


Kathleen A. Hughes writes about the aging athlete. As we get older, most of us get slower. But aging athletes may be able to stave off those changes more successfully than most people realize.That’s the conclusion that Joe Friel, a celebrated triathlete, coach and author, reaches in his new book, “Fast After 50.” As he approached his 70th birthday, Mr. Friel began researching how aging affects athletic performance.

“If we do this, our aerobic capacities decline at a slower rate,” he says. In fact, “people will live longer with high-intensity training than if they adopted a long-slow-distance approach to exercise, which is what most of us do.

Do not slow down


Kathleen Hughes exchanged emails with Mr. Friel at his home in Boulder, Colo. Here are edited excerpts from that discussion.

 At what age do we start to slow down, and what happens, in a nutshell?

MR. FRIEL: Most endurance athletes will begin to notice a change in performance by their late 30s. The change is mostly the result of decreasing hormone production.

When we’re young we release lots of anabolic—tissue-building—hormones: testosterone, growth hormone, insulin-like growth factor, etc. These have a lot to do with recovery and damage control. As we age, the body gradually produces less and less. That means even slower healing of injuries and slower recovery as we move into our 40s, 50s and later.

How do we keep from slowing down?

MR. FRIEL: The best way to maintain health and performance for the dedicated but aging athlete is by doing high-intensity interval training, doing strength training with heavy loads, including adequate protein in the diet, and getting lots of sleep.

It is so important that you get a good nights sleep to maximize your resting time. Insufficient sleep can lead to obesity, heart disease and diabetes. It can also impact your immune system, which of course means you’ll be more likely to get sick.The bottom line is that if you want to be more productive, eat better and achieve your goals, then you need to focus on getting an adequate amount of sleep by improving your sleeping habits.

What would be an example of high-intensity training and how would that compare with a traditional workout for an older athlete?

MR. FRIEL: High-intensity training is doing short bouts, or intervals, at greater than anaerobic threshold, where labored breathing first shows up.

An example would be five intervals of one minute each at high intensity with one-minute recoveries after each. Most aging athletes begin to move away from such training in their 50s and, instead, adopt a training pattern of long slow distances.

Isn’t fear a factor? Aren’t older athletes more prone to injury?

MR. FRIEL: It comes down to controlling the dose (how hard an individuals workout is) and the density (how closely spaced the hard workouts are) of training. Dose is controlled by starting high-intensity intervals very conservatively. Only one or two the first time. Then very gradually add more per session.

Density is managed by making sure there is adequate rest following a hard training session. When in doubt as to what to do, rest more.

If most of our deterioration is due to plummeting hormones, what’s the best way to stimulate those hormones?

MR. FRIEL: Sleep. Anabolic hormones respond very well to sleep. That’s why I emphasize focusing on sleep every day. Cutting back on sleep to fit more things into our daily lives diminishes athletic performance and may even shorten one’s life.

Eating adequate amounts of protein also seems to benefit anabolic-hormone production. Most of the research indicates that the average aging person doesn’t eat enough protein.

You suggest that the right kind of exercise can slow—and perhaps reverse—the aging process. What does the research show?

MR. FRIEL: Aging can be “reversed” for only a brief period. This can be done by training and lifestyle as described above. But at some point down the road the body will cease to adapt and the cells will start “aging” again, albeit at a slower rate if the high-intensity training coupled with adequate protein in the diet and ample sleep are continued. There is some evidence that such a lifestyle modifies the aging process—but it never fully reverses it.

Following this guidelines from Mr Friel is great. Now, it is important that you are setting the correct goals that will help you to create the perfect habits to achieve those goals.  Whatever your age, before you embark on a fitness or training programme, set yourself clear and realistic long-term and short-term goals.

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