Recovery is fundamental to training. The better you recover, the more work you can handle, and the faster you can get. But recovery takes time, and that time seems to increase as we get older. Luckily, recovery can be improved with training, and there are many factors beyond age that influence your ability to bounce back from a hard workout.
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Recovery and Aging
Recovery is when you actually get faster. Workouts push you into a state of depletion and fatigue, and during recovery your body repairs itself, restores its energy reserves, and overcompensates for the work you’ve done. The end result of this cycle, repeated over and over again in the form of structured training, is an improvement in ability.
Unfortunately, recovery doesn’t move at the same pace for everyone. Common wisdom holds that recovery takes longer for older athletes, but the evidence is surprisingly unclear. In fact, some studies actually suggest that in trained athletes, older individuals fatigue and recover at a similar rate to younger subjects. Age may be a factor, but it certainly isn’t the only one.
What’s certain is that age isn’t something we can change, and we’re all getting older by the day. We can, however, control a multitude of other factors that affect recovery. By understanding a few key principles and focusing on nutrition, rest, and training, you can improve your body’s ability to repair itself and get faster, no matter how old you are.
Recovery is Trainable
The most important thing to understand about recovery is that it is trainable. The fitter you get, the more adept your body becomes at handling and recovering from stress. This is called the Repeated Bout Effect, and is a phenomenon in which exercise primes your muscles to handle more exercise. If you’ve ever noticed how much harder a workout is after taking time off compared to how that same workout feels midway through a training block, you understand how this works.
The moral of the story is that as you train, you increase your ability to handle training stress. It’s a strong argument in favor of consistency – whether you’re 18 or 80, regular structured training reinforces itself and improves your ability to handle fatigue, and you get faster as a result.
Perception is Key
It’s heartening to know that recovery can be improved, but you might assume that younger athletes improve this ability more quickly than older cyclists. Intriguing research suggests you’d be right- but only subjectively.
A study had 18 cyclists complete a series of time trials several days in a row. Interestingly, none of these riders experienced major performance declines over the course of the study, but the older athletes reported significantly more perceptions of soreness and fatigue. In essence, riders of all ages recovered and performed equally well, but the older riders felt more tired and less recovered than the younger cyclists. While they were able to ride just as fast as before, it felt subjectively more difficult.
Perception can dramatically affect your ability to perform, for better or worse. Your mental state can make an easy effort feel harder or a hard effort feel easier, and any athlete with a power meter knows RPE (rate of perceived exertion) doesn’t always match reality. So while it’s always important to listen to your body, sometimes your brain and legs just don’t agree, and you might be capable of more than you think. This disconnect seems more pronounced in older athletes than in younger cyclists.
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The Power of Nutrition
Nutrition is a crucial part of recovery for every athlete. During exercise, the body consumes stored energy supplies as fuel and experiences muscular damage. Consuming carbohydrates and protein post-workout allows your fuel supplies to be replenished and your muscles to be repaired. Without the proper nutrients in the right proportions, adequate recovery is delayed, or impossible.
A survey of 182 Australian triathletes found the majority (regardless of age) didn’t know the recommended amount of carbohydrate or protein to consume after training, but younger athletes as a group still managed to come close to recommended intakes. Older triathletes, on the other hand, were found to consume significantly less carbohydrate and protein relative to their body mass than recommended. They also consumed less overall energy relative to their body mass than the younger athletes.
In other words, the older athletes in the group weren’t adequately fueling their recoveries. Ironically, many of these athletes also reported using post-exercise sports nutrition supplements, probably assuming these products were providing ample and complete recovery nutrition. They weren’t, and for these Australian triathletes, there’s clearly more than age to blame for poor recovery.
Other Crucial Factors
Beyond nutrition and the improvement that comes with training, the makeup of workouts themselves may influence recovery time and affect some athletes differently. For instance, a pair of studies showed older athletes may take longer to recover from HIIT (high-intensity interval training), but not from intense sprint workouts with shorter intervals. The muscular makeup of athletes themselves also seems to play a role, as athletes with greater proportions of fast twitch muscle fibers seem to take as much as 15 times longer to recover from the same efforts as athletes with predominantly slow twitch muscles.
And finally, perhaps the biggest single factor of all is sleep. Athletes of all ages need more sleep than non-athletes, and while older adults don’t necessarily need more sleep than younger people, sleep quality does tend to decline as we age. Thus, it’s entirely possible that some older athletes may be limiting their own recovery through insufficient or poor-quality sleep. If you want to improve your recovery, whatever your age, getting more sleep is an ideal place to start. For hints on making this possible, click here.
More Than Just Age
So while there does seem to be a connection between age and recovery, it’s not as simple as saying older athletes recover more slowly. Subjective perception, insufficient nutrition, and poor sleep may be even bigger factors than the effect of age, and they’re certainly easier to remedy. In the end, that’s a good thing- you can’t stop the march of time, but you can probably reduce its effects on your training.
Doering, Thomas & Reaburn, Peter & Borges, Nattai & Cox, Gregory & Jenkins, David. (2016). The Effect of Higher Than Recommended Protein Feedings Post-Exercise on Recovery Following Downhill Running in Masters Triathletes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 27. 10.1123/ijsnem.2016-0079.
Doering, Thomas & Reaburn, Peter & Cox, Gregory & Jenkins, David. (2015). Comparison of Post-Exercise Nutrition Knowledge and Post-Exercise Carbohydrate and Protein Intake Between Australian Masters and Younger Triathletes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. In Press. 10.1123/ijsnem.2015-0289.
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Yasar Z, Dewhurst S, Hayes LD. Peak Power Output Is Similarly Recovered After Three- and Five-Days’ Rest Following Sprint Interval Training in Young and Older Adults. Sports (Basel). 2019 Apr 25;7(4):94. doi: 10.3390/sports7040094. PMID: 31027172; PMCID: PMC6524350.