Older athletes show no signs of slowing down
News stories about older athletes are often a study of novelty. The implication that “old people” shouldn’t be competing at a high level — or any level — can ring through each paragraph: The fact that they are active at all should amaze us.
George Haywood has a problem with this narrative.
Haywood, a 63-year-old District of Columbia native, strongly believes that high-performing athletes in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond are not an oddity. He should know: He won the gold medal in the 300-meter hurdles at the World Masters Athletics Championships last summer in Lyon, France, with a time of 45.31 seconds (for context, 25-year-old Nicholas Kiplagat Bett, the 400-meter hurdle winner at the IAAF Track and Field World Championship in Beijing, won in 47.79). The masters athletic championships fielded more than 8,000 runners from 98 countries in all categories of track and field.
Nancy Avitabile doesn’t feel like an oddity, either.
At 67, Avitabile, who lives in Bethesda, Md., and has competed in triathlons since her 50s, won the women’s Olympic-distance 65-69 category at the World Triathlon Championship in Chicago last September.
Gregory Chaconas wasn’t alone in running the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington as an older athlete. More than 11,000 masters runners, as the category is known — for racers 40 and older — finished last year. John Corbet, the most senior runner at 82, clocked in at just a few minutes over six hours.
Chaconas, 70 and also from the District, finished in 4:32:23, eighth in the men’s 70-74 category. He estimates he has completed about 110 marathons, 90 of those after turning 40.
Masters athletes are showing it’s not a novelty to compete at an older age. Rather, it’s an opportunity to reach their potential.
“We baby boomers are very concerned with physical and mental decline,” Haywood said. “What many of us do not realize is how much of that decline is avoidable if one does the right things.
“You are exerting a little extra effort to change your momentum. Your angular momentum is changing because running straight is easier than running around a curve.”
Haywood was explaining how he properly paces himself to clear the hurdles on both the straightaway and the curved parts of the track. Although Haywood ran hurdles in high school, it was only when he started competing in masters track at 50 that he began to understand how to train — or, as Haywood said, knowing how to use the curves, both on the track and in life, to your advantage.
It’s true that the body begins to lose its agility and strength as it ages. Studies find that VO2 max levels (the measurement of how much oxygen a person can use while exercising) begin to decline in the 30s and 40s, and it’s worse for those who lead sedentary lives. Those who engage in regular exercise help slow the breakdown of the body.
But the notion that masters athletes can feel stronger in their 60s than their 30s can be met with skepticism. Yet Haywood, a private investor in his day job, says he is faster now than he was as a student in 1969. Avitabile, who owns an accounting business, is reaching new levels in her strength training, and Chaconas, a retired federal employee, still runs 30 to 40 miles a week.
Charlie Brown, a sports psychologist based in Charlotte, N.C., said masters athletes have to deal with the mental shift of working smarter, not harder. “You are one of the most incredible machines, organisms, in the world, but you have to take care of the hardware,” he said. “And the hardware requires more maintenance.”
This comes in both training and recovery and knowing the value in both. Good training requires variety; for instance, interval training becomes more important as athletes get older.
Good training also includes preventive maintenance, such as warm-ups and cool-downs during workouts, stretching, hydration, and fuel-loading after a workout.
Brown said masters athletes have to come to grips with the physical changes that come with aging.
“Training doesn’t make you stronger. It breaks you down,” Brown said. “The way you get stronger is by recovery, and a younger body recovers faster than an older body.”
Haywood said he feels his best days are ahead of him.
“It’s fascinating to lower your times,” Haywood said. “There’s always another goal out there.”
Avitabile hopes to defend her triathlon title at the upcoming championships in Cozumel, Mexico.
But beyond the numbers and medals, these athletes recognize something important: Competing gives them a reason to push themselves. It feels good and it’s fun.
“It’s part of my routine. It’s like brushing my teeth,” Chaconas said. “Some days, I run slow or run faster. It depends on what I’ve done previously. It’s what keeps me going.”
Just keep going. There’s nothing odd about that.