Understanding reasons for changes in performance

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  • #17280

    How can someone understand changes in their performance? Specifically, are there ways to differentiate whether changes are related to: 1) training issues (too much or too little intensity, too much or too little base building, too much/little strength), 2) injuries, 3) age. I am a 53-year-old, female, avid multisport athlete… I do: 1) Nordic ski racing, 2) long gravel cycling (races up to 210 miles), 3) rock climbing/mountaineering. Despite improvements in technique, I am seeing declines in performance, particularly related to Nordic racing. I feel I have a pretty good understanding of training theory… thanks to “Training for the New Alpinism” and “CXC Academy.” I have also been an athlete since high school and university track and cross country running. I have also participated in coached, group training sessions for Nordic skiing for years.

    My thoughts on my situation… I believe I have a great aerobic base from years of training, and I consistently do my long, easy distance workouts. I also do intensity training—some on my own and some weekly from June to March with a local ski team. I race 4-8 ski races each winter, and do 2-3 long gravel races in late spring-summer. My husband and I are also avid climbers. Spring through fall we climb 2-3 times/week (evenings at the gym and weekends outside at short Minnesota crags), and we travel several times a year to climb crags and mountains in the U. S. West and Europe. I also try to maintain 1-3x/week strength training. Injuries have affected my training some in the past several years. Ankle surgery to remove a Haglund’s Deformity 3 years ago dramatically improved pain from a semi-detached Achilles tendon, and it looks like I may need to have a similar deformity removed on the other foot sooner than later. I also was diagnosed with nearly bone-on-bone arthritis on the medial aspect of my right knee, but after months of pain and reduced performance, PT and hyaluronic acid injections have made that less of an issue for now. Anyways, I’d like to pinpoint what’s holding me back. What are peoples’ experiences deciphering changes in their performance, and thoughts on how I might learn the reason(s) for my declining performance!?

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    Anonymous on #17314

    I’m going to make a wild guess that the changes in performance that interest/concern you are decreasing performance rather than increasing 🙂

    Since you are a life long endurance athlete I can also assume you have a pretty good idea of what works for your training and have not made any big training mistakes, nor are you sick (although your injury may play a role but I can’t tell). That leaves a big elephant in the room that we need to talk about: AGE

    Life long endurance athletes will notice a drop in performance much more starkly than those without that history. You know what it felt like to run fast or ski fast in your 20s and 30s. In contrast to that now you feel slow and it takes more effort than it used to to go slower.

    How many World Cup Nordic skiers are competitive beyond their mid 30s? Only a tiny fraction. Why? All these athletes have good genes, good training practices, a long training history. Despite all this they start going slower and it is starkly evident because slowing 1-2% can mean the end of a career. There are always the next crop of 20 year olds nipping at their heels. There can be no better crucible for showing the effects of age on endurance performance than elite sports.

    What causes this gross injustice?
    MITOCHONDRIA are the cause. If you read our book you will recall that the mitochondria are tiny organelles within every cell except blood cells. They are the engines of life. In the muscle cells the mitochondria are where the aerobic metabolic process takes place. This process reassembles the ATP molecule so it can continue doing its job of fueling muscle contractions. The faster the ATP turn over the faster your speed. The faster the AEROBIC ATP turn over the faster your speed for longer. We call this endurance.

    Here’s the rub (current theory of aging)
    Mitochondria have rather short lives; on the order of a week. Mito also have their own unique DNA that come from your mom’s mitochondria. Each replication of Mito has a chance of including a genetic mutation that makes the Mito less functional. These mutations can then get passed on to the next generation. In 53 years you had over 2000 generations of mitochondria. That’s a lot of opportunity for these mutations to accumulate and make your Mito not the as functional as they were in your 20s. This degradation in aerobic power typically happens at about 10% per decade after 30. Endurance training can slow this a bit. But it can’t stop it.

    A real life example:
    Like you I have been a life long endurance athlete and I have really noticed this drop off. In my late 20s my maxVO2 was 80ml/kg/min, My aerobic threshold running pace was about 6min/mile. May anaerobic threshold running pace was about 5:15min/mile. At 65 my maxVO2 is 47 and my aerobic threshold running pace is about 10min/mile. All this despite a fairly high training load for much of these intervening years.

    What to do?
    Work on improving economy more than trying to improve aerobic power. Technical improvements can lead to even double digit gains in economy (cost to ski at a speed). You will never see double digit gains in aerobic power. Look for low hanging fruit like this.

    Look for other sports you enjoy that do not demand such high aerobic power. Longer, slower running and cycling, mountaineering. Speed (even with endurance) is a young person’s game. That’s the reason for age groups in masters sports.


    Anonymous on #17321

    I could be off base, but your post also made me wonder about sport-specific consistency. Nordic skiing, cycling, and rock climbing will have little cross over between them. So switching between them could create a big opportunity cost in the other sports.

    I’m in my 40s, and the biggest thing that I’ve noticed is how quickly my gains go if I stop training. Or if I were to switch to a non-specific sport.

    I get slower much faster than I used to, and it takes longer to build back up. If you’re switching between those three sports regularly and for long periods, then I suspect that any gains or maintenance will be lost in the sport(s) that are left behind. As Scott said, those declines will accelerate the older we get.

    saschroeder on #17390

    Thanks Scott and Scott. You both have very valid points that I acknowledge. I understand that the aging process is ongoing and terminal, and probably my experience is the only thing that’s hopefully improving while my body continues declining. I also understand that there are serious trade-offs related to my multiple athletic passions… I would be better at each of my activities if I focused more exclusively, but I don’t want to give up month-long trips to the French Alps (like I had last year ? !) to roller ski… nor could I pass on gliding down a perfect track for more time in the gym. So, I tend to “do it all” and do my best to use my activities to complement each other. I hope that spring/summer cycling and mountaineering help build/maintain base for ski racing in winter, although they do take some time away from roller skiing and ski-specific drills. Cragging is probably the least beneficial to my other activities, but is a shared activity with my husband and friends and I typically also do aerobic activities on cragging days.

    Anyways, I feel like the reality is that age, injuries, and training issues probably all are contributing to my relative decline. I see the decline from my own performances, but also relative to other women my age… some of whom seemed to be improving in some cases seemingly substantially. I am guessing some of the women I see may be more focused and face fewer trade-offs among activities, or perhaps they have better coaching. But, they too are seemingly folks with full lives outside of sport. Being that I can’t do much to reverse my age and I am plotting how to proceed with my injuries, I want to work on the training aspect… as that is the aspect most in my control.

    Scott J., I have been looking at the consulting available through Uphill Athlete. As I know you have worked extensively with Nordic skiers, I would be interested in setting up consultation(s) with you. In recent years, I have roughly used training plans from CXC Academy, adapted for the gravel racing and other activities. But, I have years of training records and ski race results that could perhaps be reviewed to see how training might be improved.

    Anonymous on #17492

    I hope I didn’t come across as too negative while harping on the importance of sport-specific training. Those comments are in the context of maximizing performance, but there’s a lot to be said for “maximizing life”.

    The latter is a big reason why I’m moving on from OCD-esque training next year. I made a bunch of helpful commitments this year that really improved my performance, but… I don’t want to do it anymore. So going forward, I’m going to accept a lower level of performance in exchange for a higher level of fun.

    It sounds like you learned that lesson a long time ago and have a good mix of activities that you like to do.

    Your last post reminded me of something that I read in Tim Noakes’ The Lore of Running. He wrote something along the lines of serious athletes really only having about a decade of hard training in them before they start to break down. That was for runners, so I assume it’d be longer for skiers and cyclists (with less impact). If you have a longer training history than your peers with

    “…years of training records and ski race results.”

    …then perhaps that’s a factor?

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