Taking an age-graded approach to your fitness goals
In the realm of fitness, age is more than just a number. The changes our bodies undergo as years pile on can significantly impact our ability to maintain athletic performance. And maintaining a high level of fitness as we age is perhaps the single most important tool we have to fight disease and promote longevity.
For many, especially those who’ve tasted the zenith of their fitness during youth, this change can be challenging. While some people seem to have no problem remaining motivated in the absence of any tangible performance based goals, many of us require concrete, long-term goals to stay motivated to train.
As a former college level athlete approaching 40, I’ve struggled to really nail down long-term fitness performance goals simply because as I get older it becomes impossible to continually maintain that high level of fitness I had in my 20s.
This realization has brought forth a pivotal question – how does a competitive person set challenging long-term fitness goals that are both achievable and motivating?
The solution lies in adopting an age-graded approach to performance goals. I call this the “95th Percentile Fitness Challenge”
Why It’s a Bad Idea to Push for Linear Progression Based Fitness Goals as we Age
First let’s outline why you shouldn’t implement a standard approach to fitness performance goals as you get older.
It might seem intuitive to strive for some kind of linear progression as we age, but this is a mistake.
Pushing your body to the exact same standard as you did in your former youthful days is not just psychologically disheartening but also risky. As we age, our tendons and ligaments lose elasticity, making them more prone to injuries. Overexertion, driven by the desire to meet past benchmarks, can lead to strains, sprains, or even more severe injuries. The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine outlines the increased risk of injuries as we age, particularly if we don’t adjust our fitness goals to our current physical condition.
The first step to adopting age-graded performance goals is accepting that you’re not going to be able to “out-train” your age.
We also just naturally lose muscle mass and cardiovascular capacity as we age.
A study in the Journal of Applied Physiology points out that our VO2 max, the measure of aerobic capacity, decreases steadily post 25. Moreover, as we touch 30, our muscle mass starts dwindling at 3-5% per decade. This biological fact signifies that aiming for the same fitness improvements we set in our 20s is counterproductive.
Of course, you’ll get the “age is just a number” crowd who would like to dispel this advice and think they can push through anything. “Well what about the Tom Bradys of the world” – they’ll ask.
My question to them is: Should Tom Brady really be the age-defying standard we all hold ourselves to or is he instead an insanely extreme exception fueled by an incredible genetic advantage along with millions of dollars worth of the best sports scientists, nutritionists and trainers in the world propping him up? Also, how many 60 year old NFL quarterbacks do you know? There’s a natural decline for even the best of us.
The Psychological Benefits of Age-Graded Goals
For me the primary benefit to age-graded goal setting is psychological.
A sure-fire way to give up on a goal is to make it impossible. If my V02 max fitness activity goal was the same 20 years from now as it was 20 years ago (for example; running a 400m dash in 47 seconds) I’m doomed.
Society often equates aging with decline but by shifting the focus from absolute benchmarks to relative, age-graded performance metrics, we can construct a more logical but also more optimistic training program.
It’s about pivoting from absolute goals to percentile goals. Comparing yourself with peers instead of a non-existent optimal younger version of you is certain to be more fulfilling.
Such competition not only fuels motivation but also fosters camaraderie among your age group, leading to a more fulfilling fitness journey.
The Age-Graded Approach – A 3 Step Process
So without further adieu, how do we best deploy an age-graded approach to fitness?
Fortunately, I’ve created a 3-step process:
Step #1: Choose your favorite a) endurance, b) VO2 max & c) strength based workouts:
Selecting activities for each of these that you already love doing is key. The age-graded approach to goal setting won’t work if you can’t stick with it because you’ve chosen a type of exercise you loath.
Step #2: Research age-graded percentile ranges for these activities:
To set age-appropriate goals, you need benchmarks. Age-graded percentile ranges, which provide age-specific standards for various activities, serve this purpose.
In the next section I’ve highlighted 3 different ways I researched ranges for a theoretical 10k running activity.
Step #3: Set percentile goals, not absolute goals:
Finally, align your researched benchmarks with your current fitness to set long-term performance goals for yourself.
Absolute goals, like running a mile under 6 minutes, can become increasingly unrealistic as we age. On the other hand, targeting a performance that positions you in a specific percentile for your age group ensures goals remain challenging AND achievable.
Choosing Your Favourite Fitness Activities
Both lifespan and life enjoyment are greatly enhanced when you have the physical capacity to continue to do the things you love.
In Peter Attia’s groundbreaking book on longevity, “Outlive”, he highlights 4 primary fitness pillars:
- Aerobic Efficiency
- Anaerobic Performance
3 of these (strength, aerobic efficiency & anaerobic performance) are perfect to utilize an age-graded goal setting approach.
For example, if running was your jam you could train to optimize anaerobic performance by setting goals for a mile run or even a specific interval session (like a 4x400m) and hold yourself accountable to a 10k road race to test aerobic efficiency yearly.
Regardless of what your activities end up being, you have to ensure your goals spread across these 3 categories.
If you’re in the 99th percentile for weight lifting but only the 30th percentile for your endurance activities it’s time to adjust your priorities in your routine.
You’ll also see major diminishing marginal returns to training input as you work your way through age-graded percentiles. It’s much harder to go from the 98th to 99th percentile than from the 50th to 51st percentile.
Finding & Setting Age Graded, Percentile Based Goals
This next step requires a ton of research but is necessary and I promise it will be worth it.
What follows is a fairly lengthy example of my process for determining percentile ranges for men’s 10k running.
In the examples that follow I use a theoretical 50 year old man who is currently running a 40 minute 10k (ie. a highly fit, highly competitive individual!).
I probably go into a bit more depth than you otherwise need to by cross-referencing 3 different sources.
First, I looked at the best of the best.
The 10k world records all the way from 40yo to 90yo. This is what I found:
Based on this data, I then calculated the % 10k time decline with every 5 years of age added which gave me:
As you can see from age 40 all the way to age 80 the % decrease is pretty linear. However for the 80-85yo & 85-90yo age categories the data really starts to skew. This is almost certainly because the sample size of data (ie. not that many 90 year olds racing 10ks!) is too small.
In this case I ignored that last 2 age groups and based on the rest of the data concluded that the most elite runners (the 99.99% for their age group) experience ~ 5% decrease every 5 years. Ie. a 1% drop off per year.
Based on this information how should my theoretical 40 minute 10k 50 year old reshape his long-term goals?
Well, if he’s goal setting for the next 5 years, an equivalent age-graded performance for a 55 year old would be 42 minutes.
A great way to use this would be to say, “if I can run faster than 42 minutes in 5 years I am in better relative shape as a 55 year old than I was as a 50 year old”.
Next, I wanted to see where this same man might stack up against his age graded peers.
For this, I turned to the RunnersWorld Age-Grading Calculator
Using this calculator for the same 50yo man running a 40minute 10k yielded the results:
According to Runners World this is what the age-graded scores mean:
- 100 percent = world record
- 90 percent = world class
- 80 percent = national class
- 70 percent = regional class
- 60 percent = local class
Based on this information we can set yet another age-graded performance goal for our 50 year old: improve from regional class runner to a national class runner.
What would this take?
A national class (80%) 10k for a 50 year old would equate to 37:30.
Using the age-graded calculator this same national class 10k for a 60 year old would equate to 41:00.
So using an age-graded approach your (ambitious!) decade long goal of moving from a regional class 10k 50 year old to a national class 10k 60 year old would be only declining from a 40 minute to 41 minute 10k. You’ve actually slowed down by 1 minute but become a superior age-graded athlete!
Finally, to get a better birds eye view I took to percentile charts
These charts furnish a comprehensive picture, mapping out performances across age groups.
Below are Big data running percentile charts for a 5k for each age:
To quickly ascertain a 5k equivalency for our same 40 minute 10k example I popped this into the very handy Mercier Tables for runners. These tables essentially equate what would be similarly impressive performances no matter what the distance. So a 40 minute 10k is equivalent to a 18:47 5k.
Checking 18:47 on the percentile chart for a 50 year old male reveals this to be between the 98th and 99th percentile. Pretty darn good and this definitely makes sense comparing this time to the general population (I picked a VERY fast example).
So how can these charts help our theoretical athlete goal set?
He might use them to set the following goal: “I never want to drop below the 98th percentile for aerobic fitness for the rest of my life”.
Quickly referencing these charts will reveal that he would have to then run:
- Under 21:41 at age 60
- Under 25:17 at age 70
- And under 35 minutes at age 80
I used 3 different methods to set 3 different age graded goals:
- “Improve” my 10k from 40:00 at 50 to 41:00 at 55
- In the next 10 years improve from a “regional class” to “national class” runner
- Always remain in the top 2.5% of aerobic capacity for my age
Fantastic goals to be sure!
A Quick Note on Recovery, Ancillary Training & Sustainability
With age, the body’s ability to recover post-workout diminishes. It’s no longer about how hard you can push yourself, but how smart your training. Incorporate adequate rest days in your routine. Techniques like deep tissue massages & cold exposure, have proven beneficial for muscle recovery. Moreover, sleep, often overlooked, plays a pivotal role in recovery. Prioritizing a consistent sleep schedule aids in muscle repair and growth.
As the years roll on, our joints undergo wear and tear. Engaging in balance, flexibility and mobility exercises not only combats this but also augments the range of motion, reducing the risk of injuries. As mentioned above, Peter Attia outlines “balance” as being one of the 4 primary pillars of exercise. This component is beyond the scope of this article but something I highly suggest incorporating into your routine. These exercises not only enhance flexibility but also offer the added advantage of mental tranquility.
Stagnation is the enemy of progress. In the world of fitness, consistent tracking and timely adjustments ensure you’re always on an upward trajectory. Tracking goes hand in hand with performance goal setting. Modern tools like fitness trackers (I use a Garmin vivoactive) can be indispensable in this regard. They not only monitor your daily activities but also provide insights on heart rate, sleep cycles, and recovery, enabling a comprehensive understanding of your body’s needs. Based on this data, make regular tweaks to your regimen, ensuring that your goals remain relevant and challenging.
Determinants of VO2 max decline with aging: an integrated perspective
Big data running percentile charts
Age-related sarcopenia and its pathophysiological bases.
Runners World Age Graded Calculator
Peter Attia – Outlive