Slow Swimming: Is it Age . . . or Activity?
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on January 27th, 2011

I’ll turn 60 in several weeks and am more avidly engaged with swimming than ever. For one reason because I’m pursuing concrete and specific goals — Adirondack Masters records in the 60-64 age group. For a second, I appear to have lost a good deal of speed in the past five years.

Year ago, I would have found that discouraging. Now it simply makes me curious. Focusing on times, rather than just efficiency, allows me to explore a question universal among performance-oriented (or Masters) swimmers in my age range: How much of our declining performance is an unavoidable fact of aging, and how much may be ‘preventable’ by purposeful training?

The relationship between age and athletic performance is of increasing interest because ‘seniors’ are the fastest-growing  age group in the U.S. and worldwide, and senior athletes provide invaluable clues on how to slow the aging process. Active people age more slowly than those who are sedentary. Those who train for performance seem to age most slowly of all.

Intensive – and organized – training takes commitment and motivation. I find this kind of motivation is stoked by both the possibility of improvement and a sense of empowerment. The idea that I can take mindful steps to slow the clock in measurable ways is powerful.

There’s been little study of age and swimming performance, but studies that followed serious runners over several decades, and analysis of age-group records, has shown that performance in events from the mile to the marathon declines about 1% per year from age 25 to 60, then nearly 2% per year beyond age 60.

So I know there’s a possibility that my markedly slower times from five years ago may simply reflect ‘natural’ aging. However, it’s also true that my training the past four years has been more oriented to health and enjoyment than speed, so ‘speed rust’ – absence of the neural and physical capacities required to swim faster – may also explain some.

For the next six months, my training will be speed-oriented in a way it has not been since 2006. Twice a week, for 30 to 40 minutes each time, I’ll do practice sets that are markedly more physically demanding than usual. (Note: Rather than simply try to raise my heart rate, I’ll seek to systematically improve how I combine stroke count and stroke rate, working at the very edge of my ‘neural capability.’ Testing my nervous system this way also causes my physiological systems to work near their limits.) At my age, I need to be just as attentive to recovery between those sets as to the work I do during them.

How much speed I manage to recover will provide clues as to how much of my performance is related to normal aging and how much to how I train. Those insights will be useful not only to me, but to many people my age.

I’ve also noticed that I have less interest than I used to in what it takes to swim fast at, say, age 25, where ‘elite’ swimming happens. Rather, I’m far more curious about the needs and challenges of people my age. I suppose this will remain true as I move into my 70s and 80s. I’m not surprised about this development; it’s highly personal. But it also feels significant — as the population ages along with me, you could argue this is the true cutting edge of human potential.

10 Responses to “Slow Swimming: Is it Age . . . or Activity?”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by TERRY LAUGHLIN, TERRY LAUGHLIN. TERRY LAUGHLIN said: I'm swimming in meets and for time in practice again and discover I'm much slower than when I last did this 5… […]

  2. harry says:

    Hi Terry,
    Another great post.
    I’m not really a swimmer (although TI is transforming me) but I coach outdoor sports and I find your blog to be consistently some of the best stuff I read on the internet.
    Just wanted to say thanks for sharing.

  3. Glenn G says:

    While I am sure that there is some degradation of performance due to aging, overall I think the common wisdom on this is dead wrong. For example, where does this 2% decline after 60 come from? If the 2% decline even exists, could there be other factors at play. For example, maybe as the athletes age they just don’t try as hard. Maybe winning, and all of the work that goes into winning just isn’t that appealing anymore. Maybe being just a little sorer than they were at 40 turns the effort down a notch. Who knows. Then too, there is the power of belief and intent. If you believe you will get slower, and most people do, then you will get slower.

    I am 61 and only started training at around age 54. I learned to swim using TI and became a triathlete. After two years I stopped competing, but now I am at it again. I train 2-3 hours per day, 6 days per week. My interval work gets my HR’s up over 90%. I am training for a half ironman in May and have never been in better shape in my life. I did a half IM 5 years ago and was fast enough to win my age group, yet even with no competition since then, until last season, I am now faster then I was then. I have no athletic genes or history. But I do the work, every day. And every day I am more and more amazed at just what our bodies are capable of.

    Thanks for TI and thanks for your thoughtful insights. As for your speed in six months, my money is on you getting faster.

  4. David Shen says:

    Please do post the results of your speed training and the race itself. I’m a big believer that age does not have to mean you get slower.

  5. Glenn. You probably sense I hope you’re right and the common wisdom is wrong. In addition to the performance studies, there have been other studies that suggest an accelerating decline in physical capacity somewhere around age 60. However, as you note the results of those studies could well reflect mainly a reduction in motivation to do the frankly-difficult work of the more intensive side of training. It’s a lot easier to do what I think of as “steady state” training – where your HR stays in a relatively narrow range for a relatively extended period. It’s much harder to, essentially, put your heart of a roller-coaster. A short bout of very high HR training, then a recovery period — well below your normal aerobic range. I’ve done hardly any of this sort of training in the 20+ years I’ve been a Masters athlete. In part I’m doing this now to push myself out of my comfort zone. And in part to answer the question you pose. If my experience suggests that the aging process responds more positively to a choice to train more intensively, who could fail to be encouraged?

  6. I’m delighted to learn I have avid readers in the UK as well. Great thing about the internet. Would like to learn more about your coaching.

  7. […] TI Weekend Workshop Total Immersion Swimming triathlon yoga and swimming Zendurance « Slow Swimming: Is it Age . . . or Activity? What can happen if we train more intensively in middle age? by Terry Laughlin Posted on January […]

  8. Harry says:

    I coach waveskiing and surf kayaking and coach ed courses for kayak and canoe coaches.
    I think the concepts of mindful practise, kaizen, process goals vs outcome goals, etc, that are core to your TI philosophy are often overlooked by many coaches. I believe that most people, including serious competitors, take part in sport, not just to improve a time, a technique or to win (what most coaches focus on) but because of the all round benefits – whether they realise it or not. Shifting the emphasis from “skills coaching” to the concepts mentioned, allows me to coach what people really want to know – how to enjoy (practising) their sport and stay motivated to continue reaping the rewards.
    TI and Danny Dreyer’s Chirunning have both given me a lot to think about and adapt into my own coaching.
    Thanks for your interest.

  9. Harry Thanks for your wonderful contribution. You should think about writing a column for some adult health or fitness publication or web site on that principle. Include real examples of people who’ve made that discovery with your help.

  10. Harry says:

    Thanks for the words of encouragement. I am (slowly) working on a website.

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