Endurance Training

31st March 2016

As we age we experience structural and functional deterioration in most of our physiological systems which can negatively impact our health and ability to perform normal daily activities. Certain age-related physiological changes can also affect sports performance. This article will highlight the changes the 50+ athlete experiences and how certain training methods can address them in order to maintain or improve performance. The list below includes the primary determinants of endurance performance.

Changes in O2 uptake kinetics, blood volume and composition as well as changes in pulmonary function and gas exchange negatively impact our VO2max. This means our ‘engine’ becomes less efficient and has a smaller capacity with a lower ceiling.

Lactate Profile
Changes in enzymatic activity lead to decreases in lactate recycling .This means our explosive efforts become more demanding and we recover less quickly from them. These changes mean we also have a lower ‘Maximal Lactate Steady State’ (MLSS) which means the maximum amount of work we can do at a steady pace is lower and we become slower.

Running/Cycling Economy
Changes in metabolism such as fat oxidation, decreases in muscle strength, power and flexibility measures and declines in motor performance negatively impact our economy of movement which means it costs more in terms of oxygen and substrate use (fat or carbohydrate) to get from A to B.

Cardiovascular System
Changes in blood pressure and vascular function also occur as we age negatively affecting performance as well as increasing the likelihood of certain cardio-vascular and metabolic disease. Importantly as our VO2max and lactate threshold decline we must work at higher percentages of maximal capacity in order to maintain previous performances whilst being at a higher cardiovascular risk.

Musculoskeletal Changes
Anthropometrical changes such as increases in body-fat and decreases in skeletal muscle mass along with a reduction in bone quality and slower reaction times mean we are more likely to suffer from falls and fractures. Tight joints and soft tissue also affect movement so whether you are on the road, in the water or on a bike it will cost you more energy to get from A to B, in other words your ‘Movement Economy’ has been negatively affected.

Ideally our endurance performance is built on a sound AEROBIC base. This base is built by long distance running at a steady pace. Doing this increases the amount and improves the function of our slow twitch muscles fibres. These fibres soak up lactate and recycle it whilst at the same time use predominantly FAT as the main substrate, the main fuel source. It is possible to improve your VO2 max, Lactate measurements and run times without a sound aerobic base but you will have a much lower PERFORMANCE CEILING. This is fine most of the time but if you really want significant improvements or if you have hit a rut in your training it may be your weak base holding you back.

Table 1 shows a MACROCYCLE. A periodised program for the year for an amateur Sportive rider. The first series of tests is in January, 3 ½ months prior to the first Sportive in April which will be used as a training ride before getting more competitive in May.


The first MESOCYCLE (off-season phase, weeks 1-9) is used to improve base conditioning with a focus on high volume, low intensity. This is the time to get your AEROBIC TESTING done. Runs, swims and bike rides should focus on duration although some intervals can be included once a week.

The second MESOCYCLE (pre-season, 10-18) moves toward more intense intervals but with a reduction in volume and including a taper toward the end of the month in order to be fresh for May and June. Get an ANAEROBIC TEST done at the beginning of this period. Training is moving away from duration, although keep your weekend long effort, and maximal lactate steady state training is added to VO2 Max Intervals and Lactate Intervals.

MESOCYCLE 3 (in-season, 19-42) includes 5 Sportives. In order to be fresh for these a maintenance program should be followed. This is not the time to attempt huge gains on performance through training otherwise your Sportive times could be affected through general and localised fatigue. Recovery rides and rest days are particularly important in this phase in order to maintain freshness.

MESOCYCLE 4 (Transition, 43-52) is spent initially ‘unloading’, recovering from the intense In-season phase. This is the time to go rowing or running if you are a cyclist, Wattbike if you are a runner or maybe climbing, Pilates or Yoga, just try something different. This is also the perfect time to have a MUSCULOSKELETAL ASSESSMENT in order to try and rehab any chronic or acute injuries.

At SSC we use computerised gas analysis as well as blood lactate measurements taken during a series of tests on a Wattbike or Treadmill to determine an athletes VO2 Max, Lactate Profile and/or Running Economy. The data can inform us on the size and efficiency of an athlete’s engine and whether base conditioning needs to be improved. Testing at the beginning of the year is recommended in order design a more effective program.

You can also get an approximate idea of your VO2 Max. by performing sub-max tests such as:

1) The Chester Step Test http://www.topendsports.com/testing/tests/chester.htm;
2) The Beep Test http://www.topendsports.com/testing/tests/20mshuttle.htm.

These tests can be performed with 2 people taking data and 1 subject although 1 person can run a test at a push and if they are experienced.

You can then visit ww.sportscienceconsultants.com to compare your data to elite athletes and normal populations.


  • Your training program, load and intensity should change over the year to reflect different phases.
  • Make sure you have a good AEROBIC BASE. This can be assessed with a VO2 Max test. Long, slow distance training can improve this.
  • Build on your base in Phase 2. Add Intervals and MLSS training in order to raise your thresholds. You will need a recovery session or a rest day the day after.
  • If your training is not making you faster or you are picking up regular injuries then your program could be at fault and you need a proper assessment an personalized program design.

ssc_full_logoRichard Brennan is  managing director of Sport Science Consultants Ltd. He is a clinically trained Exercise Physiologist with a BSc. in Sport Science and an MSc. in Sport & Exercise Physiology. Click here to read his biography.