Peak Performance, Later

A year ago, one year before he turned 70, Joe Friel decided he had a
book to write. 

The author and cyclist has coached champions, on both the domestic and global level, in mountain biking, cycling, and triathlons—including one Olympian. That continued through his 50s and 60s, and he got to thinking that it didn’t need to stop there. 

In our interviews, we have heard time and again about the importance of maintaining physical health for staying on top of your game all through life. But we also hear a lot from those who choose later life as a time to get into their Best Shape Ever. So we decided to look for more inspiration on the topic. 

Fast After 50 is not your typical ‘time-to-get-healthy’ paean, but a science-based guide for the aggressive athlete who sees no reason to slow down after a certain age. And from what Friel writes, they’ll be breaking current age records at a consistent rate over the next few years. 

When he’s not flying around the country speaking on the topic, Friel himself still manages to compete in his specialty discipline, cycling. Following a 2013 crash that left him with a concussion and broken bones, he’s spent the last year rebuilding his fitness to the point where he looks forward to racing next year. He’ll be 72. We spoke to Joe about top performing potential later in life. 

Do you get the feeling this generation of over-50s is more interested in a healthy lifestyle than generations previous?

No question about it. The baby boomer generation, just now into their mid-60s, is the generation that became interested in endurance sports starting in the 1970s with the running boom. This group of people have become very dedicated in their lives to fitness. There is no question that they are going to change the records as they progress into their 70s. Those people will change the way we view age as far as sport is concerned. They’re having a big impact on it. 

Why do you think that is? 

My guess is that it has something to do with opportunity. My father’s generation had to deal with the Great Depression; putting food on the table was a big deal, making income was extremely difficult. Then he’s faced with WWII. Finally when things began to settle down … he saw something about exercise that was frivolous. 

What’s the biggest misconception about training later in life? 

There’s no doubt that our genes are programmed in a way that we’re going to slow down. However, the other side of the coin is lifestyle. When I talk to sports scientists on the studies they’ve done, they’ve found that lifestyle is the bigger factor, not genetics. We tend to believe [slowing down] is inevitable: we’re going to have illness, and arthritis; we’re going to have all of these problems. But I don’t think people realize all the small decisions they make throughout their lives in terms of later life ... If you have a diet high in junk foods, it doesn’t show up at all at first, but by the time you’re in your 60s, you’ll start having inflammation in your joints. 

In your book you advocate being more aggressive in slowing the aging process. What are the key takeaways for someone over 50? 

When we gravitate towards long, slow-distance training, and stay away from high intensity, our aerobic capacity goes away real quick. We tend to become less aggressive in training as we get older and are less likely to do anything to improve our strength. But you can’t go through your later years trying to make everything as easy as possible all the time. Lifting weights is one way to boost fitness at any age. Even if you don’t lift weights it’s good to include hill training for cyclists and runners. 

Do you think the fitness industry caters to these people? 

My advice to companies is, ‘Who’s the market?’ I try to help them understand, the baby boomers are the ones who started all this; they’re the ones who are retiring and have time. We should make products that keep them in mind. These products are designed by people in their 30s and 40s and [they] don’t understand it’s difficult to make out numbers on a sports watch. They don’t realize that when you’re running, you’re not wearing your reading glasses. Those folks are looking for bigger numbers essentially. 

What does a good workout look like for someone looking to push it over 50?

There are some basic workouts that somebody over 50 should do. Long, slow-distance running, they need to keep on doing that. But it’s important to shift some of that over to high intensity. When it’s very intense and very hard, people shy away … that’s probably the case because they quit doing it some time before, and lost the capacity for that type of work. They need to get back into it slowly, again. Slowly reintroduce high intensity training by doing only one or two, 30-second intervals at high intensity once week. Every two to three weeks add another. When you get to five minutes total high intensity intervals in a workout make them one-minute intervals with one-minute recoveries. Do five of these. After several months you should be able to get to where you can do five times three minutes at high intensity, with a three-minute recoveries. Don’t rush it trying to get there. It may take six months that’s ok. You’re in this for a lifetime. Patience. Simply allow the body time to adapt. People don’t allow for adaptation.