What’s Up With the “Old” Gymnast? How to Maintain Peak Performance As You Age

Olympic athletes like Yordan Yovchev, the 39 yr old Bulgarian gymnast, are amazing examples of how you can maintain peak performance with age.   He  and many others defy aging performance rules to excel at the Olympic and elite levels…

…so are they Superhuman, or have they somehow cracked the code on aging and peak performance?

Is it possible to enhance your performance potential into your 40’s, 50’s, even 70s?

It is exciting to note that there were 187 athletes over the age of 40 in this year’s Games.  Most of the over 50 crowd are competing in Equestrian events and Shooting.  while they are indeed physical demands in these sports (I ride Dressage, I know!) these sports rely more on years of skill development and finesse, less on athletic strength and speed.

Believe it or not there are some strategies that you can begin to use right now to resist declines and even maintain peak performance as you age.

Why Is Performance Affected as We Age?

There is a typically a gradual decline in overall performance  from middle adulthood (35-45) until age 70, when the decline tends to increase at a more drastic rate.  This decline is highly exaggerated, in the sedentary.  Here are a few of the changes expected of the general active population.

Physical Factors

  1. Aerobic capacity of highly trained athletes only declines approx 5-7%  per decade. This is just HALF of the loss associated with the sedentary aging process.
  2. Changing hormonal environment decline of cell function, slower repair of skeletal muscle and perhaps less efficient protein metabolism.
  3. Loss of Muscle mass/function:  Sedentary individuals are at risk of losing at least 1% of muscle mass per year over age 40. BUT Fit Active adults have only slightly reduced mitochondria in the muscles compared to younger athletes.
  4. Increased perceived fatigue and increased soreness, and decreased sense of recovery  after days of hard exercises.  The same work load yielded similar overall performance decline as younger athletes.
  5. Flexibility of tendons, ligaments, and joints is often impaired, often leading to even less exercise and use of muscles, leading to further atrophy, and decreased range of motion.

Lifestyle Factors

  1. Less Time to train/ Responsibilities
  2. Life Stress-Psychological Fatigue
  3. Inadequate Nutrition
  4. Overtraining as Compensation for Decreased performance
  5. Inadequate/Poor Quality Sleep

A 4 Prong Approach to Maintain Peak Performance As You Age

1. Lifestyle management:  Prioritize your values and rank them.  If you truly value family over job title, it helps make the decision to spend less time at work, and more time with family.  If you value fitness and competition over a well kept manicured lawn, give yourself permission to order your day as such- guilt free. Design your days and weeks around your values .  You will be amazed at how many stresses we feel are self imposed reactions to a list of obligations that have nothing to do with who you are!   I highly recommend the book by Hyrum Smith 10 Natural Laws of Successful Time and Life Management

2. Nutrition:  You are what you eat and what you ate ate.  Give your body every opportunity to heal from daily stresses, with low-allergenic, anti-inflammatory foods.   This approach will give your gut the best chance to perform- ie digest, absorb nutrients and maintain strong immune system and communicate appropriate feedback to the brain. Fill your plate with real unprocessed food.

Some basic nutrition guidelines and suggestions:

  • High quality protein sources from pastured or wild caught animals, such as buffalo, salmon, pastured beef and chicken, pastured/cage free eggs
  • Quality satiating fats such as Olive Oil, Macadamia Oil, Avocados, Olives, Coconut Oils, Pasture Butter and Ghee
  • High quality sources of nutrient dense carbohydrate like yams/sweet potatoes.  As many and wide variety of all veggies and rich leafy greens that you can eat, doesn’t have to be all kinds every day, but a weekly variety is a good way to approach your veggies
  • AVOID sugar, fake sugars, soy, caffeine, alcohol, processed grains and meat, especially during times you want optimal recovery
  • DO include Proteolytic and Digestive Enzymes, Probiotics, Fish Oil, BCAAs (branch chain Amino acids).
  • DO supplement with Magnesium, from a source such as Ancient Minerals transdermal oil and Natural Calm
  • DO get 50% of your fat sources from saturated fat – necessary to process cholesterol, Omega 3, support nerve and cell membranes & keep gut mucous lining healthy for improved digestion.
  • Vitamin C from whole food sources as an antioxidant and to support Collagen
  • Glucosamine/Chondroitin supplementation to support joint/ligament health
  • Vitamin D and Iron likely should be supplemented with monitoring.
  • Creatine supplementation may also be warranted.

*check out this  great resource containing more links for training with a low carb lifestyle.   Ben Greenfield’s SuperHuman Food Pyramid is a simple plan to find the balance and choices that will support any athletic lifestyle while minimizing stress of poor food choices on the body.

 3.  Training Variety and Intensity:  By all means sport specific training is valuable, especially with time limiters of most aging athletes, elite or otherwise.  However as we age, focus most likely should shift a few days a week from endurance building to more intense and strength sessions.  Working with a coach can help identify exact areas to develop and maintain and how to safely incorporate intervals and build a program that is specific and efficacious for your longevity and goals.

  •  Interval sessions with appropriate rest intervals.  Focus on form and ability to maintain desired speed/effort throughout session.
  •  Strength Training with heavier weights can maximize residual function during aging and even add muscle repairing satellite cells, which can fight chronic old age diseases and Increase performance throughout middle age. See this post on exercising efficiently for time and max muscular benefit.
  • Balance and Range Of Motion exercises should be included independent of strength training. Yoga, one leg balance exercises, walking on rocks, unstable surfaces, wobble boards.  Get out in nature with your kids or grand kids and climb and play.

4.  Recovery- Recovery is “the ability of the cells, muscles, joints and nervous system to recover from physical strain as quickly as possible”

  • Most studies of aging athletes has shown the need for purposeful, quality recovery for the aging athlete to maintain his/her ability to train and perform at high levels. Olympic athletes like Dara Torres note that they are consistently tired and sore, and have to add much more rest to the program to continue to train as hard as necessary.  It may be oversimplifying but Train hard, rest hard!
  • Monitoring recovery is a key factor of the elite and it can be done in many ways.  One simple online system that evaluates subjective data on a variety of levels is restwise.com.

Ways to Optimize Recovery:

  • Rest: some off or low effort days, more frequent rest weeks between hard build weeks.  As you age it is not usually beneficial to train through fatigue and soreness.
  • Nutrition:  See above nutrition tips.
  • Sleep: 7-9 hrs minimum=  We are wired do to more with less sleep in today’s world, just because you can doesn’t mean you should.  Melatonin is vital to the recovery process as a natural antioxidant and hormone that supports immune function, even fat loss while you sleep.  Interfering with this hormone with bedtime computer light, tv lights, and our standard artificial lighting can block melatonin from being released when you sleep.  I recommend the book Lights Out! if you really want to use sleep to enhance your life and performance.
  • Recovery/Injury Aids – make these part of your Team!
  1.  Foam Roller:  As firm as you can find – AT very LEAST have this at your disposal.
  2.  Massage:  Vital to reducing adhesions and tight fascia that may predispose to injury
  3. Compression:  Wraps, compression tights- acts as a “Heart” for veins and lymph accelerating waste removal from           inflammation
  4.  Ice:  As needed acutely for pain management.
  5.  Electrostimulation:  Increases heat and blood flow to injury
  6.  Cold Laser:  Non heat producing light laser with a variety of applications
  7.  Acupuncture:  Helps to re-introduce inflammation and healing
  8.  KT tape:   Has shown efficacy as support/stimulation blood flow and lymph drainage

These are just a few of the available support systems you can use to stay at the top of your game.  New technologies emerge continually, with their own unique applications that may be worth a try.


You want to develop and maintain peak performance as you age.   It isn’t complicated, it just requires a balanced plan of action.  Setting up your athletic goals within a realistic plan that enhances the rest of your life is a great start.  Taking care of your spirit and body with sport and exercise is one piece of the puzzle.

Enhancing your body’s ability to perform by optimizing nutrition, training and recovery also leads to a healthier, happier you, regardless of your performance goals.

Establish a simple system that works for you before problems and weakness develop.  You will appear SuperHuman to your fellow aging athletes who continue to grind away without making the necessary adaptations.

Eating well, training well, resting well – with these strategies you can move the line of the decline.

Have you struggled to maintain your former athletic abilities?  What techniques have helped you cope, manage or even improve?  Let us know below!