A big congrats to Diane, Julia and Karen for placing 5th, 3rd and 1st (respectively) in the 50-54 age group! These ladies are showing that age is just a number. Even at 50+ years of age, you can still feel fit and perform well with your body.
It's often said that every athlete will "peak" by a certain age and will then decline in speed, endurance and strength. In the mind of an athlete, you may believe that you are losing fitness and you will no longer experience success in your sport. This couldn't be more far from the truth.
One of the great aspects of triathlon is that you can start the sport later in life and still feel like you are still gaining fitness, endurance and strength. Triathlon is not a sport that rewards the young and genetically gifted.
Most of us never come close to our true fitness potential. Therefore, you can't put an age as to when your fitness will begin to decline. It's all about being smart with your training, lifestyle choices and health. And of course, "use it or lose it."
Although several physiological changes occur later in life, this doesn't mean that the aging athlete (ex. over 50 years) should stop setting goals for self-improvement.
As it relates to the fitness and performance decline that many older athletes experience, I believe the biggest mistake that aging athletes make is failing to accept that lifestyle, nutrition and training regimes need to change. You can't train, sleep, eat and recover like your 20-year old self. No longer will your body let you push hard, day after day, as it did when you were younger. There is less margin of error. Whereas a younger athlete may be able to thrive off limited sleep and a poorly planned diet, you need to be smarter when it comes to the best approaches to adapting to training stress.
As you age, you must be willing to change and adapt. For example, when it comes to training, you will only get slower if you just focus on long or aerobic training sessions. Instead, you need strength and intensity added safely into your training. The aging athlete can not compromise sleep - which is often the first to go with a busy life schedule of work and kids and extracurricular activities. Lastly, the aging athlete must constantly fine-tune the daily diet, taking into account energy expenditure, macro and micronutrient needs and fluid intake. Age-related changes in body composition, resting energy expenditure and volume/intensity/frequency of training influence how much and when you eat.
For more information on this topic, I have two past articles for your reading pleasure:
Case Study: The Proactive Senior Athlete
Nutritional needs for the older female athlete.