The Value and Disillusionment of Age Group Rankings

I am new to this sport, with just over 3 years of experience under my belt. Soccer and weight lifting were my outlet for a decade before I got into the endurance world. I grew up on a farm, which provided me with a strong work ethic and introduced the idea early in my life that women can step up and work just as hard as men. Bailing hay with my daddy, gutting a fish with my uncle, and lifting with the high school football team taught me a unique sense of character that’s still hard to put into words. I hope this snapshot sets the background for the upcoming content in this article.

            Of my 10 + years as a fitness professional, I’ve had the pleasure of training a variety of people: old and young; secure and insecure; divorced, single, and married; skinny and overweight, weak and strong, dedicated and somewhat lazy. It’s no surprise that as I’ve focused my personal goals on endurance training and racing that my clientele has shifted towards that demographic, too.

            At first, I was thrilled! An opportunity to use my passion in this new endeavor to help a new demographic of people, what could be better? Unfortunately, the world is not always sunshine and rainbows, and quickly a sense of defeat replaced my enthusiasm. The root cause of my frustrations? The rampant obsession with age group placements.

            Age group placing has value, without a doubt, in running, cycling, swimming, and multisport competition. It brings a sense of competition to the field, and can provide an extra push in workouts. In what other sport can a 25-year- old place 3rd in her field, while her father at 63 can also place 3rd in his field?! It’s an awesome way stay positive and competitive throughout the training and racing years. It levels the playing field between the youth and senior. For that, I am thankful!

            However, I have seen people completely demoralized when their dreams of placing in an event, or qualifying for something with an age group win, are dashed in one race. What kind of absolute rubbish is that? Sports are a LIFESTYLE, a celebration of hard work and dedication that most of us thrive on. Athletes that throw in the towel after a race that didn’t go the way they wanted it to remind me of pouting children that need an attitude check. Clearly, the intentions of training and racing are not to be a better person with an active lifestyle. Rather, it seems these people are “age group champions, or not athletes at all.” This all or nothing mentality is exhausting to witness, so I cannot imagine how exhausting it would be to live under such pressures.

            Athletes, I strongly encourage you to think about your training and racing intentions. Each session should have a focus, mentally and physically. Each race should have process (emotion-based) and outcome (results-based) goals. Why do you want to get faster? How do you feel when you train hard? What emotions are you seeking from completing a race or a workout? What makes you feel better about yourself? (fueling well, being organized with family/work/ training, hitting numbers you never thought you could, etc)

Age group placements and rankings are an awesome thing to check after a race to see if executing a plan aligned with beating people that happen to share the same birth year as you. How silly to allow self-worth to be determined by a sport, let alone a birthday. Don’t let that uncontrollable factor dictate how you feel about yourself. You can’t control who comes to a race, just like you can’t control weather and mechanical issues.

For me, training and racing next to men reminds me a bit of childhood activities, like learning to hunt with my cousins. I smile as I share a course that’s open to males and females alike. I know I’d make my high school boys proud as I pound the run hard and chick the field. Sure, it helps to be a strong, youthful athlete, but the sense of joy I feel by training and competing at my best is essential to my lifestyle. I respect my body, so I train it in a way that brings the best out of each muscle. I bond with my husband by sharing miles with him, and the emotional ups and downs training brings. Am I happier when I place highly at a race? Yes and no. I have finished quite well in my age group in some races, but been completely disappointed with my execution. I knew I could have done better. Placement is bonus, a detail that matters very little. My process goals, which consist of taking risks at certain points in a race or pushing through certain adversities, dictate how I feel about a performance 100x’s more.

How about we try to take some pressure of that pressure off? Try to think about your intentions: If an age group placing is important to you- awesome! I hope you can use that to develop yourself in a deeper way. If qualifying for an event is a MUST, list some reasons why training, racing, qualifying, and racing that event will make you a better person. What opportunities will you have, what risks will you need to take that will lead to you being a better you? Talk to some people who share your goals, and have successfully achieved them. This may help keep you, your ego, and your timeline in check.

Life is much too short to spend it comparing splits to people in a 5-year age category. Yes, a world championship event, or Boston, would be cool to compete in. I won’t deny that (though it’s not personally appealing to me, I acknowledge it is an awesome motivator) Sports are so much more meaningful than the sole “tunnel vision” drive of AG placing or qualifications. The process driving you to each workout or finish line should be so apparent. I hope that the character you develop, the audience you attract, the teams you build, the lives you change (including your own) drives you more than a medal that you share with thousands. Define what lifestyle means to you, and how sports fit into it. Figure out what drives YOU to push the pedals, lace up the shoes, zip up the wetsuit.

Periodization: What’s Your Purpose

Whether you’re a member of Curves, Orange Theory, a small group, a private client, or just working out on your own…are you training with a purpose? In other words, are there various forms of intensity incorporated in your routine to prevent a plateau? If the answer is no, then read on to learn how to optimize your training. If the answer is yes, are you training progressively in the right order? Read on to learn where to start, and how to progress safely with results.

Step 1: Baselines

In order to figure out where to start, there needs to be a baseline. This should be done during an assessment with a coach or trainer. Typically, we look at posture (where are you imbalanced?), flexibility, and movement with a few screens. The FMS movement screening process (my go-to’s are: Hurdle step, Overhead Squat, Stork Balance Test, Straight Leg Raise, Sit to Stand) can determine A LOT about a person. If you haven’t gone through this process, start there. You’ll need a set of eyes to determine your score. Seek a trainer for this if you don’t have one!

After determining your posture and movement “starting point,” a performance test or two is encouraged. This can be a 12 minute Cooper Test (go as far as you can in 12 minutes after a good warm up), a VO2 ramp test, FTP bike test, a 1-3 rep maximum test out on bench, squat, or deadlift; a maximal pushup, plank, or pull up test, a one mile or 5K test, or a 40 meter dash test. The list goes on, but the idea is each individual is tested based on their training goal. I try to pick a test relative to a client’s goal, and one that is appropriate for them based on an assessment. Someone who is fairly imbalanced or de-conditioned, for example, should not be doing a maximal test.

VO2 Max Testing (Anaerobic)
Sub-Maximal 5 Rep Testing

Once you’ve done an assessment and established some baselines, you’re ready to begin some structured training.

Step 2: Periodization

Let me be clear: Fitness is not about cool new exercises that make you sore. Fitness is programmed stimuli that encourages neuromuscular adaptations to take place. In other words, without new intensities, modalities (various equipment), variable rest and reps, how can we experience growth? Soreness is not a measure of how successful a workout is, though it can be a bi-product of a hard session. Take your assessment and baseline test, and work through the following stages:

  1. Stability: Focus on balance training and “fixing” some of those mechanical issues that showed up in your assessment. It’s ok to incorporate this stage into later training phases!
  2. Endurance: Focus on building your endurance, now that you’ve got a stable base! Reps are higher, rest is shorter.
  3. Muscular Hypertrophy: After building a stable base, and a formidable platform of stamina, begin pushing. This means some overload sets: strong intensity with fairly short rest.
  4. Maximal Strength: This is an advanced stage of training. Reps are LOW, intensity is HIGH, and rest is long. In order to be successful in this stage, you’ll need an excellent foundation of form, technique, stability, mobility, endurance, and strength or you will most likely suffer an injury. Try not to stay in this stage for an extended amount of time: decompression/ rest weeks are key in preventing injuries and overtraining.
  5. Power (if applicable): During the power phase, an individual is focused on producing the greatest amount of maximal strength in the shortest amount of time. Basically, after going through maximal strength training, the idea is to increase the rate of force produced. (NASM) Athletic movements that involve a lot of force are incorporated into training, and rest, volume, reps, and sets vary based on the complexity of the movement and the athlete/client.

Training Phase Chart:

*Typically each phase of training lasts 2-4 weeks, but varies based on the individual and his/her goals. It is also common to go back to phase or two before moving forward. It’s all about the individual!!!

Step 3: Decompression/ Re-Test

Foam Rolling = Decompressing. Can/Should be done in ANY phase of training! 

After going through a cycle of training (typically 12-20 weeks) an individual should go through decompression phase. This looks different for everyone. A cycle of training can lead to a race, strength test out (1-3 RPM), competition, etc. It is a good idea to take 2-4 weeks of decompression and active recovery, before going through another training cycle. Depending on the individuals goals, the baseline test completed at the beginning of training can be repeated, either before the decompression stage, or after the time rest and recovery. This is then used to program and build the next training cycle.

The recovery and decompression phase is a perfect time to go back to step one and work on imbalances created during a training phase. General movements patterns that work across the body, on one leg, etc. will help your mind and body be more efficient as you work towards a new goal. Training in phases prevent plateau’s, injuries (if done well), and increases retention and results. If you’re not training in phases, start. Why not?

Lastly, I encourage you to be humble and patient. It’s easy to get excited about progress and jump ahead, or stay at high intensities. It’s not super sexy and cool to work on balance and stability, but we all need it. Sometimes this means staying in an early phase of training a bit longer, or recycling to a stability phase before moving on. Please reach out if you have questions regarding phases of training and program design!