People such as Diana Nyad who recently swam
from Cuba to Florida at age 64 change the standards of what it means to be “old.”
There are hundreds of aging athletes who have made great sports achievements
but most of us never hear of – such as Bob Scott.
At age 75 racing Ironman Hawaii Bob set a new course record
for his age group of 13:27:50. Winning and breaking triathlon records is
nothing new for him. He also set the men’s 70-74 age group record four years
earlier with a 12:59:02 finishing more than 90 minutes ahead of the second age
Or how about Libby James, age 76, of
Fort Collins, Colorado who set a new half marathon world record of 1:45:56 for
her 75-79 age group this year. She easily demolished the previous record of
1:55:19. Few women half her age can run such a time. Such a list of amazing
accomplishments from aging athletes could go on and on.
Most of what we think we know about aging
didn’t come from people such as Diana, Bob and Libby, but rather from aging,
sedentary folks watching TV in their La-Z-Boy recliners. As a result much of
the research on what the future holds is meaningless for those of us who
continue to push the limits of performance as we grey. The oldest athletes from
the Baby Boomer generation are now in their mid- to late 60s and have been redefining
what “old” means for almost 20 years. How can we explain their rather sudden changes
in aging performance?
I attempted to describe in my last post here, the aging process appears to
be part biology and part lifestyle. No one knows exactly what the mix is –
which has the greater impact. The trend in research currently appears to be
that lifestyle has the greater affect. Leyk and associates at the German Sport
University in Cologne summed it up: aging is a “biological process than can be
considerably speeded up or slowed down by multiple lifestyle-related factors.”
Every recent research study I’ve read on aging agrees that biology and
lifestyle do indeed determine the effects of aging. But is it 30-70, 50-50, 70-30 or some other mix? That’s currently unknown and undoubtedly depends on who
we are talking about. How we age biologically and how we choose to live are
highly individual matters with training playing an important role on the
lifestyle side of the equation for athletes.
find such answers it is sometimes best to study athletes from the highest
levels of performance to know what is possible. Let’s take a look at one such longitudinal
in the 1970s, 21 male, elite masters runners were tested three times over 20
years for various physiological markers including maximum heart rate, body
weight, bone density and aerobic capacity (Pollock). When first tested the
average age was 50. The follow-ups were done at about ages 60 and 70. By around
70 each formerly elite athlete was categorized into one of three general groups
– 9 who continued to train and race at a high duration, volume and intensity and
remained elite age groupers, 10 who continued frequent but moderately rigorous
endurance training and 2 who greatly reduced training to a low level.
What they found was that, compared with age 50, 1) all lost 10 to 14 bpm
of max heart rate, 2) the two more active groups maintained their age-50 body
weights but the low-level group gained 2 to 2.5% additional fat, 3) those who
lifted weights had greater bone density and 4) all, including the most active
groups, lost 8 to 15% of their aerobic capacities with the most active
experiencing the smallest decline. Of course, the number of subject here is
quite small, but the results are pretty similar across most of the research
what can you do to maintain or even improve fitness and performance? What
drives the physiology of training for high performance when you are old is no different than what it was
when you were 40 years younger. The principles of training don’t change. What
changes is our capacity – physical and psychological – to handle the stresses
associated with focused and serious workouts. In the next post I’ll offer my
suggestions for what aging athletes can do to maintain or even improve
Leyk D, Erley O, Gorges W, et al. 2009.
Performance, training and lifestyle parameters of marathon runners aged 20-80
years: results of the PACE-study. Int J
Sports Med 30(5):360-5.
Pollock ML, Mengelkoch LJ, Graves JE,
et al. 1997. Twenty-year follow-up of aerobic power and
body composition of older track athletes. J Appl Physiol 82(5):1508-16.