Defining the “aging athlete” is difficult, especially in the conventional way with a number representing age. But more importantly, this is a highly personal matter–when am I going to be an old athlete? Each of us knows it’s going to happen; we just don’t know when.
When I was in my 40s I thought that perhaps I would be an “aging athlete” by age 50. In my 50s I was pretty much sure it would show up any day. Now at 68 I’m still waiting for the other shoe to fully drop, but seeing signs that its on the way down. On the positive side, I’m putting out nearly the same power numbers as in 1994, at age 50, when I got my first power meter. Many other things have changed in those 18 years. For example, my training and nutrition have improved remarkably in that period while lifestyle stress has decreased significantly.
That's not to say that the changes, or lack thereof, have all been positive or even neutral. I now recover much more slowly than when I was younger. I also find it more difficult to add muscle mass. What and when I eat has a greater effect on how I train than ever before. And there are many more, performance-lowering changes taking place. The net result of all of this is an overall drop in performance. But the bottom hasn't fallen out – yet.
When I review the performance data of national-class, age group time trialists, runners and swimmers I see that there is a steady and obvious drop in performance times starting around age 35. But this is rather small, and barely noticeable. The trend remains negative over the next 30 years. The biggest decline in performance occurs around and after age 70 in all three sports.
But this doesn't tell the whole story. Those who set the 70+ age group records did not have the advantages that my generation, and especially those who follow me, have had. Besides training methodology and nutrition, equipment improvements also give those of us who are younger a long-term advantage.
Then there is the competition factor. Those who set their 70+ age group national records did not have the depth of competition in their earlier years that the Baby Boomers have enjoyed (I use the term “enjoyed” loosely here because greater competition means harder training and more race suffering). This competition has groomed the up-and-coming older athletes to compete at a higher level than ever before seen in sports.
Of course, regardless of age, there are only three things one can do to improve endurance performance: raise aerobic capacity (VO2max), elevate lactate (anaerobic) threshold as a percentage of VO2max and improve economy which has to do with how efficiently one uses energy.
Greater competition and better nutrition have led to meaner and leaner aging athletes who have higher aerobic capacities than their aging predecessors as a result. The growth of technology has allowed those on the leading edge of the Baby Boomer generation to maintain a higher lactate or anaerobic threshold since it can now be easily measured and appropriately stressed with somewhat more precise training methods. There has also been an emphasis on technique and efficiency in sport which didn’t exist 20 years ago. So aging athletes are also more economical now than ever before. Improved coaching and training information available through the Internet has played a major role in these improvements.
Rather than discussing “aging” athletes, it may be more precise to talk about “old” athletes. I'll come back to that topic in an upcoming post.