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Athletes Winning Over Age

Not long ago it was “time to hang it up” when an athlete hit 40. You were definitely over the hill at 50. Now it’s 75—and maybe later.

That’s my take on a study published in the March, 2008, issue of the American Journal of Sports Medicine. It’s essentially what Vonda J. Wright, MD, and Brett C. Perricelli, MD, professors of orthopedics at the University of Pittsburgh, found after analyzing performance times at the 2001 National Senior Olympic Games (age 50 to 85), and then comparing the results with the times of American track and field record holders. Importantly, these results are for people who are training, not the average sedentary Joe or Jane on the street. The people in this study were competing and trying to improve; some kept training as they got older and others started competing in middle age.

Let’s look at what the study found, and then talk about how to do as well, or perhaps better.

Wright and Perricelli found that year-to-year performance declined after 50, but at a rate that was barely noticeable until about 75, when the decline became undeniable. These figures are averages, of course; some did better and some worse. Remember, these are elite athletes.  

Times for men and women, sprinters (100-400m) and distance runners (1500-10,000m), were analyzed and plotted, from ages 50 to 85 for participants in the 2001 Games, and 30 to 85 for the American record holders. The actual numbers are a statistician’s delight, but mind numbing for most of us. The following averages provide a good overview. For Games winners, the average yearly percentage increase in times (performance decline), from 50 to 85, for all track distances, was 3.44% for men and 3.36% for women. Most of the decline, however, took place in the last 10 years, from 75 to 85. For record holders, the average yearly decline was less: 1.9% for men, and 3.31% for women. Again, most of the decline took place after 75.

Men did better than women after 75. Among men, the record holders did best after 75. Among women, Senior Olympic Games winners prevailed. Men record holders declined at one half the rate of Games participants, 4.1% vs. 7.86%. On the other hand, female winners at the Games did better than the record holders; Games winners declined 7.36% compared to 10.29% for record holders.

It seems likely that more is going on here than age. It’s a safe bet that the American record holders were better trained than Games participants, and over-75 men were probably more motivated than the women. Training and motivation, along with age, were probably factors. It’s telling, I believe, that variability among the top 8 winning times increased markedly with advancing age. The gap between top competitors widened; some did a lot better than others. Who knows what’s really possible.    

As Dr. Bruce Reider observes in an editorial accompanying the study, these champion athletes are by definition “outliers,” ahead of the crowd. Even among elites, however, there are variations. Dr. Reider is optimistic about the prospects.  “Although age-related decline in our athletic patients may be inevitable,” he writes, “studies have shown that continued or renewed training can mitigate its progression, even in nonagenarians [90 to 100 year-olds].”

Let’s look at training.

Training to Survive and Thrive

This study is only the first step in understanding the relationship between age and performance. The next question is: How can athletes and nonathletes do better? Preserving and improving muscle strength and aerobic capacity are key factors.

Drs. Wright and Perricelli point the way in the “Discussion” portion of the study. 

“Muscle power is lost at a greater rate than endurance capacity,” they report, “3.5% versus 1.8% per year.” That makes strength training a top priority.

A decrease in the size and number of muscle fibers with age is a significant factor; fast-twitch fibers are particularly vulnerable. “Individual fibers shrink approximately 30% between the ages of 20 and 80,” the doctors relate. “Paralleling the decline in performance seen in the study, muscle fiber number declines modestly until the age of 50 years, and increases more rapidly thereafter.” The nerves that activate muscle cells also degenerate, which adds to the problem. “Muscle cells require stimulation from motor nerve cells to live, and without it, they too atrophy,” the doctors explain. Use it or lose it.

Aerobic exercise alone will not maintain muscle mass, say Wright and Perricelli. “Only strength-trained seniors [have] muscle mass and composition similar to that of young controls,” they report.

“All these factors point to the critical need for resistance training after the age of 50 years for maintenance of muscle strength,” the doctors conclude.

Aerobic or endurance capacity must not be neglected, of course.

“Reductions in VO2max are believed to be the primary reason for a decline in functional endurance with aging,” the researchers state. The answer is “intense habitual exercise,” which maintains cardiac output. “As training levels decline, so does the VO2max,” they write. High-intensity aerobics is the key, not long, slow endurance training. Break out of the “aerobic zone.” Challenge your maximum heart rate. Again, use it or lose it.

Intensity Over Volume

New York Times fitness writer Gina Kolata confirms the primacy of hard, brief training in her January 31, 2008 column “Staying a Step Ahead of Aging.”

“You have to know how to train, doing the right sort of exercise, and you must keep it up,” she writes.

Kolata went to Steven Hawkins, an exercise physiologist at the University of Southern California, for guidance. “When you have to choose between hard and often, choose hard,” he told her. “High performance is really determined more by intensity than volume,” he added. “When you’re older, something has to give. You can’t have both so you have to cut back on the volume. You need more rest days.”

Hawkins practices what he preaches. “I run a couple of times a week and I try to make it as fast as I can,” he told Kolata.    

That’s it. Hard weights. Hard aerobics. Rest.

That threesome will keep you going strong longer than you ever dreamed possible.

(Check with your doctor if you’re out of shape or have health problems.)

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Copyright © 2008 Clarence and Carol Bass.  All rights reserved.