In my last post on aging I pointed out that the rate of decline in endurance performance appears to accelerate after age 60. What is the cause of this decline and how can you train to moderate it?
Before getting into all of this let’s review the basics of training for endurance sport because when it comes to modifying how you train in order to reduce the negative effects of aging on performance you to need to first know what your options are.
You may recall from earlier posts here that there are only three elements of fitness you can manipulate in training for your sport to improve performance – aerobic capacity (VO2 max), lactate threshold and economy. I’m not going to discuss these here as you can read about them in the links provided. If you’re not quite sure what these are I’d strongly recommend that you reread the posts as they are the focus of the research on aging and performance.
Actually, there isn’t a whole lot of research on aging related to athletic performance. The few studies and literature reviews I’ve come across that seek a cause for the declines in competitive endurance performance with advancing age point the finger of blame at aerobic capacity as the most likely reason (3,4). One implicated lactate threshold as a primary cause (1) while others found this to be of secondary importance (3,4). None suggest that economy is not an issue .
The best studies for topics such as aging are longitudinal as opposed to cross-sectional. The latter research looks at a large group of people of various ages at a given point in time. Such research assumes that a 60-year-old athlete studied today would have performed 20 years ago the same as a 40-year-old athlete also studied today. On the other hand, a longitudinal study follows a group of subjects over several years to see what changes occur. These are the most revealing but for obvious reasons are rare.
One such longitudinal study out of the University of Zurich measured the change in VO2 max over a 15-year period in a group of 27 elite endurance runners (2). They were first tested in 1973 with a follow up in 1988. In the follow-up the athletes would have been in their late 30s to early 40s, so hardly what you might call “old.” Over the years, however, they had changed their exercise routines. Nine of them had become fitness joggers. Their rate of decline in VO2 max was 16% per decade. That’s a lot of change. Sedentary folks’ loss of aerobic capacity is generally thought to be around 10% per decade. Some research suggests that athletes who cut way back or stop training altogether tend to lose VO2 max as they age at a faster rate than their sedentary peers (3). This is probably due to the athletes’ higher starting point when the cut back began.
In the Zurich study the five most active who were still training and racing at a high level maintained or even increased their aerobic capacities. Remarkable! The 13 athletes in the middle group who trained but were less concerned with performance showed a rate of decline of 7% per decade. The changes were found to be mostly the result of changes in training mileage (fewer miles), average running pace (slower), and body composition (as body fat increases VO2 max is likely to decrease).
Another such longitudinal study comes from the human performance lab of acclaimed exercise physiologist David Costill, PhD, at Ball State University in Indiana (I started my grad work there in 1971). Talk about longitudinal! This study followed a group of 53 elite, male runners over 22 years (5). They were first tested in the late 1960s and early 1970s. All experienced a loss of VO2 max. The accompanying chart (click to enlarge) illustrates how great the changes were. Notice that those who kept on racing had the lowest rate of decline on average, but somewhat more than the Zurich study’s racers. The training mileage was higher for those who continued racing, their average pace was greater and they gained less weight than the athletes who ran only for fitness. (Side note: It’s reported that Dr. Costill, a collegiate swimmer in his youth, actually improved his swim times by his 50s .)
In summary, it appears that aerobic capacity (VO2 max) and lactate threshold are the most likely culprits when it comes to slowing down as we get older. And there is considerable evidence that VO2 max does indeed decline. However, researchers appear to be less interested in studying lactate threshold. So where does this leave you when it comes to your long-term training? In part 3 of this series I’ll get into what I think is the best way to maintain performance with advancing age.
But first I’m off to Bangkok for a few days to speak at a seminar. I’ll come back older (and perhaps wiser) with answers to this question. I hope.
1. Allen, W.K., D.R. Seals, B.F. Hurley, et al. 1985. Lactate threshold and distance-running performance in young and old endurance athletes. J Apply Physiol 58(4): 1281-1284.
2. Marti, B. and H. Howald. 1990. Long-term effects of physical training on aerobic capacity: Controlled study of former elite athletes. J Apply Physiol 69(4): 1451-9.
3. Tanaka, H. and D.R. Seals. 2003. Invited Review: Dynamic exercise performance in Masters athletes: Insight into the effects of primary human aging on physiological functional capacity. J Appl Physiol 95(5): 2152-62.
4. Tanaka, H. and D.R. Seals. 2008. Endurance exercise performance in masters athletes; Age-associated changes and underlying physiological mechanisms. J Physiol 586(1): 55-63.
5. Trappe, S.W., D.L. Costill, M.D. Vukovich, J. Jones and T. Melham. 1996. Aging among elite distance runners: A 22-yr longitudinal study. J Appl Physiol 80(1): 285-90.