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 group finisher.
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?
As 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.
To 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 study.
Starting 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 I’ve read.
So 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 endurance performance.
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.