Thursday, October 3, 2013

Aging: My Performance

How much of a change should we expect?
And when?

There was a great study that came out of Boise State University in 2009 – “Masters Athletes: An Analysis of Running, Swimming and Cycling Performance by Age and Gender” (Ransdell). The problem with most studies on athletes and aging is that they look at broad cross sections of various age categories by gender. That means they are comparing a wide range of abilities – front to back of pack – with motivation having a lot to do with performance. Some people simply aren’t motivated to train. And as the number of participants in endurance sports increases, the percentage of those who could not care less about performance and are only doing it for social reasons is likely to increase. That waters down the data so that we really don’t know what the true impact of age on performance is likely to be.
The authors of the Ransdell study examined only current US and World record holders by age groups in three sports – swimming, running, and cycling. That means we are now able to better understand what happens when motivation to train and compete is taken out of the equation leaving only age and gender as the modifiers of performance.
The following three charts are based on data from this study. While the scientists looked at several event distances within each sport, I’ve selected out only the longest and most common, long-endurance distances – 1500m swim, marathon, and 40k time trial. On the left side of each chart (the X axis) are the times of the records and across the bottom (Y axis) are the age groups. The charts aren’t terribly precise but give us a good look at trends.

performance with it being greatest in swimming (the times get slower as indicated by rising lines). Women’s performances tend to decline even faster than the men’s, especially in running. Swimming shows the least gender-related decline.
These findings are roughly in agreement with other papers that also studied elite age-group athletes. For example, Wright and Perricelli looked at the performances of senior Olympians (50+) in the 2001 National Senior Olympic Games. Both male and female performances declined by about 3 to 4% per year from age 50 to 85, but at a great rate after age 75.

Tanaka and Seals looked at US Masters Swimming Championship results from 1991 to 1995. They found a steady decline in performance until about age 70 when times started declining at an exponential rate. The declines were greater in women than in men.

Many other researchers have found similar rates of decrease in elite master-athlete performances at national championships in swimming (Donato, Fairbrother) and triathlon (Lepers). In the triathlon paper Ironman age group performances declined faster than for those doing Olympic-distance races. I’ll get to the assumed reason why from the authors in an upcoming post here.
So it appears we can expect to slow down significantly some time in our 50s and experience the greatest negative rates of change in our 70s and beyond. (Want to guess what my next birthday will be? Right. 70.) The key questions are, why are these changes taking place and what can be done to slow them? That’s what I’ll take a look at in my next three posts.


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