Older Athlete? Better Performance!

I was invited to present at a conference on the limits of human performance in older athletes. I’m not quite sure why I was chosen, but perhaps it is an inevitable sign of the times since my earliest conference presentations some 30 or so years ago were on the training of young athletes!

Whilst researching for my presentation, I was reminded that if you want to be the very best in the world and win Olympic and World Championship medals, you really need to choose your parents carefully – in other words, a champion athlete has to have the necessary genetic characteristics that pre-dispose them to excellence in a sport.

For example, Usain Bolt needed to have genes that endowed him with a stride length of around two and a half metres and a high proportion of fast twitch muscle fibres that repeat each stride at a rapid enough rate to run 100m in 9.58 seconds. Similarly elite endurance runners will need to have the capacity for a high maximum oxygen uptake, and a high proportion of slow twitch muscle fibres, to become word champions in events such as the marathon.

Of course, these genetic factors need to be combined with mental determination, great coaching and a desire to win, but without them, success at the very highest level is unlikely.

However as I delved further into the physiology of older athletes and their performance limits, I became aware that the genes which determine high level performance in our early years are probably far less important as we get older.

Take a look at some of the world records for Masters athletics, and it is apparent that they are frequently as impressive – indeed sometimes more impressive – than the record times set at Senior level by far younger people.

For example, Ed Whiltlock’s incredible 3hrs 15 mins world best for the over 80’s marathon is a staggering 7 minutes 26 seconds per mile, whilst Karla Grande set a blistering 13.6 seconds for the women’s over 60’s 100m record. However by comparing these times with the physiological decline that inevitably comes with ageing, it suggests that many of these individuals would not have been world champions at senior level in their youth (in fact as far as I am aware, most were not).

To illustrate this point, an endurance trained individual would need to have a maximum oxygen uptake (VO2 max) of around 50 mls of oxygen per kilogramme of body weight to run Whitlocks’s 3hrs 15 min marathon time. We also know that active individuals can restrict the age-related decrease in VO2 max to around 5% per decade, so applying this “rule” in reverse, it would suggest that Mr Whitlock could have had a VO2 max somewhere in the mid-60’s in his younger days.

Whilst this is certainly a high value, it is not extra-ordinary and is the sort of value that would be found today in many good club runners. So this, and other similar data, suggests to me that the limits to human performance in older people are probably more to do with lifestyle and training, than they are to do with the genetic characteristics that play a much larger part in determining success at a younger age. Of course there is also an element of luck involved, since staying injury free and healthy are greater challenges with age, yet it would seem that the chances of being successful and doing well within an age category will actually increase as we get older by adopting the right training methods, attitude and lifestyle.

I guess the conclusion is that the longer you live, the better your chance of become a world-beater!


Author: Prof. John Brewer 

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