We're all told at some point in time that we can no longer play the children's game, we just don't... we don't know when that's gonna be. Some of us are told at 18, some of us are told at 40... but we're all told.
From the film ‘Moneyball’.
For me, this quote from one of my favourite films pretty much encapsulates my own personal panic on the subject of aging and competitive sport. You probably don’t need me to tell you that at some point, it’s going to become painfully obvious that you’re slowing down. A workout may take longer to recover from or the stopwatch seems increasingly further away from your best.
And let’s be clear here, whilst magazines sometime give the impression you can defy time, it’s a battle you’re ultimately going to lose. Let’s take a look at some of the sobering evidence on this and the changes you can expect to see.
When does the "inevitable" performance decline begin?
Firstly, your body’s energy expenditure at rest declines from your late thirties if you’re male and possibly as early as your late twenties if you’re female. This affects your metabolism and means keeping the weight off gets harder as the years go by. Those joys of consuming Pot Noodles and tubes of Pringles in a single sitting as a teenager are going to be memories in the rear view mirror if racing up Alpe D’Huez like a gazelle is your aim at 50.
Another study highlighted that the main issues for those partaking in endurance sport were age-related reductions in VO2 max, heart stroke volume and muscle mass. In real terms, this all means your ability to process oxygen and your strength and power are all being taken away from you incrementally. Everything you need to do any sport well, that was initially given to you by Mother Nature, is eventually robbed by Father Time.
Hell, even life on the crazy golf course with your grandkids won’t be immune to this when it was demonstrated that your motor and technical skills will also deteriorate with age in the humble game of miniature golf... and that’s another good point: the rate of decline will also vary based on the sport too. For example, if we look at age group based world records of several sports, the decline has been shown to be faster in sports with higher strength demands like sprinting and weightlifting yet slower in non-load bearing endurance sports like rowing and cycling.
What most published studies seemingly all agree on is that the physical decline in sporting performance starts to quietly take place from approximately age 35 until around age 60 with a sharp, exponential downturn from 70-75 years of age.
How aging can affect your performance?
If all of this feels a little negative, don’t fret yet. You can slow these effects of aging down. For example, a review in 2016 demonstrated that the use of strength work and heavy resistance training produced significant improvements in masters athletes. It negated some of the ongoing decline in both sprint and endurance running by improving running economy and increasing the ability of your legs to generate force.
Whilst hitting the iron may not seem an obvious port of call to some endurance athletes, addressing your muscle mass losses, that you’ll still need for many sports, is seemingly well worth your time. Likewise, your falling Vo2 max can be partially countered by ensuring you incorporate some training that continues to stimulate or train it. Put simply - use it or lose it.
However, there are some shortcomings with age-decline research that are worth being aware of. There’s what I would call ‘behavioural lag’. In essence, any long term study is looking at someone whose training, approach and attitude to sport may well be based on behaviour, practise or beliefs that are already decades out of date. Even the studies I quote here are effectively time capsules. Plus, the number of subjects looked at in such studies are often small or maybe not be representative of the ability of the ‘joe or jane average’ sportsperson.
I published a case study in 2020 that was as much fueled by my own fear of being in my mid-forties as it was about adding to the cauldron of knowledge. In this study, I tracked nearly 500 time trial events that a masters cyclist completed over 40 years. Yes, this athlete went into a heavy decline around 70 but he was going as fast in terms of raw velocity then as he had at 40. He was still placing highly in events well into his 60’s. How had he done this?
His trajectory echoed the gentler decline of cycling I mentioned earlier and it also seemed to be a pattern of years of consistent training and the impact of quickly adopting the technological advancements in his chosen sport. Keep abreast of innovations and keep up the hard work and you can still pursue personal bests in some sports - physical decline or not. Note: I’d raced him myself a few times and he’d had a bus pass for nigh on 10 years already before I could beat him convincingly!
At 46, I actually haven’t really experienced this decline myself... yet. The main reason for this is because recreational athletes are, in my experience, more a product of their lifestyle then they are of their genetics. Many of us are juggling a career, family responsibilities or financial limitations and it’s cited that it’s our decisions in those areas that will often dictate or create poorer performances, as well as our physical decline.
To give you an example of this, I’m currently a competitive cyclist. I have 20 years of data of riding my local 10-mile time trial course. It’s brutally slow, seldom advantaged by fine weather and surfaced like it’s been blasted by shotguns at the Alamo. Take a look how my times on it have changed over the last 20 years.
My times have improved by just over 2 minutes (or about 10%) over that time with no sign of stopping just yet. I recall a situation around 4 years ago where my performance generally had stagnated whilst everyone else seemed to be getting faster. As a final ‘Hail Mary’ I then threw as many resources as I could at my aerodynamics, training and weight management, and things improved quickly and significantly in my cycling.
For a 10-mile time trial, I improved by around 5% in my average racing velocity in just 4 months. However, my power output alone in this time only increased in my rides on this course by around 5 watts (~1.5%). The rest came from equipment, set-up and diet, and these interventions were not dictated by my age. I should be in decline, but at the moment, the stopwatch isn’t showing it yet.
How to slow the effects of aging on performance
In summary, the performance puzzle is not just about improving your physiology alone and it’s one of the biggest mistakes I still see when I consult with athletes in my research. They are often too focused on being fitter physically and not addressing the actual problem of performing better overall.
I also believe too that the one component rarely discussed in the literature with respect to aging athletes is the psychological aspect. I’m energised when I listen to interviews with athletes like MTB legend Ned Overend or ex-C1 Olympian Larry Cain. These athletes are now six decades down the line and still say they’re having a lot of fun. It sounds a bit strange that having fun and being an elite athlete cohabit, but it’s no good being the best at 30 if your approach to competitive sport isn’t mentally sustainable at 40 and you later quit sport entirely.
This is all well and good but where does this leave you?
When you bolt together the science, the wellbeing and reality, my advice would be to:
- Remember that consistent and considered training will slow down any physiological decline.
- Accept that you need more rest and recovery as you get older.
- Consider implementing resistance training.
- As we age, we increasingly exhibit the results of our lifestyles. Take care of yourself and don’t fuel a sports car with manure.
- Technological improvements are there for all. Their use and purchase are not dictated by your perceived ability. If you’re 95 years of age and want to hit the wind tunnel or wear the latest carbon plated trainers, have at it.
- Have fun. You’ll outlast everyone if you do.