For the majority of us endurance athletes we are not professional athletes. We are professionals in other fields that require and demand more time than triathlon. However, we are athletes that take the sport seriously and hope to continue it with fervor as we age up with each year of racing. A recent review article published in Frontiers in Physiology discusses the improvement master athletes are making in endurance sports. It confirms we can be athletes at any age.
The article is entitled Master Athletes Are Extending the Limits of Human Endurance and is authored by Romuald Lepers of The University of Bourgogne Franche-Comte, Dijon, France and Paul J. Stapley of The University of Wollongong, Wollongong, NSW, Australia. Published in Frontiers in Physiology, December 2016, Volume 7, Article 613.
Anecdotally, we can see just by attending races and looking at age group results that the majority of athletes competing are not 25 years old and younger. It is interesting to know that master triathletes represent greater than 55% of the total field for males and greater than 45% of the total field for females at the World championship Ironman (Lepers et al., 2013) A master athlete is considered greater than 40 years old. Regardless of why there are so many master triathletes the article points out that despite the fact that athletes are getting older, they are not getting slower. At least as it applies to comparing performances from one time period to another. At the Hawaii Ironman World championship triathlon, the male 60-64 year age group triathletes improved their performance by 20% during the 1986-2010 period (Lepers et al.,2013a: Figure 1). There is no clear cut reason why master athletes continue to improve as they age up. Maybe they train more consistently, have access to better facilities, take a more serious approach to the sport, use different training methods, etc.. We will never be able to attach performance gains to one specific attribute and it is most likely a combination of many factors.
However, even though from one time period to another we are seeing performance improvements physiologically we do see age related declines. Our maximal heart rate decreases as we age and as a result our cardiac output. However, maximal oxygen consumption (VO2max) is most altered and exercise economy and lactate threshold decline to a lesser extent. The article sums up from the research that the ability to maintain a high exercise-training stimulus as we age is emerging as the most important means of limiting the rate of decline in endurance performance. Lifelong exercise leads to higher metabolic efficiency (Dube et al. 2016) and a greater number of surviving motor units, therefore better neuromuscular transmission stability and a larger amount of excitable muscle mass (Power et al., 2016.)
What does all this mean? The take home point is to continue exercising. Continue training and continue to do what we are doing. There is no specific training philosophy or nutrition philosophy that has been studied that we can say without question will allow us to continue to make significant gains as we age, but we do know that we need to keep running, cycling, swimming, strength training, and stressing our bodies in order to minimize age related endurance performance. Whether the master athletes are just more serious now than they were in the 70's or 80's or whether they have more resources available to them we do not know. Regardless, the one thing we do know is that in order to keep training and making gains we must remain injury free. They key to success is staying in the game. So there is no cookie cutter, one size fits all training philosophy to success. Each athlete must train within an individualized program that allows them to keep training and building year after year and cycle after cycle.
Lepers, R and Stapley, P. J.(2016). Master Athletes Are Extending the Limits of Human Endurance. Front. Physiol. 7:613.
Lepers, R., Rust, C. A., Stapley, P.J., and Knechtle, B. (2103a). Relative improvements in endurance performance with age: evidence from 25 years of Hawaii Ironman racing. Age (dordr). 35, 953-962.
Dube, J.J., Broskey, N.T., Despines, A.A., Stefanovic-Racic, M., Toledo, F. G., Goodpaster, B. H., et al. (2016). Muscle characteristics and substrate energetics in lifelong athletes. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 48, 472-480.
Power, G.A., Allen, M.D., Gilmore, K.J., Stashuk, D. W., Doherty, T.J., Hepple, R. T., et al. (2016). Motor unit number and transmission stability in octogenarian world class athletes: can age-related deficits be outrun? J. Appl. Physiol. 121, 1013-1020.