What makes an ‘ageless athlete’?


As life spans grow longer, so do athletes’ careers. What keeps them performing well into their 60s, 70s, or 80s, like the woman who ran the Boston Marathon? Fifty years ago, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to complete the Boston Marathon as an official entrant.

This time, though, she didn’t have to hide her gender from race officials by entering the race as “KV Switzer.”

This milestone shows how much progress women have made in sports in half a century. But it also marks another important feat — the enduring power of the “ageless athlete.”

Switzer even completed this year’s race just a little slower than her original run, in 4 hours, 44 minutes, and 31 seconds.

She is not alone.

You don’t have to look far to find athletes in their 70s, 80s, and 90s competing in a wide range of sports — triathlons, CrossFit, cycling, swimming, kiteboarding, mountaineering, and yoga.

Athletes may be able to compete for decades, but they are not immune to the effects of ageing.

“In general, performance declines linearly at about 5 to 10 percent per decade from age 30 years to around 60 to 65 years — less of a decline in those master athletes who train hard — after which the decline accelerates,” Peter Reaburn, PhD, a professor of exercise and sports science at Bond University in Australia, told a foreign news publication.

This can vary by activity.

“Performances in speed and power events appear to decline at a slightly faster rate than endurance events,” said Reaburn.

He added that this is “related to drops in muscle mass. Hence the importance of weight training to hold onto muscle mass.”

Athletes in nonweight-bearing sports, like cycling and swimming, may see smaller drops compared with sports that include weight-bearing exercises like running.

Several studies found that short- and long-distance triathletes saw smaller age-related declines in cycling performance than running and swimming performance

Research suggests that a decline in VO2max — the maximum volume of oxygen that an athlete can use — is the primary factor behind age-related drops in performance.

“Aerobic capacity — VO2max — declines at the rate of about 1 to 2 percent per year, depending on how the athlete trains,” said Reaburn.

Lactate threshold is the exercise intensity at which athletes can sustain high-intensity effort only for a short time.

Exercise economy — the efficiency at which athletes turn metabolic energy into mechanical power or velocity — “seems to be the most stable of the three markers,” said Friel.

To counteract this, Friel suggests that “older athletes generally need to ensure they are doing high-intensity sessions at least once or, better, twice weekly.”

Athletes can maintain their edge by continuing to train smart. But even if you are still sitting on the sidelines, it’s never too late to start.

Canadian athlete Ed Whitlock, who was the first person over 70 to run a marathon in less than three hours, took up running in his 40s.

If you’re wondering what sport is best for you to do as you age, follow your heart … or your feet.

“The most effective way to slow the declines of ageing is to do what you most enjoy doing,” said Friel.