Age and Performance

There are many reasons to continue to train and race after the age of 40, well into your 50’s, 60’s and beyond. The idea that making athletic gains after 40 is a much greater task than it is in your 20’s may not be as accurate as once thought. Sure, it is going to be a little harder, but as science and race results show, your potential for making gains as a master’s athlete may be more achievable than you realize.

It is well accepted that peak performance as an endurance athlete seems to happen somewhere between 25 to 35 years of age1. This is easily demonstrated with results from any major competition. But what happens after our peak performance years are past? How long can we maintain a high level of fitness, or at the least, continue to make gains towards greater levels of fitness as we age?

Studies show that declines in performance are going to happen, with an approximate 10% decline in VO2 max from the years 35 to 55 years of age2. But not all studies take into account changes in lifestyle, motivation levels, injury and many other factors. A study done on master’s Runners between the ages of 50 and 82 years of age, who continued to compete on a regular basis over a 10-year period of time, showed less declines in VO2 max compared to their non-competitive counterparts3. Studies also show that a slight decline in VO2 max may be countered by the ability to deal with greater amounts of lactic acid, found to exist in older runners2. This could possibly explain why many endurance athletes in their late 40’s and 50’s are still competitive with athletes in their 20’s and 30’s.

On the results list of every bike and run race you see fast finish times from top pro’s in their 20’s and 30’s, but it is now common to see athletes in their 40’s and 50’s almost as fast, if not at times, faster. For example - the top 40-44 year-old category male in the 2012 Boston Marathon finished in 2:23:08, only 10:28 behind the overall winner, placing 15th overall. The top finishers in the 40-50 year-old categories of Iron Man races consistently place in the top 20-50 overall, out of thousands of participants. Even the winner of the 50-54 year-old category of the 2011 Lake Placid Iron Man placed 47th overall. That is impressive!

When I think about great athletes in the master’s age range who can compete and win against their younger elite counterparts, I think about Ned Overend and Tinker Juarez. Ned Overend has been racing bikes since the mid 70’s and has lead a very successful career as an endurance athlete. He was the World and National Xterra Champion from the late 1990’s to the early 2000’s. At the age of 55 in 2011, he won the Iron Horse Classic, a professional road race from Durango to Silverton, Colorado, against top-level riders in the pro field.

Tinker Juarez is a two-time U.S. Olympian, three-time U.S. national XC champion, and has had countless wins as a professional since 1974. In 2010, Tinker was named MTB world master champion, and in 2011 at the age of 50, he placed 31st out of 104 starters in a very elite pro field at the Sea Otter Classic XC race. Both Ned and Tinker are elite athletes, but both are great examples of the ability to maintain a very high level of fitness as they age.

Race results are not the only reason to maintain an active lifestyle as you age. Maintaining good health and fitness is probably the most important. A 2011 study examined 40 athletes from age 40 to 81 to answer the question – What really happens to our muscles as we age if we are chronically active? Subjects in the study trained consistently, about four to five times a week for competitions in various sports such as cycling, running, and swimming. This study shows that we are capable of preserving both muscle mass and strength with lifelong physical activity. The study also demonstrated the retention of muscle strength as we age. The athletes studied showed that peak torque measurements did not decline until ages 60-69, and no significant difference in peak torque measurements were observed among the 60, 70, and 80 year-old groups. So, although peak torque showed a decline around 60 years, there was little decline in strength with further aging4.


Cross cut of muscle.jpg

(Pic from study – Reference# 4)


In conclusion, declines in performance are inevitable, but the rate of decline may be much slower than once believed. The increasing amount of research and results from master age athletes continues to support the theory that we can all make gains, reap great health benefits and maintain a high level of fitness over the age of 40. Never let your age stop you from pursuing greater athletic goals.

Mike Schultz CSCS


References –

1 – Hirofumi T, Douglas R. (2008) Endurance exercise performance in Masters athletes: age-associated changes and underlying physiological. The Journal of Physiology, Vol 586.1, 55-63

2 – Jeremiah P, Christopher A, Dale C, Paul L, Daryl P. (2008) Physiological Characteristics of Masters-Level Cyclists. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Vol 22 No. 5, 1434-1440.

3 – Pollock M, Foster C, Knapp J, Rod L, Schmidt D. (1987) Effect of age and training on aerobic capacity and body composition of master athletes. Journal of Applied Physiology. Vol 62, 725-731.

4 – Andrew W, Francesca A, mark S, Bret G, Vonda W. (2011) Chronic Exercise Preserves Lean Muscle Mass in masters Athletes. The Physician and Sportsmedicine. Vol 39, No. 3, 172-178.