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Can we improve in endurance sports with age?

Understanding of how our bodies age helps us adapt our training so that we can improve, or limit, the decline in performance as we get older

endurance sports Photo by: Kevin Mackinnon

Endurance sports, like cycling and swimming, are activities that you can do well into your senior years. Even running, which can beat up the body if not properly managed, can be maintained with a more distributed spread of training. But do we improve in endurance sports as we age? The simple answer to this question is that it’s not so simple. However, by gaining an understanding of how our bodies age, we will be better able to adapt our training so that we can improve, or limit, the decline in performance as the years go by. 

Related: Sister Madonna Buder turns 90 today

What happens when we age?

A lot of factors go into the question of whether we improve with age; training age, sports background, physiological age, training approach, etc. Yet it is scientifically proven and accepted that with age we lose many physiological capabilities that do benefit endurance performance.

athlete's heart
Our maximum heart rate decreases with age. A simplified calculation of max HR = 220 – age.

It is generally accepted that as we increase in age, our maximum heart rate decreases. Now that isn’t going to mean a whole lot between a 25-year-old and 30-year-old, as endurance sports will rarely require an athlete to compete for a sustained period at maximum output. However, it does mean a whole lot when you compare your 25-year-old self to your 50-year-old self. Your body simply cannot sustain the same peak work output.

Another significant factor when it comes to a decrease in endurance performance is a decline in muscle mass with age. Now, endurance sport has always had a complicated relationship with body weight. (Read more: Is lighter faster? Is lighter healthier?). However, muscle mass does play a critical role in strength and recovery. To sustain long periods of endurance activity, glycogen (carbohydrates) need to be stored in your muscles so it can be broken down into glucose to fuel muscles – respiratory and locomotor. So more muscle mass (albeit, efficient muscle mass), means more glycogen stored. This not only affects performance but recovery as well.

Lionel Sanders at Ironman Mont-Tremblant. Leading into the race, Sanders reduced his intake of carbs dramatically and it affected his performance.

Related: Is lighter faster? Is lighter healthier?

Additionally, the type of muscle fibres to be lost with age are fast-twitch muscles. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it comes to endurance sports. It is often why you see older athletes transition from short-course races to long-course races as they age because they simply do not have the same top-end speed as they once had.

Can we improve in endurance sports with age?

These are just a few of the inevitable losses we experience with age. Yet many of us had the experience when racing – thinking we are doing decent for our age – then moments later someone rips by us with an age marking much older than ours? What is the deal there?

A lot of that will come down to training approach and age, experience and technique. So while your physiological values like max heart rate or power may decline with age, our finishing times may improve due to factors that affect our training and racing.

Lew Hollander competing in Kona 2015. Lew is well known for being one of the oldest and most consistent age groupers. Photo: Finisherpix

So much of endurance performance comes down to technique. A perfect example of this is swimming. Swimming fast is not achieved by brute strength, it is achieved by a balance of strength and technique which comes with hours of practice. Since many of us get into endurance sports later in life, whether it be in college or years after, there is a lot of improvement that occurs as we learn the techniques of swimming, cycling and running effectively. This can come on our own as we do those sports more frequently and through the helpful advice of our peers or a coach.

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This also highlights the benefits of training, specifically training smart. With age comes wisdom. And, while our upper limits may decrease with age, an aging athlete can improve their threshold work output with age (caveat: to a point). So, while you may not be able to run the same 5 km PR you set when you were 30, you may still be able to challenge your half marathon or marathon PR.

Related: Exploring the limits of human performance

Lastly, there is this phenomenon called “old man/woman strength.” Where, despite age, the older man or woman can achieve great feats of power. While the research in this area is limited, theories suggest that there is greater neuromuscular control with age. So while muscle mass may decline, there is better neural networking between the central nervous system and muscle fibres, resulting in impressive feats that leave the younger crowd scratching their heads.

The simple answer to something much more complex

The simple answer is that the effects of age all catch up to us. However, there are ways in which you can still improve and enjoy the thrills of the sport. For example, take Bob Knuckey or Sister Madonna Buder. Both have continually shown what is possible with age. So, yes, given everything, it is possible to improve in endurance sports with age. However, let us not forget the simple pleasures of going for a swim, bike or run.