When do geriatrics slow down? Another look

In my last post on this subject, I complained that while everybody knows performance deteriorates with age, there didn’t seem to be any research on it.

I was looking in the wrong places.

My friend and occasional training partner, Bill Skirkey, sent me a link to northeastcycling.com, and an item in which author Doug Jansen discusses age vs. performance in the Mount Washington hill climb. There are two Mount Washington bike races: the Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hill Climb in August and Newton’s Revenge in July.

Mount Washington is in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and it’s the highest peak in the northeast U.S. If you live in New England, you’ve probably seen a bumper sticker that says, “This car climbed Mount Washington.”

That people would be proud of their cars for getting up a hill probably tells you all you need to know about the climb’s length and steepness. Now, imagine that hundreds of people (201 at the most recent Newton’s Revenge) bring bicycles there twice a year to race up it, time trial style.

Doug Jansen’s discussion is based on a data file reduced by Eric Brandhorst from three years’ worth of Mount Washington races, 2002-2004. This chart depicts the age distribution of riders. There’s a column for each age, from 15 to 80, and the height of the column shows the number of riders. The most common age is 42, with over 100 riders. At the low end, there are a couple 15-year-olds and at the high end, there’s one 80-year-old. Let’s hear it for the 80-year-old! That’s the geriatric spirit.

Mount Washington bike racers slow down as they age

Rider ages are distributed in a sort of bell-shaped curve; but average times describe a steadily increasing slope.

The red squares show the average time for the riders of that age. Up to age 21, the averages are all over the place. I take it this is because there are so few cases in those age ranges and because performance is so variable among young people. But starting about age 22, you can see a fairly clear progression: times increase with age. As Doug Jansen notes in his commentary, they flatten out from about age 37 to the late 40s. He attributes this to the tendency of middle-aged men (and they are mostly men) to get more competitive as they feel their abilities beginning to wane. After the late 40s, they apparently find it more and more difficult to hold the line against decline, and performance falls off more dramatically. Here’s Jansen’s take.

Around age 50, an aggressive slowdown kicks in as noted by the abrupt increase in slope.  I know many elite senior and masters riders that do not come out to Mt Washington.  If these riders were more proportionately represented in the sample set, I would expect a much broader dip in the 25-40 year old age groups.  Then, if a trend were plotted from say 25 to 80, you’d see a much more aggressive slowdown with age, probably over a minute per year.  The flatness of the data from 30 to 50 years of age doesn’t mesh well with personal experience of riding with people spread out over these ages.  Most competitive 30-35 year olds I know are much faster than most 40-something year old riders I know.

A second chart, which I’ll let you go to the site and see for yourself, plots a linear regression of finishing time with age, and it comes out to a gain of 45 seconds for each year of age.

So, there you have it. Scientific data for the effects of age on performance. Among Mount Washington hill climbers, every year means a gain of 45 seconds in the race.

But note what the data don’t tell us. These are the records of a population of riders. They are not longitudinal views of individual riders. That is to say, the data prove that old guys ride slower than young guys. They don’t prove that a particular rider will slow down as he ages. It’s very likely that’s true, but it isn’t proved here. And, in fact, Bill, who pointed me to this website in the first place, and who only took up the Mount Washington hill climb race after he turned 50, reports he has improved his time every year. (That might not be saying much; he’s still quite a few years from being geriatric.)

As I’ve mentioned before, I took up triathlon at the age of 60. And for the races I’ve repeated from year to year, with few exceptions, I’ve done them faster each year. The training effect seems to me to have been cumulative over the past 6 years. So it’s my experience that if you continue training, you get more fit the next year. And this is one of the reasons I started this blog: to try to get a handle on the interaction of training and aging. If my performance is deteriorating every year, but my race times are getting shorter, just how much performance can I expect to lose due to age? And when?

If anybody reading this has some personal race records that shed any light on this, I’d be eager to read about them in the comments. I’d like for this site to eventually become a sort of clearinghouse for this and other geriatric-related discussions. This kind of information is going to become more and more important as the ranks of the geriatric triathletes swell.

Today’s weight: 155.9
Waking pulse: 55

2 thoughts on “When do geriatrics slow down? Another look

  1. Hi Floyd,

    Like you, I have started training in earnest within the last few years, so I am currently in a positive feedback cycle in which I often experience PRs in my races. As my aging catches up to my training, I expect my performance will begin to flatten out and then reverse. The topic of performance declining due to the aging process intrigues me because I wonder how I will maintain my enthusiasm when my feedback (that is, my performance) begins its eventual downward trend.

    After reading your article, I did a quick web search regarding aging and performance. I chanced upon a decade old article which you might enjoy: http://www.svl.ch/SportsAge.html. The biggest takeaway for me from this article was the concept of applying an empirical weighting to one’s performance based on age. Another search later took me to a website called “masterstrack.com” – whose slogan one can’t help but appreciate: “older, slower, lower”. Scroll through their FAQ (at http://masterstrack.com/faq/#q19) and you will learn about something called “age-grading”. Essentially age-grading is a way to normalize performance based on age. Unfortunately many of the links on their FAQ webpage are outdated and broken, but you can find an age-grading calculator for track and field events at http://www.howardgrubb.co.uk/athletics/wmalookup06.html.

    Having tools such as age-grading to objectively evaluate one’s performance relative to one’s age hopefully will give us the positive (yet accurate) feedback we need to keep motivating ourselves! Please keep us posted if you learn of any other similar tools!


  2. Glad to have found your blog. I am a 65-year old female who never did any sports competitively until the age of 62. Now I compete in sprint triathlons and 5k and 10k road races, as well as cross-country. Hopefully, Olympic distance in the future. What’s great about my late start is that every single race is a PR. My ART provider (if you don’t know what that is, go here: http://www.activerelease.com/what_patients.asp ), who is also an ultrarunner at the young age of 50, says that I can expect to get faster for at least 7 years. I think longer. My strategy is to seek to improve my body mechanics in all 3 disciplines, for the purposes of avoiding injury and increasing efficiency. (At my age, I can’t afford to waste any energy.) Important tools I have found are ChiRunning (http://www.chirunning.com/); Total Immersion Swimming (http://www.totalimmersion.net/); and Zendurance Cycling (http://www.zendurancecycling.com/).
    By the way, I have found that triathlon is not 3 disciplines, but at least 5: the 4th is nutrition and the 5th is discovering and working through one’s own personal set of deeply held fears.
    I hope many people find your blog and share information useful to our subset of athletes.

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