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

When do geriatrics slow down?

I came to triathlon at the age of 60, and I’ve found both an advantage and a disadvantage in that. The disadvantage is that I regularly have to compete with athletes who have decades’ worth of experience and training. And I have come to realize that fitness is something you build up over a long, long time. You can get yourself ready for a big race in a year, but it takes many, many more years of base miles and more intense training to reach your peak.

But the advantage is that I can do nothing but improve. Since I didn’t do triathlon before the age of 60, there’s no younger me to compare the older me to. I have not had the disappointment of seeing my performance deteriorate. You can can stay fit and perform at a high level for a long time, but eventually, they say, it drops off some. And that must be a difficult adjustment to make.

Mooseman 70.3 2012. Keep smiling!

The photo was captured by my support crew just before I crossed the finish line at Mooseman 70.3 this year. You can see my new philosophy at work — keep smiling.

The interesting question to me is, when does performance begin to deteriorate? We all take it as a truism that it does, and there are plenty of triathletes in their 60s who complain they can’t run or bike at the same pace they could sustain when they were young. But there is yet very little scientific evidence to go on. For one thing, the over 60 population in triathlon is so still small that it’s difficult to make a study of us. So the researchers study younger people.

An article first published onlilne last February in the journal Age, for example (“Relative improvements in endurance performance with age: evidence from 25 years of Hawaii Ironman racing”) looked at the results at Kona from 1986 to 2010. Romuald Lepers, Christoph A. Rüst, Paul J. Stapley, and Beat Knechtle found that master triathletes (whom they defined as participants in their 40s — kids, in other words) increased their presence at the world championship race during this period.

Their second finding was that men over 44 and women over 40 made significantly better times in those 25 years, as well as improving their performances in all three disciplines. Finally they found that for the 40-44 and 55-59 age groups, the gap between men and women narrowed. You can find the article here, but it costs money to read it. Fortunately, the abstract, which includes the findings, is available here.

Another article, published the following May in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports (M. Stiefel, B. Knechtle, and R. Lepers, “Master triathletes have not reached limits in their Ironman triathlon performance”) had similar findings for Ironman Switzerland from 1995 to 2010. That article is here. It’s another one you have to pay for, but the abstract is here.

I think there probably is a point at which performance in triathlon deteriorates, regardless of your training, but I haven’t yet found any scientific proof of it. Then again, all those kids in the 40+ age groups are going to be geriatrics in another 20 years or so. Maybe we’ll know then.

Today’s weight: 155.5
Waking pulse: 56