Health: Forever Young

Can cycling life begin at 40? Nick Morgan puts the case

Hundreds of scientific studies have looked at the effects of ageing on sporting performance and the general consensus is that for sports requiring physical fitness, once middle age is reached, the rot sets in. 

A 2007 study at the University of Texas concluded that; "Peak endurance performance is maintained until approximately 35 years of age, followed by modest decreases until 50 to 60 years of age, with progressively steeper declines thereafter." A glance at Tour de France history reinforces this view. No one over the age of 35 has won the race since Firmin Lambot in 1922, and he was only 36.

Over the last 20 years, the winner’s average age is 29, exactly the same age as that for the Flora London Marathon winner in the same period. The scientific consensus, as summed up by the Texas study, also states that age deterioration is primarily caused by a ‘natural’ decline in maximal oxygen capacity (VO2 max) as well as a tendency for body fat to increase. Furthermore, it states that endurance athletes find it harder to maintain performance than sprinters and that women decline faster than men. 

All this doesn’t make pleasant reading for a 40-year-old endurance cyclist looking to make improvements, particularly if she happens to be female. But before you hang up your wheels, consider some new evidence suggesting that you may not be totally over the hill just yet. Let’s deal with the four tenets of conventional wisdom in turn. Firstly, the notion that overall performance declines beyond the age of 35. Tell that to Viatceslav  Ekimov (pictured) who competed strongly in the Tour de France at the age of 40, or Paul Tergat, who’s still gunning for the world marathon record at 38.

But while there are a few elites who defy the norm, the evidence for non-elites is even stronger. Take the times from last year’s London Marathon – an event very comparable in fitness terms to endurance cycling. When taking all 35,000 runners into account, rather than just the elites, the best performing age group for men, in terms of average time, was the 40- to 45-year-olds. For women, it was the 35- to 40-year-olds. 

Using regression analysis, the ideal age on average for the event was 39, a full ten years older than the peak age for elites. The second tenet of conventional wisdom that’s come under threat is that a decline from the age of 35 onwards is inevitable because of ‘natural’ physiological changes, particularly a gradual but marked deterioration of VO2 max.

But a study at the University of Milan found that up to the age of 45 the major factors causing decline were qualitative in nature rather than quantitative. That is, deterioration was caused more because older athletes trained less than younger athletes, rather than due to any physiological changes.

Furthermore, research from Ball State University, which tested 37 endurance athletes 22 years after they had been elite, found that although most had experienced severe physiological decline, the few who had maintained their training had experienced absolutely no decline in VO2 max, maximum heart rate, lean muscle mass or any of the other variables generally thought of as regressing inevitably with age.

In another study by Sinai Samaritan Medical Center in Wisconsin, Milwaukee, a group of 10 athletes with an average initial age of 52 were able to maintain their VO2 max levels with steady high-level training, when conventional wisdom would have predicted an inevitable decline of 10 per cent or more.

Then there’s the conclusion that endurance sports suffer more heavily at the hands of time than power sports. Again, new evidence casts this into doubt as a study by researchers at East Carolina University revealed that ageing muscle contains higher percentages of type-one fibres, commonly known as slow-twitch, which are the fibres normally used in endurance rather than power events.

And a brand new study of senior Olympians conducted by the University of Pittsburgh concluded that, for men, there was no difference in rates of decline between sprint and endurance events, and in women, deterioration in sprint events was found to be actually worse than when competing in endurance events.

Finally, is it really true that women suffer more than men? Several studies have come to this conclusion, and have largely based it on the fact that while the male hormone testosterone goes on being produced throughout life, the female hormone oestrogen doesn’t. But recently scientists have started to question this result.  They point out that all the studies comparing the sexes used sports that have more elderly male participants than female. One exception is long distance swimming, where participation is roughly equal between the sexes.

Last year, Italian scientists published the first study investigating ageing effects on long-distance swimming times and found that the decline for men was actually steeper than that for women. These studies don’t mean that conventional wisdom is completely wrong, and further research may well lead to a compromise. But the overall message is clear if you keep training hard, there’s probably no good reason why you can’t maintain a very high level of cycling performance.

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