Endurance performance capacity falls supposedly by 15 percent per decade after one’s thirtieth birthday. When it comes to strength and speed, it’s hardly expected to be otherwise. But even old people can accomplish enormous physical feats. For example even in ancient times authors recorded, according to historian Professor Robert Lane Fox, that the elite soldiers of Alexander the Great – the Macedonian “shield carriers” – even when over 60 years of age still supposedly achieved day-marches of over 30 kilometres (including, of course, full field pack and weapons). Similarly surprising is the performance of the Japanese Yuichiro Miura who, in May 2003 at the age of 70 years, climbed Mount Everest. But that too was “trumped” in 2008: Nepalese Min Bahadur Sherchan stood, as an almost 77-year-old man, on the highest peak on earth.
Old does not mean sick
What is still physically possible in old age has been investigated, for instance, by the Finnish scientist Professor Harri Suominen. One of his main queries was whether in fact age in itself is what makes strength rapidly decrease, or whether the real culprit is the phenomena – especially diseases – which are often, but not inevitably, associated with the age. Finnish scientists have for this purpose evaluated Athletics World Records among the different age groups. One reason for this choice was, of course, that the holders of such world records – such as in the 100-meter sprint or marathon-running – are most likely to be very healthy, neither carrying excess weight nor having heart disease. This is, of course, not only dependent on lifestyle, but also on the genes, as Dr Urho M. Kujala, a colleague of Suominen, among others, reports.
Even at 70 still a Speedy Gonzales
The evaluation results were truly amazing: The feats for both men and women became with age, as expected, weaker, but very slowly. Only in old age (over 70 years) were the differences in relation to the 30-to-40 year-old top athletes quite significant. Nevertheless, the achievements of the older athletes are still above what most untrained young people achieve. Applicants for a place at the Cologne Sports University are required in an Aptitude Test to match, for example, in a 100-metre sprint a maximum of 13.4 seconds (men) or 15.5 (women) – something which by no means all applicants manage. By comparison, the world record in this discipline for men in the age group M70 sits at 12.77 seconds, for women it is 14.76 seconds. Things are similar in another running discipline, the 3,000-metre: in this case, male candidates have to at the latest reach the finish within thirteen minutes. The world record for men in the age group M80 is currently only eleven seconds over that. Yet another example: The Canadian Ed Whitlock at the age of 73 years in 2004 in Toronto ran a marathon in under three hours, which itself would be, for healthy and reasonably-trained amateur athletes, more than just a challenge.
Age in itself is no reason for snail’s pace
According to Suominen, the evaluated data on the one hand shows the enormous plasticity of physical performance and that this decreases only slowly. On the other hand, the data show that age per se is not the main reason for what is, with most people, relatively rapidly declining performance. Much more important is obviously – apart from the genetic makeup – above anything else our way of life. This was also confirmed by a large study, known under the acronym PACE. It was conducted by scientists at the Cologne Sports University and published last year. On the basis of more than 900,000 times from 20 – 79-year-old marathon/half-marathon participants, the researchers under Professor Dieter Leyk studied the endurance performance of men and women who are active in sport. Employing questionnaires, about 13,000 marathon/half-marathon runners were in addition questioned about things such as sports, lifestyle and health.
Here are the key findings, according to the scientists, in brief: Up until 55 years of age, no significant reduction in performance show up. Going beyond that, the loss of performance among older people drops a little: 25 percent of 65 – to 69-year-old endurance-trained individuals were still faster than half of the 20 – to 54-year-old distance runners.
“It’s never too late”
The surveys have also shown that more than a quarter of the 50 – to 69-year-olds had only begun to do running training during the last five years. The conclusion of Leyk and his colleagues: “Poor performance in middle-age primarily relates to an inactive lifestyle, not to biological aging.” In other words: It is never too late. And something which also applies to physical performance: everyone is the architect of his or her own fortune. At least a little bit.