For the last 20 years, Bob Unger has cycled or run religiously three or four times a week. As a gift to himself for his 65th birthday in November, he decided to begin working out every day, or nearly. “I feel so much better,” says Unger, a Boulder, Colo., psychologist and an avid bike racer. “It helps everything,”
On an afternoon in August, Unger is at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine. He’s here to get a battery of tests — the kind that helps elite and hard-core athletes like him figure out their optimal workout intensity so they can train accordingly.
Electrodes are taped to his chest as he cycles in place; wires run from the electrodes to an electrocardiogram device that reads his heart rate and records any irregular blips.
Adam St. Pierre, an exercise physiologist, draws blood samples to obtain Unger’s “lactate profile,” which tells him how Unger’s body is responding to the workload: The harder you work, the more lactate you produce.
And he tests Unger’s VO2 max, or maximal oxygen consumption — a measure of aerobic potential. For more than an hour, Unger pedals at various intensities until finally, heaving for air and with rivers of sweat running down his arms and legs, he is close to collapse.
Unger’s lactate profile and VO2 max numbers have improved since his last test in March — in fact, this is his best physiology performance since the center began testing him nine years ago. Unger’s heart is pumping more efficiently with fewer beats, and that’s impressive. As a rule, starting in the late 30s, VO2 max steadily declines.
“Bob is an anomalous example of how much improvement is possible after age 60,” St. Pierre says. “He’s a good example that with proper training — enough training — people of any age can get fitter. You can be better at 65 than perhaps you were at 45, even at 25.”
A slew of elite and master athletes (those 35 and older) are pushing the bounds of what once was thought possible for middle-aged and older athletes.
Dara Torres — who at 41 was the oldest swimmer ever to make the Olympic team — captured three silver medals in freestyle swimming and relays at the 2008 summer Olympics.
Diana Nyad, who just turned 62, attempted to swim the 103-mile stretch from Cuba to Key West, Fla., without a shark cage; though she was ultimately beset by an asthma attack, shoulder pain and choppy waters, she tackled a swim she had last attempted at age 28 and that would be daunting for an athlete of any age.
Ed Whitlock, a runner from Canada, became the oldest person to run a marathon in under three hours in 2003, at the age of 73.
These days, runners in their 60s and 70s have surpassed the winning time for all ages for sprints and marathons at the first Olympic Games held in Athens in 1896.
What enables older athletes like these to continue to perform with such excellence? That’s not entirely clear to researchers. Genetics, experience, training and stellar fitness all play a role, and scientists are trying to learn just how far these variables can go in counteracting the inevitable physiological declines that happen with aging.
But one thing does seem clear: When it comes to elite athletic performance, aging “is not a death sentence,” St. Pierre says.
Consistency is a clear factor in Unger’s improvement — and the performance of any serious athlete, St. Pierre says. “A lot of people will have a really good week or a really good couple of days, but stringing together months and months and years and years is what it takes to be a really successful aerobic athlete.”
This is certainly true for Nyad, who dove back in the water in 2009 to prepare for her 60-hour swim after taking a 30-year hiatus from the sport. Training included multiple 8- to 15-hour swims and one that lasted 24 hours. During it all, she says, she found herself feeling stronger and more resilient than when she was training in her 20s.
“I know most athletes, just human beings in general, you recuperate slower as you get older,” she says. “I must say that I haven’t found that.”
The biggest downer for people as they age is that their cardiac output (the amount of blood that pumps out of the heart in one minute) is steadily decreasing, says Sandra Hunter, an associate professor of exercise science at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis. This occurs because the heart rate decreases by about one beat per year beginning in a person’s late 30s. What this means is that “our maximal heart rate will decrease, regardless of how active we are,” Hunter says.
The consolation prize? “Your ability to do sub-maximal exercise, which is what most exercise is, remains really excellent,” says Michael Joyner, a professor of anesthesiology and an exercise researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
And that could translate to a lot. In a January study in the Journal of Applied Physiology, Joyner and colleagues examined the theoretical physiological profile of the person who will one day run a two-hour marathon (the current men’s world record is 2:03:59). Though Joyner believes that the person who breaks the two-hour barrier will almost certainly be younger than 40, he predicts that running “economy” — the ability to do more with less oxygen — will probably be more important than age.
Running economy can be learned to some degree. This can hold an athlete for a while.
But when people reach their 60s, the ability to compensate for age begins to wane dramatically. Motor neurons begin to atrophy, leading to weakness and loss of muscle mass. Fast-twitch muscle fibers used for power and sprinting begin to shrink.
Marshall Ulrich, a 60-year-old ultra-marathoner and mountaineer who completed a solo run across the U.S. in 2008, says he has really begun to feel his physical limitations. “I do about a third to a quarter of the mileage that I used to.” During his transcontinental run, he says, he was averaging 60 miles per day. “When I was in my prime at 40-42 years old, I could’ve accomplished those miles in probably 14-15 hours per day instead of 17-18, so I could’ve had more time to recover,” he says.
Genes will play a part in how well an athlete weathers the advancing years and inevitable physiological decline. Running economy, though to some extent learnable, is thought to be largely genetic. Muscle fiber types are influenced by genes, as is ability of the heart to increase in size in response to training, thereby enhancing VO2 max. Being genetically endowed also plays a big role in whether an athlete can bounce back to a high level of competitiveness in a sport following a long break (a la Diana Nyad) or how easily someone can pick up a sport later in life and excel.
And Hunter points to a 2009 study in the journal Alzheimer Disease & Associated Disorders which reported that people who possess a particular gene variant that predisposes one to Alzheimer’s disease lose muscle strength twice as quickly as those who don’t.
Researchers still have much to learn about the role of genetics in maintaining elite fitness with age. “I’ve been racing and lining up against the same guys now for 40 years,” says Andy Pruitt, a 61-year-old two-time world champion bike racer and founder of the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine. “Some of those guys are still going strong in their 60s and some aren’t. I think that in your 20s, you can hide your gene pool; in your 60s, you can’t hide your gene pool anymore.”
The genetically endowed are “probably able to stay a cut above everyone else,” adds Hunter, who is starting to study the genetic variability of aging. Still, she says, “eventually they’re going to be on the same linear slope as everyone else. You just can’t avoid it.”
Experience with dealing with adversity and challenges will also give older athletes an edge, particularly in endurance sports. The longer or further an athlete has to run, bike or swim, the more such factors as experience, logistics, environmental conditions and psychology begin to matter, Joyner says.
“You’ve learned to handle pain, you’ve learned methods of tapering that work for you, you’ve learned how to train better,” says Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, a professor of pediatrics and medicine at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, who studies exercise as a counter-measure for aging and is a champion cross-country skier and runner himself. “It’s all the experience that you gain to learn what works best for your body, I think, that allows these people partially to compensate for the inevitable physiological decline.”
Another common denominator for these top-notch athletes, regardless of age, seems to be the motivation that comes from setting sights high. “I keep setting goals well into the future,” says Ulrich, whose 2011 memoir, “Running on Empty,” describes the role that running and adventure pursuits have played in his life. “Once I finish one thing, I’m not completely satisfied with that. I just look around, I like to keep it fresh, keep it interesting. I like to run, to mountaineer, do a little adventure racing. I think that’s the key to it.”
For Nyad, aging was the motivation that nudged her back into swimming. “Turning 60, I definitely felt an overwhelming malaise of the pressure of the clock ticking,” she says. “You really feel that finality. … I thought what would relieve the malaise, to me, would be to really get engaged in my life and in something that would push me and drag the best self that I am in every way — physically, mentally, emotionally — to the surface.”