Your 30th birthday is one of life’s landmarks – and with good reason: it’s the point at which you’re deemed to be at your peak. You’ve been an adult long enough to gain some useful experience, but you’ve still got the strength and energy of your youth.
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Hence the accepted wisdom is that athletes reach their prime in their early 30s. But the accepted wisdom also suggests that the prime period doesn’t last very long and is taken as a signpost of impending decline.
But it seems that Ironman competitors are challenging that accepted wisdom. A recent paper* published in the journal Age, comparing the top 10 men’s and women’s finishing times at Ironman Hawaii between 1983 and 2012, not only found that the athletes’ average age jumped from 26 to 35, but also that the average finishing time fell from 671 minutes to 566 minutes.
To put it another way, over two decades the best finishing times dropped by 1:45hrs – that you might expect. But the athletes posting those times were on average almost 10 years older – that you wouldn’t.
Bucking the trend
It would be tempting to write these findings off as a statistical anomaly, but it’s not as simple as that. An earlier study of nearly 25 years of Ironman Hawaii results published in the same journal in 2013** found that these sorts of improvements weren’t confined to the elites.
This study looked at athletes aged 40 and over from 1986 to 2010. It found that men over the age of 44 and women over 40 significantly improved their performances in the three disciplines and in the total time taken to complete the event during that period.
So what’s going on? The short answer is nobody knows. It may simply be that more people are participating so there’s a wider range of athletic ability involved. Perhaps it’s that younger athletes are more attracted to shorter distances that have an emphasis on speed over endurance. It’s also possible that, as the sport has developed, so too has the associated training and coaching expertise, which can be better tailored to older athletes as a result.
All we can say is that age doesn’t necessarily preclude athletic improvement. “These observations suggest that it is possible to maintain a high level of performance up to 40 years of age and over,” points out Professor Romuald Lepers, co-author of both papers.
But, as he goes on to explain, the good news comes with caveats. “Perhaps motivation to keep training hard is a key. Don’t think that by getting older you’ll inevitably get slower. But as we get older we need to train smarter, with smaller training volumes, especially in running. The improvement in the performance of triathletes aged 40–70 over recent decades shows that they probably have a smarter approach to training.”
So what is smart training for athletes that are supposedly ‘past their prime’? The simplest explanation is training that gives your body sufficient time to recover from, and adapt to, the training loads. The older your body gets, the more time it needs to do those two things. Training smart means not only being aware of that, but also altering your training to allow them to happen.
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