Better With Age

Could experience put older triathletes on the podium ahead of their more youthful counterparts?

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Could experience put older triathletes on the podium ahead of their more youthful counterparts?

It’s often assumed that fitness declines as we get older, but many triathletes may actually get better with age. A recent Spanish study published in the Journal of Human Sport and Exercise looked at the performances of international-level male triathletes, discovering that in many cases, the older elites were faster. The researchers also noted that at the Athens and Beijing Olympics, the average age of the top 10 finishers was higher than in other events outside the Games. This could mean that experience may help athletes outswim, outcycle and outrun Father Time.

Among single-sport studies, one French study showed the peak age for world records in track and field is 26, while it’s just 21 for swimming. Other research published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine found that age-related decline was less apparent in cycling than in swimming and running.

Furthermore, the Spanish study demonstrated that, for elite and professional triathletes, peak age may be higher than in single endurance sports. Indeed, they noted that at the Yokohama 2009 World Championships Series race, the optimum performance age was 29.94; at the Tongyeong 2009 World Championship Series race, it was 31.85. It’s possible that those numbers are even more pronounced with non-elite age-groupers.

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Despite the fact that age brings a loss in muscle mass, bone density and maximal aerobic capacity, it also brings experience, which may play a greater role in triathlon than in other sports. Consider the fact that triathletes generally don’t pick up the sport until later in life, and that triathletes need to master not one discipline, but three.

“As you gain experience, you learn from a training perspective what works and what doesn’t,” says Matthew Vukovich, Ph.D., head of the Human Nutrition and Performance department at South Dakota State University. “Everything from training to technique to race strategy is learned over time.” Perhaps the best news is that once a triathlete reaches that optimal level of performance, he or she is often able to stay there for a while. Vukovich points to a wide body of research that shows the age-defying effects of endurance exercise, citing everything from cardiovascular benefits and better bone density to the maintenance of fast-twitch fibers that typically disappear as one ages.

For younger athletes looking to reach that peak sooner rather than later, author Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-hour rule” may apply. It states that one must engage in an activity for at least 10,000 hours before mastering that specific task. While there’s much debate regarding the rule’s validity, more time spent on everything from technique to race strategy may prove to get an athlete to that peak point faster.

But, cramming isn’t advisable, either. Triathlon coach and owner of New York City-based Enhance Sports Mikael Hanson, 44, reminds triathletes, “The sport of triathlon takes years to master; don’t try to rush it.” (He won his first race at 41.) Whether you’re racing the finish clock or the calendar, in triathlon the podium doesn’t discriminate when it comes to age.

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