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Like a Fine Wine: Do athletes get better with age?

  • 10/17/2011 4:04:00 PM
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Like a Fine Wine: Do athletes get better with age?

David Ferguson, Ph.D, RCEP  

We have all heard the late night talk show hosts joke about an athlete’s inability to retire. In fact, there seems to be a consensus that once an athlete reaches a certain age, he should retire from the sport. One such example comes to mind; when I was sitting in an airport restaurant which had a football game on the television, the gentleman sitting next to me made the comment, “Brett Favre has been playing as long as I have been alive, he should retire.” Why is there this thought that athletes should retire? Is there a set age where an athlete can no longer be competitive or win championships? This article will discuss some physiological changes that occur with aging that could decrease performance and well as some skills that come with being an older athlete.

In general, several physiological changes can affect athletic performance. The first is a loss in muscle mass starting at about age 25. This loss becomes more pronounced by the time an individual reaches age 45. Resistance training may slow this loss but will not stop the loss of muscle mass. Therefore, high power sports (football, weight lifting, and wrestling) may not suit the aging athlete due to the loss in power associated with the loss in muscle mass.  Additionally, this loss in strength can lead to injuries.

That is not to say that aerobic sports, such as running, cycling, and swimming, are not affected by aging. A general decline in aerobic capacity accompanies aging. Thus the ability to utilize oxygen for working muscle decreases. This translates into slower minute mile times and leads to an increase in fatigue.   However, there is good news for the older aerobic athlete. With age, certain muscle fibers convert to a different type, one designed for longer duration effort rather than explosive power, such that aerobic athletes may not feel as impaired as power athletes of the same age.

A benefit specific to older athletes is development of sport-specific skill sets, such as throwing a football, shooting free throws, or catching a baseball.   The older athlete will have fewer errors in performing a skill set than the younger athlete. Aging athletes bring a level of experience and ease under pressure that many sport teams desire, especially in high stress situations (i.e. championships). These attributes make older athletes the cornerstone during crucial sporting events.

Thus, although aging athletes do see a decrease in the physiological performance factors, such as muscle mass and aerobic capacity, they do possess compensating advantages. The ability of an athlete to optimize these strengths and reduce performance losses can lead to championship performance for many years.
Further Reading
  1. Powers SK, and Howley ET. In: E Barrosse editor. Exercise Physiology. Theory and Application to Fitness and Performance. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  2. Spence, Alexander P. Biology of Human Aging. 2nd edition. New Jersey, Prentice Hill. 1995. 



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