Over the hill? This is how age affects your sporting performance.

July 8, 2021

News & Resources

Over the hill? This is how age affects your sporting performance.

There is no question that age is a career-limiting factor among elite athletes, but for the rest of us, age simply slows us down, makes us hurt a bit more, and makes recovery a little bit harder.

This is now factors associated with ageing can affect your sporting and physical performance.

A decline in physiological function

Shona Hendricks, the Head of Sport Science at the Sports Exercise Medicine and Lifestyle Institute (SEMLI – formerly the High Performance Centre, or HPC) at the University of Pretoria, sums it up succinctly:

“Ageing is associated with many declines in physiological functions, not just general atrophy (muscle loss). Bones, over time, lose their calcium content making them weaker. Neural responses are slower than before, which correlates with the decline in the overall function of the muscle-tendon unit and the ability of the muscles to respond quickly.

“There is also a change within the muscle cell, which is not completely known. However, it is thought that perhaps there is a decrease in mitochondria, which would then also explain the decreased ability to produce increased VO2max values. Overall though it (the effects of ageing) is a decline in overall physiological function,” explains Hendricks.

Longevity in sport

Certain sports tend to appeal to older people more than others. For instance, how many people do you know in their 40s and 50s and 60s who run? Why is it that the best of the best marathon runners are not all in their 20s, but some in their 30s and 40s?

To put the longevity of runners into context, the book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall references a survey that tracked the average finishing times of runners in the New York marathon in 2004.

Researchers found that if a runner started running at age 19, he would get faster until his peak at age 27. However, the age-related decline in performance was more gradual, with the runner only reaching the same level at which he started (at age 19) by the age of 64.

“Sports involving more skill, reaction time and a combination of strength and cardiovascular endurance will be more suited to younger persons before this physiological decline takes place. Therefore, sports such as running and triathlons will become more popular for older age groups where those other factors do not limit their performance.

“It has been shown in older age groups that increases in VO2max and overall strength are still possible, even with expected age-related physiological declines. Therefore, I believe that is why endurance-focused or perhaps strength-focused sports take preference at a later stage,” says Hendricks.

In other words, it is more about the demands required from those sports and what the body is physiologically able to do at that time that determines the age at which competitiveness is either at its highest or starts to decrease.

“Football requires many factors such as speed, power, reaction time, endurance, strength. Therefore, age will limit a person’s performance physiologically, and, therefore, in that sport, overall as well. There is also much more risk of injury in contact-type sports for an older person,” says Hendricks.

Taking care of the body

It’s common knowledge that looking after the body generally results in a long and healthier life. This extends from not smoking, drinking alcohol moderately, being careful about what you eat and not partaking in unnecessarily risky behaviours. This basic concept extends to sports.

Looking after yourself physically has a direct impact on your sporting longevity, barring any bad or recurring injuries. Taking care of how you train and how you recover will go a long way in keeping your body primed for longevity in sports. Hendricks says that the leading element is training intelligently.

“Training smart is vital. It is important to not overdo it at a younger age, and also to not under-train as the body gets stronger with exercise.

“With this in mind, you will find that there will be fewer injuries and that will definitely be the key to longevity in sports. This is especially true as the number one risk factor for injury is a previous injury. Therefore, if these injuries could be prevented then longevity is more secure.”