I recently wrote a friend that if I never beat my personal best time in an Ironman triathlon, set in 2005, I'll be fine with it. But after reading in the New York Times Magazine about Dara Torres, the 41-year-old swimmer who this week is competing to go to her fifth Olympic Games, I'm thinking I shouldn't give up on my 36-year-old self quite yet. Torres has a superb chance of making the team and winning a medal in Beijing. And she's not even the oldest athlete at the Olympic swimming trials; Susan von der Lippe is 42. At the track and field trials, pole vaulter Jeff Hartwig has already made the Olympic team, at 40. I called Indiana University kinesiologist Joel Stager, who was quoted in the NYT Magazine article, to chat more about the issue of age and performance. (He knows of which he speaks; the 55-year-old swimmer is the fastest 50- and 100-meter freestyler age 55 to 59 in the United States. With his 100-meter time of about a minute flat, he regularly beats high schoolers.)
What physical changes affect athletic performance as someone ages?
When you compare [older folks] to people who are inactive, they look the same: a gradual loss of muscle mass and a loss of central nervous system activity. But the things we used to think were aging-related may be more related to that lack of activity [that occurs as most of us age]. I don't know that we have the answers to what happens when someone maintains a high level of activity; Dara is running the experiment for us.
People tend to curtail their activity as they age, a phenomenon called hypokinesis. Is that a natural progression?
Researchers have done this with mice and logged their activity on wheels, and basically that showed us that as the animals got older, their activity minutes declined over time. Humans fortunately have the ability to override that. The average participation in U.S. Masters Swimming [the governing body for adult swimmers] is 17½ years. And on the average, masters swimmers train four to five days a week. So what we can talk about in exercise physiology is volitional activity: We can get up off the couch and go run. Is the usual slowdown necessary? I don't think so. My grandfather was still farming at age 80. But in today's world, it may be unusual. Hypokinesis may be a natural phenomenon, but we have control over it.
And what about performing at an incredibly high level, like Torres?
She has the opportunity, the incentive, and the motivation. It's absolutely terrific. But we don't have a lot of people who have maintained their activity patterns and training as they did in their 20s.
She took many years off before coming back. Is that kind of a break advisable?
I'd rather see someone be consistent and persistent than skip a week or take a year off. I can make an excuse every day for why I don't want to get in the water, but I tell myself that I can just do 1,000 yards because tomorrow I may not be able to get to the pool. And exercise does other things: helps mood issues, improves blood pressure, and, needless to say, burns calories.
Torres is a sprinter. But aren't older athletes supposed to be better at endurance events?
It's a little confusing. There are some physiological variables that tend to favor endurance, like changes to muscle mass that may encourage endurance rather than power. But the other side of the coin is that as a sprinter she can get away with less training [in the pool] and do other exercises that benefit her performance. The other thing is that she's not putting a lot of pressure on her ankles, knees, hips and spine; you're not working against gravity when you're swimming.
How does training have to change as one gets older?
I can't train at the same load as I did 20 years ago. What becomes really hard is the recovery. A lot of the older athletes find out that when you go beyond a certain training load, it's pretty hard to go on with the rest of your day. Difficult workouts are catabolic—they break down the body—and provoke an immunological response. Recovery from one can take not hours but days.
What else can older athletes do?
Pay attention to nutrition and make intelligent decisions to aid recovery. Getting out of the pool and grabbing a diet soda is probably not the best thing to do. But old muscle responds the same way that young muscle does to physical training. The point is, you have to do it.
For more: There you have it from Dr. Stager. I've previously written about how to start working out if you're not a spring chicken, how to keep up your routine if you're used to exercise, and how a 40-something triathlete stays in the game. And my colleague Deborah Kotz wrote about the importance of exercise for seniors.