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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Exercise and aging Part 1

One for the ages: A series on aging and exercise performance

Well, it's been a while since I've had time to lift my head and do any kind of series on exercise physiology, having instead been confined (happily, I might add) to current affairs in the world of sports science and management.

However, this past week, the following story caught my eye:

60 year old runner from Japan run 2:36:30

It is the story of 60 year-old Yoshihisa Hosaka, who broke an 18-year old record for runners aged 60 in the Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon. It is one of many stories of remarkable running feats in the aged population, I'm sure that you have many as you read this.

However, it inspired a series I've been meaning to tackle for a long time, and will now finally get around to doing: The effect of aging on running.

What I will try to AVOID in this series is the overdone discussion of the physiology of aging. That's been done many times - you can, for example, find a decent presentation on it here, courtesy John Puxty of Queens University. There are many other similar sites and books, so we won't simply repeat what is already known.

Obviously, it is important, and will come up as the explanation for what is observed, but I'm more interested in digging into the issue a little more and discussing why some older runners keep running fast, and why others can't. What is it that allows Yoshihisa Hosaka to run a 2:36 marathon, or Ed Whitlock (see his story below) to run a sub-3 hour marathon at the age of 70? And why do 999 out of the other 1000 runners struggle to keep running, let alone break 3 hours?

These are the more fascinating questions regarding aging and exercise. Unfortunately, they are unanswerable, so that leaves much room for speculation and theorizing. Fortunately, that's always fun, so this should lend itself to great discussion! It also lends itself to fascinating case studies of extra-ordinary runners, so let's see what can be dug up!

Aging and performance

To begin with, it will help to understand just what the impact of aging on performance is. And for that, we look at the world records for the marathon by age, which are shown in the graph below:

In green at the bottom, I've oversimplified the analysis by showing the percentage decrease over the decades from 30 to 40, 40 to 50, 50 to 60 and 60 to 70. It's clearly not a linear decline, and it's "cheating" to break the curve down into four linear blocks. A more detailed statistical analysis is needed, but for now I just want to make the point that the decline accelerates as you move further and further along. One would expect this kind of pattern, because as we age, performance is one of many variables than changes, and factors not related to exercise start to "filter" out the eligible population towards the right of the graph. By the time you get to the 80s, the main determinant of sports performance is health (which may be related to nature as well as nurture!).

There are some fascinating people represented by those blue diamonds. Over the course of the next few posts, I'll pick up on some of those people, but for today, two stand out.

First, there is Luciano Acquarone, the world record holder at 59 years (2:39:13), and the FORMER record holder at 60 (2:38:15 - his record was broken in Japan), who I have highlighted in red on the graph.

The reason he is fascinating is not only because he was clearly a great 60 year old runner. What intrigues me most about him is that he doesn't hold any other records beyond 60. So what, you say? Well, take the case of Ed Whitlock, who I've also highlighted. Whitlock is a Canadian runner who began his record spree at 68, and holds every record between 68 and 76, with the exception of the 71 year record. Whitlock was the first man over 70 to crack 3 hours for the marathon. We'll discuss him in more detail in the future.

What jumps out at me is that Whitlock is "only" 8 years older than Acquarone, yet in those 8 years, there is a 20 minute difference in performance. Which means that Acquarone has "lost" 20 minutes, a much larger gap than would be expected according to the traditional decline in performance.

Again, one swallow doesn't make a summer, and I'm not basing my point on those two men only. In fact, if you go down the list of names, you'll find at least half a dozen occasions where an athlete features in a batch, holding three or four world records, and then suddenly disappears. Perhaps he stopped running, lost form, picked up injuries. That's not vitally important right now. What is important is the interpretation, because what this means is that the ability to sustain great performances, even relative ones, is limited, and a great runner at 60 is not necessarily a great runner at 63! Too many factors intervene, and that makes interpretation of "aging physiology very difficult" (and that is why I'm so keen to avoid the usual, classic discussion of aging and physiology - it's insufficient to explain this interesting stuff!)

A lesson from the elites and conventional wisdom

Ages hit the headlines last year as well, and it wasn't because a 60-year old produced a 2:36 performance. Rather, it was because the two greatest marathon runners in the world at the moment lie on quite opposite ends of the age spectrum, at least according to conventional wisdom.

Haile Gebrselassie is 34 years old, and since he turned 32, he has run the three fastest marathons in history. This 'hat-trick' of sub 2:05 performances comes as the latest achievement in a career that has really been going since 1993, when he won world junior titles over 5,000 and 10,000m. A 19 year career at the elite level (I'm not even counting his debut marathon at 16, since he wasn't elite then). His longevity is remarkable, given that "conventional wisdom" suggests that most elite runners have perhaps ten great marathons in them, and only five to six years of elite running.

Sammy Wanjiru, on the other hand, is an "infant", having begun his marathon career at the age of 21. And while his career has a long way to go to match the career of Gebrselassie, he is, in my opinion, the current number 1, with a 2:05 clocking in London, and perhaps the greatest marathon ever run in Beijing's heat - a 2:06:32. He bucks "conventional wisdom" by producing those performances despite being "too young".

Conventional wisdom - let's set it aside

And herein lies the problem with conventional wisdom - it's often wrong. To take two men and use them as proof of the wide age at which marathon success can occur is obviously misleading. But it's equally wrong to suggest that there is a narrow window and a 'limited lifespan' of a distance runner (or any other sport, for that matter), because for every rule, there are exceptions (often, there are many).

And so what we'll see in this series is that there is no formula, no known way to predict sports longevity, and athletes who defy nature and aging to keep producing as they get older. But equally, there are cases that prove the point and confirm the "wisdom". So we are best off leaving that conventional wisdom behind, and just accepting that for every point made, there is a counter-point, and too many individuals to account for.

The problem with science that way is that it often "discriminates" against these outliers, individuals who disprove the textbook physiology. That's because science generalizes, and averages data, and we scientists love to work out an equation to predict a decline in performance over time.

However, in this case, that predicted decline is based on perhaps 50 DIFFERENT INDIVIDUALS, and you'd be completely incorrect to assume that age causes a decline in performance that is predicted by the equation X. It doesn't work that way.

So join us for a series that looks at some rather unusual individuals, with some lessons (hopefully) for all of us!

Ross

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15 Comments:

Alan Sleath said...

My favourite topic and i am thrilled that you finally doing a post on it.I think as 40 plus athletes we have one thing that younger athletes do not have and that is experience.It is in endurance events on average that we have the edge ie Comrades Marathon where most runners are in that bracket in fact there is a serious shortage of runners 25-30 age group.Vladimir Kotov and Calie Beneke are other amazing examples.

Tsunayoshi said...

I can't remember how or when I got turned on to this blog (well before the Beijing olympics), but it is wonderful. Keep it up.

oliver said...

A very interesting subject (been a while) that is sure to intrigue the major demographic of marathon runners...the oldies who who started late and want to know what a 'good' time is and the ones who have kept running and want to run an equivalent 'fast' time.

I am in the latter group, and based on your percentage slow down I 'should be ' running 2:56 aged 51- my own age adjustment calculator (there are a few out there) indicates 2:48-2:50, but lets not argue about that.
Despite a chronic back problem that limits training I am able to do 'equivalent' times to the latter off a little training block over shorter distances, and ocassionally may hold it together for a scraping sub 3.

The point I want to raise however is the factor called motivation, based on desire to break PB's etc. To me (or imo) this is the main thing that limits my training- it is a case of "what the hell, I'm not going to run a sub 16 5km anyway, been there done that, so I may as well drink 10 beers at the party".

I 'speculate' (haven't got the stats, perhaps you boys can dig it up) that the age group records are limited to different individuals in different age blocks either because of an accumulated fatigue factor (in fact alluded to by Noakes in ref to Bill Rodgers) or more likely because of the motivational factor.

In other words the records for later age groups are not held by those who held records (or were close to it) at 25 or 30, or the records at 60 are not held by those who did so at 40.

Would be interesting to see a tracking as such of athletes over time, for a big enough sample.
We know from individuals that this might be true. Ed Whitlock had the talent (elite at age 21) but stopped running until late 40's and there are other examples.

So is it motivation based on not having anything to prove or is it an accumulated fatigue (I know injuries are going to curtail some runners and decrease the pool...but probably still doesn't account for the absence of all the former elite, if that is indeed so).

btw I saw that a 51 yo ran 2:19 recently too, not sure if that is included in your graph

cheers

oliver said...

Just a follow up to previous comment.

Ethiopian born Seteng Ayele ran 2:16:59 at Tiberias (Gallilee)in 2006 aged 50y 9mths (not sure of course accuracy) but also 2:17:26 in Helsinki in 2005 aged 50y 4mths. The latter is accurate, but both these times are not on official age group records for some reason.
He also ran 2:17:25 at Athens OG aged 49 and his records only date from age 42.

oliver said...

...meant Etipian born Israeli...sorry

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi everyone

Thanks for the comments. I'm sure that the next few posts will cover much of what you've asked or suggested, so forgive me for not going into detail now.

I'll certainly touch on the experience issue, and then Oliver, your point about motivation is a very important one. That was going to be a major focus of the discussion on why athletes don't stay world class (or at the same level) for an indefinite period. I think that the grind and discipline required from training is too demanding to sustain. So you're 100% right there.

As for the records that are missing, that's an interesting one. I suspect that these kinds of lists are kept somewhat haphazardly, and so the chances of missing out on a performance are probably quite high. I'll update my own records, but I'm sure there are others. THanks for the tipoffs!

Ross

asfastasicanforaslongasican said...

wow! just what I was hoping for from you guys..thank you thank you! although it would have been even better if about cyclists!
I'm a 65 yr old female track and road cyclist with world champion medals last year in both disciplines from 500m TT on the track to the 20km road TT and 45 km Road race. I look forward to some valuable insights;your blog is one I go for whenever you post..keep it up!

Anthony said...

Great blog - and a fascinating topic.

Just a clarification on Oliver's comment.

Ayala Seteng (or Satain) has an
"official" year of birth as 1955.
However, this is wrong. His real year of birth is 1962 - the mistake
is due to the different calculation of years in Ethiopia...

His times are still very good for a 45+ athlete, but he is not yet
*really* in the 50+ zone...

No doubt there are other cases of age-errors in athletes - I seem to
remember there being some discussion on Haile Gebreselassie's exact age.

oliver said...

Thanks Anthony,

I used his so called 'official' IAAF biography age.
That's quite a mistake by them (if you are correct), given his OG and WC performances.

Amby Burfoot said...

An interesting running economist at Yale has done a fair amount of work on this subject, including a record of his own "slow down" with age, and a comparison between aging in Chess, Swimming, and Running. His name is Ray C. Fair, a great name for someone doing this sort of work. Here's an URL with many of his links to aging studies.

http://fairmodel.econ.yale.edu/aging/index.htm

Jason Lake said...

Interestingly, with regard to strength and power rather than "longer duration" performance ability, the consensus within the literature appears to be that age related declines in muscle strength and power appear to be a consequence of decreased activity associated with aging rather than the actual aging process and that older individuals can improve at a rate similar to their younger counterparts in response to strength and power resistance training.

ultrastevep said...

Although I was never really a fast marathoner, back 25 years ago I could run sub 2:50 and did several times. I left road racing to run trail ultras for the past 10 years and tried to run a marathon last year (Yes, I trained for it) and ran my personal worst time of 3:51! FWIW, I'm 57 and getting slower every second ;-)

Brett Larner said...

I interviewed Yoshihisa Hosaka over the weekend for an upcoming issue of Running Times. He gave me a list of his best times by age; at least the time for 59 is a new data point for your graph.

He said that the fall-off in times in his early 50's corresponded to a job change which forced him to alter his training. At 58 he returned to his previous training system and has seen an improvement in his performances again.

The time for age 59 was run this past Dec. a month before he turned 60 and was a dry run the WR attempt, but he was sick two weeks before Beppu-Oita and so ran slower than planned. He's going to try again in May in L.A. aiming for 2:34.

42 - 2:31:19 (Honolulu '91)
44 - 2:29:03 (Shinano '93)
45 - 2:25:28 (PB - Biwako '94)
46 - 2:28:36 (Biwako '95)
47 - 2:30:40 (Tokyo Int'l '96)
48 - 2:27:48 (Saitama '97)
49 - 2:27:51 (Saitama '98)
50 - 2:28:43 (Nagano '99)
51 - 2:28:14 (Saitama '00)
52 - 2:31:07 (Nagano '01)
53 - 2:36:04 (Hofu '02)
54 - 2:43:35 (Honolulu '03)
55 - 2:34:57 (Beppu-Oita '04)
56 - 2:34:20 (Beppu-Oita '05)
57 - 2:36:31 (Fukuoka '06)
58 - 2:41:18 (Fukuoka '07)
59 - 2:34:23 (Fukuoka '08)
60 - 2:36:30 (Beppu-Oita '09)

Anonymous said...

Hi Just a short comment on Sammy Wanjiru. The Kenyans do not have public birth records and in general they choose a birthday when applying for a Passport. Runners in Kenya generally lie about age because they will in general get better sponsor deals when at a younger age. I have a Kenyan friend who informed me that Wanjiru had a younger brother at 24 when he himself was 21! Even former record holder in the Marathon Tergat is somewhat older than the official tag says.
Andreas

Brett Larner said...

I interviewed Yoshihisa Hosaka over the weekend for an upcoming issue of Running Times. He gave me a list of his best times by age; at least the time for 59 is a new data point for your graph.

He said that the fall-off in times in his early 50's corresponded to a job change which forced him to alter his training. At 58 he returned to his previous training system and has seen an improvement in his performances again.

The time for age 59 was run this past Dec. a month before he turned 60 and was a dry run the WR attempt, but he was sick two weeks before Beppu-Oita and so ran slower than planned. He's going to try again in May in L.A. aiming for 2:34.

42 - 2:31:19 (Honolulu '91)
44 - 2:29:03 (Shinano '93)
45 - 2:25:28 (PB - Biwako '94)
46 - 2:28:36 (Biwako '95)
47 - 2:30:40 (Tokyo Int'l '96)
48 - 2:27:48 (Saitama '97)
49 - 2:27:51 (Saitama '98)
50 - 2:28:43 (Nagano '99)
51 - 2:28:14 (Saitama '00)
52 - 2:31:07 (Nagano '01)
53 - 2:36:04 (Hofu '02)
54 - 2:43:35 (Honolulu '03)
55 - 2:34:57 (Beppu-Oita '04)
56 - 2:34:20 (Beppu-Oita '05)
57 - 2:36:31 (Fukuoka '06)
58 - 2:41:18 (Fukuoka '07)
59 - 2:34:23 (Fukuoka '08)
60 - 2:36:30 (Beppu-Oita '09)