Endurance Coaching
February 16, 2024

Can We Slow Down the Ageing Process?

Jon Bateman
Founder, Performance Nutritionist and Endurance Coach

The Dreaded Decline in Performance

The decline of performance could be attributed to age, gender, and it may even be event specific. It still doesn’t soften the blow. We’ve seen evidence of this backed up in the literature numerous times with studies like those carried out by Bird et al., in 2001. In this particular study they were able to show that the decline in endurance performance associated with ageing has been estimated to be between 6 and 11.5% per decade. A substantial number when we look at this in a different light. Would we not clearly love to take performance improvements of 6 - 11.5%? I know I would. But is this the nail in the coffin? How inevitable is this and what can we do about it?

As I’ve previously intimated, looking at the research literature there are lots of studies that have been carried out in running and some in cross country skiing, but very little data exists within cycling. However, there are some and the findings are inline with much of what we have seen across other sports.  

If we take one study in particular, Balmer et al (2008) they looked at the effect of age on 16.1-km time-trial performance. A nice starting point. Backing up the Bird study, they also found a decline in performance in a group of 40 competitive cyclists (25-63 years old) of around 7% per decade, or 24 watts if you must know, and I’m sure you’re interested in these numbers.  Looking a little bit deeper into this, the duration of the event may be a factor, things may look a little different and more favourable with a 40km TT?

In terms of difference in power output with age (figure.1), we can see a decline in both the power output for the 16.1km TT carried out in the study alongside a maximal ramped minute test (RMP) were similar, 24 vs. 30w respectively. However, when training and racing status is taken into account this does not correlate with age.

Little information exists to shed light on the effect of age on mean heart rate (HR) within cycling (figure.2). However, the present study saw a <7 bpm drop in mean HR per decade and no discernable difference was seen across the two trials (TT & RMP).  

We’ve also seen that cadence may be a factor that can be influenced by the ageing process. In the present study we can see a drop of 3 rpm per decade. A strange one you might add. Well, the underlying mechanisms may not be immediately clear but further research may point to a change in muscle fibre types. We have seen evidence that fibres types may not differ as we age but there is evidence that Type II fibres may be significantly smaller in older subjects, meaning Type I fibres will be occupy a greater total muscle area (Coggan et al., 1990). Certainly, something to look at further in blogs to come.

So what are the take home messages from this?

  • There is a decline in 16.1 km TT performance in the region of 7-11.25% per decade, but this is dependent on the level of training load attained.
  • We have a seen a drop in mean heart rate of <7 bpm per decade in both 16.1km TT performance and that of Ramped Maximal Minute performance too.
  • A change in muscle fibre type may also be responsible for the decline in cadence of 3 bpm per decade that has been shown within the present study too.

So hopefully this has all made sense and in the next blog we'll begin looking into masters athletes in much greater depth. Hopefully this piece has given you an appetite to find out more and left you with many questions that you may want to put forward for consideration.

Balmer, J., Bird, S., Davison, R., & Lucia, A. (2008). Effect of age on 16.1-km time-trial performance. Journal of Sports Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640410701446901

Bird, S. R., Balmer, J., Olds, T., & Davison, R. C. R. (2001). Differences between the sexes and age-related changes in orienteering speed. Journal of Sports Sciences, 19, 243 – 252 https://doi.org/10.1080/026404101750158295

Coggan, A. R., Spina, R. J., Rogers, M. A., King, D. S., Brown, M., Nemeth, P. M., & Holloszy, J. O. (1990). Histochemical and enzymatic characteristics of skeletal muscle in master athletes. Journal of Applied Physiology, 68(5), 1896–1901. https://doi.org/10.1152/jappl.1990.68.5.1896

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