Over the Hill: Have You Passed Peak Performance?

Conventional wisdom tells us a decline in athletic performance comes with age, but is this belief misinformed perception or scientific fact? It could be the weight of the fanny pack causing a slower time in the 5K, but studies have shown that 20-something is the sweet spot for achieving peak athletic prowess. So, hike up those shorts and tube socks with pride, age (not the outfit) is likely to blame.

Illustration by Bob Al-Greene

Glory Days - The Need-to-Know

Some things, like fine wine, become better with time. Sports performance, on the other hand, tends to spoil with age. As the aging process plays out, years of wear and tear are revealed through injury and muscular imbalanceAging, physical activity and sports injuries. An overview of common sports injuries in the elderly. Kallinen, M, Markku, A. Peurunka-Medical Rehabilitation and Physical Exercise Centre, Laukaa, Finland. Sports Medicine, 1995 Jul;20(1):41-52.. In what can be perceived as an act of rebellion by the body, the treads are literally coming off of the tires (just ask Brett Farve).

For most, elite level performance is maintained until age 35, steadily declining until age 50 when performance takes a sharp turn for the worseEndurance exercise performance in Masters athletes: age-associated changes and underlying physiological mechanisms. Tanaka, H, Seals, DR. The Journal of Physiology, 2008 January 1; 586(Pt 1): 55-63.. So, while an AARP card might open the door to discount insurance rates and killer lunch specials, it's simultaneously slamming the door on the record setting athletic performances of the good old days.

Taking a closer look, the impact of aging on performance rears its ugly head in most every sport by compromising endurance, motor function, muscular strength, and balance. So it should come as no surprise that more than 65 percent of U.S. Olympians are in their 20s. The same is true of professional athletes. Studies show that at age 24, a professional football player relying on strength will be peaking at the same time as a 24-year-old tennis player known for her foot speedPeak performance and age among superathletes: track and field, swimming, baseball, tennis, and golf. Schulz, R, Curnow, C. Department of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA. The Journal of Gerontology, 1988 Sep;43(5):P113-20.. Only four years later will a star baseball player and an elite long-distance runner top out at about 28 years of age. Of course, performance declines vary slightly among sports and the sexes, but on averagewomen tend to hit their performance ceiling before their male counterpartsPeak performance and age among superathletes: track and field, swimming, baseball, tennis, and golf. Schulz, R, Curnow, C. Department of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA. The Journal of Gerontology, 1988 Sep;43(5):P113-20..

Fitness vs. Father Time - Your Action Plan

But not all is lost. There is strong evidence to suggest that age improves performance related to knitting, crossword puzzles, and The Price is Right. All kidding and handcrafted sweaters aside, it is possible to retain some shred of athletic ability, and dignity, as the years add up (Dara Torres anyone?).

Or, consider one of the healthiest and longest living people in the world: Okinawans. A 25-year study of the elder Japanese islanders concluded that healthy lifestyle choices, not genes alone, can impact the aging process. Choosing to eat well and train intelligently can combat aging and prolong athletic ability, but as the saying goes: If you don't use it, you lose itShort term and long term detraining: is there any difference between young-old and old people? Toraman, NF. Department of Health Sciences, Akdeniz Univesity School of Physical Education and Sports, Antalya, Turkey. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2005 Aug;39(8):561-4.. Follow these essential tips to stay on your game - regardless of age.

  • Go Fast. You can't really stop getting old, but you can include higher intensity workouts to preserve performance, muscle, and elicit better results. So run fast and sprint, adjusting the recovery time between sets and workoutsThe scientific basis for high-intensity interval training: optimising training programmes and maximising performance in highly trained endurance athletes. Laursen, PB, Jenkins, DG. School of Human Movement Studies, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. Sports Medicine, 2002;32(1):53-73.. Start with a 1:1 work to rest ratio, working for 60 seconds and resting for 60 secondsLow-volume interval training improves muscle oxidative capacity in sedentary adults. Hood, MS, Little, JP, Tarnopolsky, MA, et al. Exercise Metabolism Research Group, Department of Kinesiology, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Medicine and Science in Sports Exercise, 2011 Oct;43(10):1849-56.. You won't be going as fast as way back when, but you will be going as fast as the body allows. If running is out of the question, try interval training on a bike to increase performance while also burning fatTwo weeks of high-intensity aerobic interval training increases the capacity for fat oxidation during exercise in women. Talanian JL, Galloway SD, Heigenhauser GJ, et al. Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Journal of Applied Physiology, 2007 Apr;102(4):1439-47. Epub 2006 Dec 14..
  • Stay Limber. Once flexibility and range of motion start to go, so does the ability to exerciseExercise, mobility and aging. Daley, MJ, Spinks, WL. Sports Science, Australian Institute of Sport, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory. Sports Medicine, 2000 Jan;29(1):1-12.. Peak performance will be the least of your concerns as tight muscles pave the way for injury and imbalance. The solution: stretching. But not the static stretches you learned in grade school phys ed. Try a new breed of dynamic stretches that train flexibility while actively taking the body through athletic movements. Then include active stretching like foam rolling and massage.
  • Move Weight.Muscle is better than fat. The more muscle, the better your body composition, bone density, and metabolismRole of muscle loss in the age-associated reduction in VO2 max. Fleg, JL, Lakatta, EG. Gerontology Research Center, National Institute on Aging, Baltimore, MD. Journal of Applied Physiology, 1988 Sep;65(3):1147-51.. Like running, approach workouts with purpose and intensity. Start with three days a week of total body resistance training. Look to train the major muscle groups (legs, back, chest, shoulders, arms, and abdominals) with three sets of 8-12 repetitions. If soreness lingers and energy dips, use less weight and decrease the frequency of the workouts.
  • Eat Well. For the aging athlete, nutrition is going to play a huge role in energy levels and recovery. In addition to high-protein snacks and healthy carbohydrates like fruits and veggies, be sure to up your intake of antioxidants. Whip up a delicious recovery shake by combining protein powder, fresh berries, and nut butter. Age and excess exercise can also result in nutritional deficiencies. You may be lacking essential nutrients like folate, vitamin B12, calcium, and vitamin DNutritional consideration in the aging athlete. Tarnopolsky, MA. Department of Pediatrics, Faculty of Health Science, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 2008 Nov;18(6):531-8.. Check with your doctor to be sure, but a multi-vitamin might be a supplement worth using to keep you looking, feeling, and performing like your 20-year-old self.
This article has been read and approved by Greatist Experts Noam Tamir and Rob Sulaver.

Are you clinging to peak performance or throwing in the towel? Tell us how you plan to prolong athletic performance in the comments section below.