«At the age of 35, it’s all downhill»

19. August 2020

Scientific research unequivocally proves that performance capability decreases with age.

If you ask active and recently retired top athletes how their age affects them, you will have to agree with Esther Süss (46). The 2010 marathon world champion, who until two years ago still won prestigious competitions such as the Black Forest Ultra Bike or the Grand Raid with a track record, finds: «age is just a number.»

The fact that such endurance performances at the highest level are «perfectly possible» confirms Saskia Gehrig. While writing her dissertation in human physiology, the sports scientist focused on ageing processes in the skeletal muscles. «Nowadays it is scientifically proven that the distribution of muscle fibres and thus the proportion of type 1 muscle fibres, which are particularly active in endurance performances with limited effort, are maintained by trained athletes in old age.»

When is an athlete old?

«The peak performance capability in endurance sports can be sustained up to the age of around 35», explains Gehrig. «This is followed by a moderate drop in performance between the ages of 50 and 60, which then becomes more pronounced. The decrease in the maximum oxygen intake in old age seems to be the key mechanism, which correlates with the age-related loss of performance capability. However, the factors leading to this decrease have not yet been fully clarified. It appears that a reduction in the maximum stroke volume as well as a reduction in the maximum heart rate and arterial-venous oxygen difference play a role. In addition, decreasing training intensities and volumes can also be linked to advancing age.»

Scientist Saskia Gehrig goes on to say: «the performance capability of female and male endurance athletes decreases by around 7-14% per decade. In order to counteract this, the training intensity and training volume should ideally be maintained.

Family, job, injury

Not all athletes manage this equally well. At some point, the family and new professional commitments take on a higher priority than the sport. Seven-time «Miss Gigathlon» Nina Brenn (40) says of herself: «it’s not my performance capability that has diminished, but my ‹tenacity› to squeeze another training unit into every free moment I have.

Towards the end of his career, mountain bike legend Thomas Frischknecht increasingly had to struggle with the discrepancy between wanting to and being able to: at the end of my career, I knew in my head what I was capable of. But my legs no longer complied. It was thus suddenly a case of «taking care of my body and prioritising my health», says Frischi.

Nutrition and strength training

Diverse sports activities and a balanced diet are increasingly important in old age if you want to achieve athletic performance. From a scientific point of view, Saskia Gehrig confirms: «nutrition and strength training serve to sustain your performance capability and prevent injuries.» A high and regular intake of protein is particularly recommended for older athletes. The expert advises «around 30-40 grams of high-quality protein four to five times a day.» «When combined with regular strength training, muscle mass can ideally be maintained until the age of 60. After this – between the age of 60 and 70 – there will be an increased drop in performance, according to the current state of scientific knowledge.

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