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  Last updated: 2/24/2017

Aging and Physical Performance

There are two aspects of the relationship between aging and physical performance. Athletes are most concerned with the detrimental effects of aging on their personal performance, while for the non-athlete, the question is more often "Can physical activity counteract or blunt the aging process itself?"

Yes, exercise can blunt the physical effects of aging. It has been estimated that 30% of all deaths from heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer are related to inadequate physical activity. And even though we have data that supports the benefits of exercise, one study indicated that no more than 20% (and more likely less than 10%) of adults in the US obtain sufficient regular physical activity to have a measurable impact on their health and fitness levels.

And how about the effects of aging on athletic performance? Several quotes from a well written web article make the key points:

There are 2 reasons for this decrease in athletic performance.

First, VO2max To quote: "The maximal ability to utilize oxygen (VO2max) is a predictor of endurance performance across ages. In the general population, VO2max tends to decline by about 10% per decade after the age of 30." Your coping strategy should be? "....continue to compete and train hard (aerobic training) can reduce the drop by about half, to 5% per decade." Maximal aerobic training should include intervals (I include intervals of some sort into every aerobic training session, even a recovery ride).

Second, the decrease in muscle strength. Again to quote: "Muscles are made up of thousands of individual muscle fibers. Each muscle fiber is innervated by a single nerve. With aging, humans lose the nerves that innervate muscle fibers and with each nerve loss, they lose the associated muscle fiber. For example, the vastus medialis muscle in the front of your thigh contains approximately 800,000 muscle fibers when you are 20 years old, but by age 60, it will have only about 250,000 fibers. The average person loses about eight percent of muscle size in the decade between 40 and 50 years of age, and the rate of loss increases to 15 percent per decade after age 75."

Your coping strategy? .... "You can slow the loss of muscle fibers as you age and can enlarge the remaining muscle fibers by exercising against resistance, but you cannot increase the number of fibers once they are lost. In one study, older men gained more muscle strength by spending more time lifting lighter weights, whereas younger men gained more muscle strength by lifting heavier weights. In younger men, doubling exercise volume by spending more time lifting weights produced limited added muscle enlargement. In older men, it resulted in much larger muscles and far more strength."

So the answer is "use it or lose it (more quickly)". Regular training and stressing the CV and muscular systems will help keep you ahead of your peers.

But don't despair. Aging does give us perspective and enjoyment beyond charging up the hills and racing to the next power pole. I think the author says it very well. "I'm enjoying riding and racing more than ever before. I'm still mixing it up in the club hammer sessions. I'm riding on much nicer equipment now than what was available (or what I could afford as a poor starving grad student). I get to share my joy of cycling with our two boys, and I have the perspective of enjoying cycling as a lifelong activity that the young 'uns just don't have."


Physiologic and performance measures peak in the late teens and 20s, and then decline with age. However they do not all decline at the same rate, and the rates of deterioration vary according to lifestyle (the old use it or lose it philosophy).

a) Bones (osteoporosis)

Aging is accompanied by a loss of bone mineral content. Aside from using calcium supplements to minimize bone loss, there is no support for a role of diet in preventing this natural process. On the other hand, there is excellent evidence on the benefits of regular physical activity to maintain muscle and bone structure.

b) Muscular strength*

Strength levels for men and women are at their peak between the ages of 20 and 30. Without a regular exercise program, there is then a decrease in muscle mass from muscle fiber atrophy hat becomes particularly apparent at age 60 . However, this is a combination of aging effects on the muscle/ nerve unit AND a decrease in daily muscle loading. One study of men between the ages of 60 and 72 years, training with standard muscle resistance exercises, demonstrated an improvement rate equal to young adults. Another group of 70 year olds who had regularly trained from age 50, had a muscle cross sectional area equivalent to a group of 28 year old students. (more details below)

c) Neural function

Reflexes do slow with age, but as with muscular strength, activity minimizes the effects. Active men in their 70s had reaction times equivalent to inactive men in their 20s.

d) Pulmonary function

Once again, there is a decrease in lung function with age that can be blunted with regular activity. These studies indicate that a lifetime of regular physical activity may retard the decline in pulmonary function associated with aging.

e) Cardiovascular function

But even though a decline is inevitable, one small study of a group of active 45 year olds on a regular endurance exercise program, followed for 10 years, were found to have maintained a stable blood pressure, body mass, and VO2 max. during the ten year period.


The impact of aging on our muscle (and indeed every) cells is inexorable. This study (full article compared the force of individual muscle cell contraction in 3 groups - 80 year old master athletes, a cohort of sedentary peers (~80 y/o), and a group of 23 year olds. Although it has been speculated that the regular training of master athletes blunts aging's effects on individual muscle cell performance, the data show otherwise. The study normalized the force of contraction of individual muscle fibers "... when force was normalized to cross sectional ...both old (masters aged) groups did not differ, and the MA (masters) and NA (sedentary) were approximately 43% and 48% weaker, respectively, compared with young."

But the force of individual muscle cell contraction is only one component of muscle (and thus athletic) performance. The total volume of the muscle (the cross sectional area of the entire muscle, it's “contractile mass”) as well as the effectiveness of neural activation (the nerve stimuli that initiate muscle cell contraction) are additional key factors.

We know that regular exercise minimizes the expected loss of "motor units" (MU), the basic contractile unit in an intact muscle, with aging. (A motor unit is a single motor neuron and the several muscle fibers that will respond if it is firing. A single neuron may innervate several muscle fibers – so a motor unit is not necessarily limited to a single nerve/muscle fiber unit but rather a single nerve/multiple fibers unit.). This study, from 2010, showed us that the number of functioning motor units in the tibialis anterior of masters runners (approximately 65 y/o) were comparable to the values in the recreationally active young (approximately 25 y/o), and significantly more than healthy age-matched controls (approximately 65 y/o). "The estimated number of MU did not differ between masters runners and young, but MU number estimates were lower in the old (91 +/- 22 MU) compared with the masters runners (140 +/- 53 MU) and young (150 +/- 43 MU)."

The current study confirmed this. ".....greater preservation of muscle fiber number rather than contractile function may be contributing to the MA exceptional athletic performance. Additionally, fewer denervated muscle fibers (thus, a greater maintenance of muscle fiber number) and the ability of the MA (master athletes) to activate their muscle to a greater extent than NA (non-athletes) may influence EC-coupling and Ca2+ kinetics ..." So we see that although aging impact on individual cells cannot be stopped, regular exercise gives us a tool to compensate – maintaining more active muscle motor units as well as preserving larger muscle fibers. So keep up those intervals – and weight work at the gym.


Ben Franklin once said that the only constants in this world were death and taxes. The negative effects of aging on physical performance should probably be added to this list. However numerous studies have demonstrated the dramatic effect a regular exercise program (riding three to four times a week) can have on blunting the inevitable changes.

And the training effect is so effective that the aging process may be held at bay for up to a decade or more. In fact, for any age group regular riders are 150% less like to die from all causes.


Although there is a trend towards an increased percentage of body fat after age 30, there is good evidence that a resistance training program will minimize the loss of muscle mass, and good eating habits and self awareness will prevent weight gain.

There are no special dietary needs for older athletes. However there is less "physiologic forgiveness" or latitude to skip the pre-event carbohydrate meal, and an increased sensitivity to major fluid shifts from sweating and inadequate replacement. But aside from this decreased tolerance for physiologic abuse, the general principles of nutrition are exactly the same for all age groups including vitamin, mineral, and electrolyte replacement as well as the use of ergogenic aids such as diet supplements and unusual food products.


Is it safe to exercise as you age? If one uses common sense, the long term health benefits far outweigh any potential cardiac complications. One should avoid the extremes such as exercising above and beyond the level you have trained for, environmental extremes of temperature and humidity, and exercising when not feeling well. But even orthopedic injuries, which might be expected to be more common in the older athlete, do not appear to be increased with activities of moderate intensity and duration. A few thoughts:

These strategies were reinforced in a recent NYT article, "Age is irrelevant when it comes to fitness." Here are a several quotes from the article:

Bottom Line - Of all the strategies, the 2 that are most important are:

  1. reducing training volumes (number of rides a week). As you age you need more rest to recover from the minor physiologic traumas of hard physical activity. And if you are more rested, you can then push yourself harder during your interval training. So this is the first challenge for all of us who have been used to pushing ourselves for years - decreasing the number of hours (or days) a week on the bike.
  2. continued interval training.

And effective high intensity sessions alone are not enough. To get maximum benefit, you have to supplement your cardiovascular intervals with lifting weights, increased protein (or maybe creatine?), and more passive recovery days.

Q. I am 70 years old and increasingly find that aches and pains of old age are affecting my cycling. My speed is dropping because I have to use lower gears but I cannot turn the pedals as fast as I used too due to increasing stiffness and/or sore knees. The worst effect of old age is the loss of power. ... I increasingly get dropped on the hills, and I live in a hilly area. But again too much hill climbing and the knees suffer! So more rest and recuperation is needed, which cuts down on training time. So some advice on juggling the variables to improve, or at least retain, my hill climbing ability. DD

A.If you don't stress the CV system, you will lose aerobic capacity over time. But you can minimize that loss by regular riding - and by pushing yourself. I would consider doing intervals once or twice a week as one part of a program (if you are not now). And that means getting your heart rate up into Zone 4 for you. As to the knees, make sure you have a good fit on the bike, pedals (if you have clips) with good play (like frogs/speedplay), and then keep that RPM between 90 and 100. Don't lug on the hills, or spin too fast - it plays havoc with the knees.

Q. I am 69 years old, female. I ride about 130 miles a week and am working on interval training and sprinting to get stronger and faster. I ride a minimum of 20 miles a day. I have osteoarthritis in my back and hands. I don't take anything for the osteoarthritis and find that cycling is my key to living with OA and hopefully preventing it from getting worse. Today, I did 4 intervals of 1/2 mile. From a dead start, I was able to ride 18.8 on the 2nd interval and 18.7 on the 4th. My goal is to ride the 5K and 10K in the Senior Games in October at 18 mph. On a dead start, I can sprint up to 23 mph in the first few seconds, but it poops me out quicker and I ride slower, on the 1/2 mile interval, i.e., 17.7. My question involves maximum heart rate. I have noticed that my heart rate number is going higher, before I get exhausted, than a couple of months ago.

A.This question suggested that you may have fallen into a deadly trap in training, the "if a little is good, a lot is better" approach. It is really important to warm up before you do the intervals. If you are not doing so (5 miles or so at a modest pace) you risk injury and, as the CV system is not yet into its rhythm, you won't get maximum benefit from the intervals before feeling fatigued.

I don't see any advantage to a 23 MPH sprint for a few seconds - the whole interval should be at a steady pace you pick. If you can't hold 23 for the full interval, either decrease the interval duration or the speed.

It is really important to take off a few days a week off the bike. I'm not sure what to say about "your MHR going higher" but it is possible this is a sign of overtraining, not ideal training.

And finally, I did get the following question which raises a point I'd like to reemphasize:

Q.It seems your website is mostly designed for much stronger riders than I. Perhaps, you will see the benefit of gearing part of it to someone on my level, although there is a really small percentage of women my age, who have the drive to "push their limits." Presently, I know only one other female with that drive.

A.As to age, if you key your training to your personal max heart rate (less as you age) the general approach to a training program (how you divide up the rides during a week)should be age independent.

Questions on content or suggestions to improve this page are appreciated.

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