I am a late 40s long-course triathlete and, like so many others, would love to qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. Unfortunately, I am not particularly talented. I am, however, intensely determined. It is this determination that has allowed me to “sneak” into podium finishes at some smaller triathlons and has led me to dream of bigger achievements.
But determination and luck are not enough to qualify for Kona. Qualifiers have real talent and, as demonstrated in a recently published study, are getting better over time. In other words, it is getting HARDER for aging people like me to have top finishes because older triathletes continue to improve.
This study examined the performance trends of male triathletes in Ironman Switzerland from 1995 to 2010. Female athletes and athletes over age 64 were excluded simply because their numbers were too small to allow for good analysis. The researchers used the traditional age-group divisions with which we all are familiar (e.g. 18-24, 25-29, 30-34, etc.). The 16-year time period of the study was divided into 4-year blocks (1995-1998, 1999-2002, 2003-2006, 2007-2010) and the top ten performances in each of the respective age groups were averaged over each of the 4-year blocks. The researchers reported each discipline and total finish time. The findings were dramatic.
The first finding had to do with participation. Over each of the four-year blocks, there were more master triathletes (40 years of age or older). The percentages of total “master” participants were 23%, 28%, 37%, and 48% during these blocks of time.
The next finding demonstrated that, yes, we really do slow down with age. Times for the three disciplines got progressively faster from the age 18-24 group until reaching their peak in the age 30-34 group (although visually apparent, this U-shaped curve was not statistically significant between the age 25-29, 30-34, and 35-39 groups). Participants really started to slow down by by the age 40-44 group, and the differences between the age groups became progressively wider thereafter. The sole exception is in the discipline of cycling, which only became statistically slower by age 45-49.
The final, and most important, finding, is that, while older age groups were statistically slower than younger age groups, this difference became much smaller, progressively, over the four blocks of four years during which this race had been held. The younger age groups (with the lone exception of the total-time performance of the age 35-39 age group compared between 1995-1998 and 2007-2010) did not improve over time, while the older age groups did improve dramatically. This effect was apparent by age 40-44 for total race time, cycling time, and running time and by age 45-49 for swim time. Furthermore, the degree of separation between the four blocks of time expanded progressively over time.
Since this is a descriptive study, the authors could only speculate about the reasons for their findings. It is likely that increased participation of older triathletes led to selection of better performers for inclusion in this study (which was limited to top 10 performances). It would be interesting to compare the middle tertile of performers in the same manner in which the researchers had compared the top 10 performers. A study of this sort would limit the effect upon these results of increasing the size of the pool of talent.
Another possible explanation for improved performances over time is improved technology. Age performances slowed down a little “older” in swimming than in other disciplines. This finding allows for the possibility that improved wetsuit design may have played a role in limiting the effect of age on swimming performances. On the other hand, improved bike technology, which arguably should have a greater impact on performance, did not appear to play much of a role in the improved performances of the age groups over time, since improved cycling and running performances appeared to be quite similar and there have been minimal improvements in running gear over the period of this study.
Perhaps improved coaching, improved attention to hydration and nutrition, or even improved aid station-support may have played a role. Any of these explanations is speculative.
The important finding of this study is that, while we do slow down as we age, we are slowing down less than we used to. These findings are likely to be generalizable to iron-distance races worldwide.
Personally, I am unsure if I should be encouraged to see that it is possible to hold on to whatever endurance I have a little longer, or disheartened to see that I have to push that much harder to hope to race Kona.
Stiefel M, Knechtle B, and Lepers R. Master triathletes have not reached limits in their Ironman triathlon performance. Scand J Med Sci Sports 2012 Feb;24(1):89-97.