Don’t Let Age Slow You Down—August 4, 2014

As I was pedaling as fast as I could in the middle of Ironman 70.3 Eagleman, a strong-looking fellow blew by. I glimpsed the number on his calf as he charged ahead. “You just got totally dusted by a 59-year-old,” I said to myself.

When he and several others from his wave also passed me, it made me think: Am I getting weaker or are these guys getting stronger?

There are two main variables to consider when looking at aging and athletic ability: cardiovascular capacity and functional strength. The stronger the heart, the more blood gets pumped out to the lungs and muscles, and the more cardiovascular capacity an athlete has. This number determines the VO₂max, the maximal amount of oxygen that the body can exchange over a specific time.

Functional strength, the strength generated by muscle groups, determines the power an athlete can generate. The greater the functional strength, the more power and speed the athlete will have.

After age 25, both the cardiovascular capacity and functional strength variables start to decline. This starts slowly, a little bit each year—and then accelerates quicker in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

Jordan D. Metzl, M.D., is a nationally recognized sports medicine specialist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Dr. Metzl is a 29-time marathon runner and nine-time Ironman finisher. His new book is titled The Athlete’s Book of Home Remedies.

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