Personal experience: longevity

" I am now running, at 59, the sort of times I was running as a 19-year-old National Serviceman" .

I can remember the time when a boxer was considered old at 28, over the top at 30. The prejudices against grown men taking sport seriously take a long time to disappear. In America sport stops when you leave college - or it did until people voted with their feet and the running boom started. These attitudes are in the nature of self-fulfilling prophecies. We say that we are too old for sport, so we stop taking exercise, so we cannot perform as well as we used to - that's hardly surprising.

Yet we have and have had for many years hosts of examples which give the lie to these attitudes. A 70-year-old weight-lifter is stronger than the average 30-year-old. The ballet dancer of 70 is more flexible than the average young adult, while the 70-year-old marathon runner will easily outrun the majority of 30-year-olds.

Such people owe their achievements not to the fact that they were outstanding when they were younger but to the fact that they have continued to practise the activity that they enjoy. They are often fortunate, in that society allows them dispensation because of their former achievements, but they are also determined. The will-power that made them great when they were young gives them the ability to continue into old age, when lesser men have been shamed out of it. If you want examples, take Jean Borotra and Kitty Godfrey, playing tennis into their 90s, Edward Weston, who walked across the USA - and back - in his mid-70s, Ron Taylor, who can run 100 metres in 11.3 seconds at the age of 60, or Cliff Young, who won the first Sydney to Melbourne race at the age of 61.

The questions to ask
When we are young we feel immortal and in a sense we are, because our cells renew themselves constantly. As we et older, the rate of cell division slows down and some tissues begin to perform less efficiently. There is a loss of elasticity, both in the skin and in ligaments. There is a decline in the maximum heart rate and in maximum power output. The questions we need to look at are: how early do these changes set in? is there anything we can do to reverse the process? what performance should we expect at a certain age?

Athletics has the advantage of being completely measurable, so that we can see just what is happening. First, we see that it is possible to remain at the very highest level until at least 35 in the sprints (see Linford Christie, Carl Lewis and Merlene Ottey) and until the late-30s in the longer events; Carlos Lopes won the world cross-country title and the Olympic marathon at the age of 37. With continued training it is possible to remain at international level to the age of 40 - as witness Eamonn Coghlan's sub-four-minute mile, Al Oerter's record in the discus and, most recently, the victories of the 42-year-old Podkopayeva at 1500 metres in 1994. In events involving pure endurance, the limits can be extended for longer. The world's best for a marathon at the age of 50 stands at 2:11, a time that would win many international marathons.

Second, when decline does set in, it is very gradual - of the order of 0.5 per cent a year for many years. The reason we cannot be more definite is that, until recently, few athletes have been able to defy social convention and continue their sporting career into their 60s or 70s. Now that veteran sport is becoming more accepted, data is accumulating.

My own rate of decline
A look at my own training diary gives an idea of the rate of decline. I ran the equivalent of 13:45 for SK in 1960 and continued at that level until 1967. All that time I was training very hard as opposed to merely keeping fit and putting in the occasional hard session, which has been my routine since 1969. In 1971, aged 35, I ran 14:28. Twenty years later, aged 55, I ran 16:19 - a decline of 109 seconds. In the Hyde Park Fun Run, four kilometres, I slowed from 12:20 to 13:40, a decline of 80 seconds over 15 years. Over 10K I have declined from being a 29:00 man in 1967 to running 32:30 in 1985 (210 seconds over 18 years) and 35:00 in 1994; this is a decline of 360 seconds over 27 years and 150 in the last nine years.

Comparing the three distances, we get a decline rate of
Hyde Park (4K on grass) 1.3 secs/km/year 5000m (track) 1.1 secs/km/year 10km (road) 1.3 secs/km/year
Rounding things up, we can reckon a steady rate of decline, after the age of 35, of about two seconds per mile per year (0.55 per cent). This means that over five years, other things being equal, you will be a half-minute slower over 6 miles/1Okm and two minutes slower in a half-marathon.

How motivated are you?
However, other things are not equal. The most important variable is how hard you train, which is related to your psychological drive.

When someone takes up running for the first time, or comes back to it after a long break, he or she will improve very quickly in the first year and continue to improve for another year or two, whatever their age, because they are getting fitter. The body is gradually being converted into that of a runner. An improvement of 10 seconds a mile in the first year is not unusual. On the other hand, a person who has been competing since the age of 12 is not going to change very much.

The only exceptions to this are when one moves to a new event or when one changes the training dramatically. This applies particularly to endurance events - marathon and beyond - because it doesn't matter how much speed you have, if you haven't got the endurance you won't be able to keep running. Thus the 30-year-old middle-distance runner may not be able to break three hours for a marathon, just because of lack of endurance, whereas a 60-year-old who has done the training would manage it easily.

There is no doubt that the average person (that is to say, an unfit person) can reverse most of the effects of ageing by using the right exercise programmes (and Owen Anderson suggests a few on page 8). The person who has kept fit will always be younger, in the physiological sense, than his real age. I am now running, at 59, the sort of times I was running as a I9-year-old National Serviceman. On the other hand, my flexibility and my muscle strength, apart from the leg muscles, have declined considerably because I have not worked specifically on them.

The three lessons
What are the implications of this for the average sportsman? First, there is no reason to stop purely because of age, because the decline is very gradual and a bit of hard training and some good conditions can sometimes enable you to improve on last year's times.

Second, one cannot train with the intensity of a young athlete because the rate of regeneration is not as fast. The reason for this may well be hormonal, and therefore a change in the way of life or a move to another event - taking up triathlon, for example - can provide the stimulus for further improvement. You have to find the intensity and the frequency of hard training that you can tolerate.

Third, it will probably become necessary, if you seriously want to stay as fit and healthy as possible, to work on your weak points. Muscular strength declines unless your muscles are exercised. Flexibility and mobility, too, cannot be taken for granted. It is necessary for the specialist sportsman to become less of a specialist in order to maintain the all-round fitness that he took for granted in his teens or his 20s. The squash player, for example, would need to run more regularly to maintain his oxygen intake and his endurance. The runner should spend more time on upper body training and flexibility exercises, and the swimmer should spend more time walking or running so that his supporting muscles do not weaken. Bruce Tulloh WHAT THE PAPERS SAY Our usual round-up of recent research from the scientific, medical and sports journals looks at ageing Older athletes actually reduce the risk factors for heart disease.

The various risk factors for coronary-artery disease usually increase as people get older, but senior athletes are definitely bucking that trend - even as they reach their 80s and 90s. In fact, in a recent study carried out at the University of Florida, a group of 21 ageing track athletes actually improved their cardiovascular profiles over a 20-year period.

The 21 athletes, who were race-walkers and runners, reached an average age of 70 at the study's conclusion, but actual ages varied from 60 to 92. All of the subjects maintained regular aerobic training throughout the two-decade period. Each athlete was assigned to one of three groups (high, medium, or low) based on the intensity of his training.

The athletes remained lean through the 20-year period, averaging only 1 7-per cent body fat at the end. Mean body weight stayed exactly the same - 154 pounds - over the extended period, and total blood cholesterol levels actually declined over the course of the study. Eleven of the subjects had cholesterol readings over 200 at the beginning of the research, while only four had such lofty levels at the end. Exercise wasn't the sole factor producing this change, however; as the subjects continued training, they also improved their diets and ate less saturated fat.

In addition, there was not an increased frequency of high blood pressure over the 20-year period, and average systolic and diastolic blood-pressure readings remained exactly the same. Likewise, none of the athletes developed diabetes mellitus or became obese (had greater than 25-per cent body fat).

Only one real negative showed up: The number of athletes with Total Cholesterol/HDL Cholesterol ratios greater than five increased from zero to six, mainly because HDL cholesterol ('good cholesterol') tends to decline as a result of ageing.

While the risk factors for cardiovascular disease normally increase between the ages of 50 and 70, athletes who stay active through this period seem to be able to prevent most negative changes from occurring. This is happy news for ageing exercisers, although it DOESN'T mean that it's okay to skip regular check-ups with your doctor. ('Changes in Coronary Artery Disease Risk Factors in 6 to 92-Year-Old Male Athletes at 20-Year Follow-Up, ' Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, vol. 25(5), D. 574. 1993)

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