The Boys of Summer, the Men of Fall: Why Some Athletes Improve with Age - and Some Don't

By Begley, Sharon | Newsweek, June 17, 1996 | Go to article overview

The Boys of Summer, the Men of Fall: Why Some Athletes Improve with Age - and Some Don't


Begley, Sharon, Newsweek


TO LIVE IS TO AGE. But easy generalizations will go no further than that on the gym mats and playing fields of Atlanta. Just as a mathematician is old at 25 but a historian may collect Pulitzers in his 60s, so a gymnast like Belarus's Svetlana Boguinskaia is ancient at 23 but boxer Lawrence Clay-Bey remains formidable at 30.

"Aging is sports-specific," says Waneen Spirduso, a researcher in human movement at the University of Texas, because excellence in any event depends on three ingredients. Age takes a different toll on the endurance required for cycling, for instance, than it does on the power demanded by weight lifting or the neurological acuity that underlies the triple jump. "These components deteriorate at different rates," says gerontologist John Holloszy of Washington University Medical School. And different sports are more, or less, forgiving of the ravages of time.

Weight lifting, rowing and wrestling all require short burst of great strength, the ability least affected by aging. Striated muscle cells, which make up the tissue responsible for strength, die off with the passing years but so slowly as to make little difference until the age of 50 or beyond. Forty-year-old rowers can therefore remain competitive with 25-year-olds. Muscle cells get the energy for the required bursts of power by breaking down carbohydrates in a reaction that does not require oxygen (hence, "anaerobic"). So it makes little difference to power athletes that, with age, lungs lose elasticity and take in less oxygen.

But it makes a world of difference to cyclists, swimmers and runners. If the anaerobic reaction lasts more than a few minutes, muscles cramp. So it's no good for endurance events. To fuel muscles for longer events, the body relies more on its aerobic mode, which requires oxygen--a lot of oxygen. The sooner oxygen reaches muscles, through fast breathing and a pounding heart, the sooner the aerobic process kicks in and the better the performance. That's why athletes in endurance sports are sunk once their lung capacity starts declining; it's why swimmer Angel Martino is such an anomaly at 28. Says Holloszy, "Beginning at about 30, maximum oxygen capacity decreases 5 to 10 percent per decade."

Lungs lose their elasticity for much the same reason that day-old pasta forms a single glutinous glob. In the body, protein molecules called collagen serve as scaffolding for tissues. …

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