Aging is associated with lowered performance across most sports that include a heavy physical component, including running. Yet, an increasing number of elderly individuals engaged in running are interested in optimizing their performance. What does to the science suggest regarding how to optimize the performance at higher age?
While several studies have documented the training characteristics of world-class athletes in their peak years (typically around 20-35yr), only a few studies have documented the training characteristics of world-class master athletes. It therefore remains largely unknown how optimal master athlete performance should be developed. Such information would be of great interest to aging individuals interested in optimizing their health and performance.
In light of this, we documented the physiological, training and performance characteristics of two world-class master athletes in two case studies (Van Hooren & Lepers, 2023; Van Hooren et al., 2022). Here I will share some insights that we obtained from investigating these remarkable athletes.
I will briefly introduce the two athletes.
The first athlete is Hans Smeets, a 75-year-old Dutch multiple world record holder middle distance runner (see picture below). He typically competes in 800-1500m distances. In our laboratory he displayed the highest VO2max ever recorded for his age (50.5 mL/kg/min) and he also exhibited a large anaerobic speed reserve ratio (i.e., ability to increase his speed above his speed at VO2max).
By clicking on the picture below, you can see a video with the tests performed in the lab (VO2max, body composition) and on the track (Anaerobic speed reserve ratio).
Video of the VO2max test (and other tests)
Our second athlete is Jo Schoonbroodt, a 71-year-old Dutch multiple world record holder long distance runner (picture below). Jo typically competes in distances >10km such as marathons or even ultra marathons. In our laboratory, Jo also showed a very high VO2max for his age (46.6 mL/kg/min), but also displayed exceptional running economy at his marathon speed (41.3 mL/kg/min), corresponding to 88.5% of his VO2max.
What did we learn?
The analysis of both athletes yielded numerous insights, which are discussed in detail in the papers. A first interesting observation was that both athletes did not perform a lot of sports (or no sports at all) in their younger years and only started running at much higher ages. For example, Jo only started running at an age of 36. Therefore, the first insight that we obtain from this is that it is never too late to start exercise!
One could also wonder whether their late start could in fact be beneficial. For example, although running is generally good for various joints including the knee, a very high volume and intensity of training (e.g., as performed by Olympic athletes) may increase the risk of osteoarthrosis and therefore prevent exceptional performance at a high age despite exceptional fitness levels. Further, the athletes also noted that their late start may have helped them with maintaining motivation as they could not compare their running time to their younger years.
A second thought is that both athletes still performed a relatively high training volume. For example, Hans’ self-reported average weekly training distance during the preparation for the outdoor and indoor track seasons was 70 to 80 km/wk. This came from 4 to 5 training sessions per week with a maximum duration of 1 hour 45 min. Jo’s self-reported average weekly training distance in the year leading up to his world-record marathon was 139 km/wk, completed in seven sessions per week. For Jo, this weekly training volume is comparable to what some world-class athletes run in their peak years. Interestingly, it is also almost double of the previous world-record holding marathoner in the 70+ category. The relatively high training volume may have contributed to the exceptional performance of both athletes as this leads to numerous metabolic and structural adaptations in the muscle. In this regard, we also obtained some interesting insights from a muscle biopsy taken from Jo. This revealed that he had >90% type I fibers in the vastus lateralis, which is considerably higher than most masters athletes. This may have contributed to his exceptional running economy. However, as type I fibers are less susceptible to muscle damage, the high proportion of type I fibers may also have reduced recovery requirements, thus allowing him to complete a high volume at his advanced age.
Jo also trained various start-to-run groups and joined their training sessions. This resulted in two and sometimes even three training sessions completed per day. In addition, Jo typically performed two core stability (e.g., front and side planks, body weight squat) sessions per week during his warm-up and reported including numerous easy hill runs in most of his training sessions as a form of strength training. He trained about 50% on concrete/asphalt and 50% on country roads or forest tracks. Hans included easy hill runs in most of his training sessions as a form of functional strength training and did about 75% of his distance on forest tracks.
Of interest is that both athletes performed the vast majority of their training sessions at an easy pace as guided by the ability to talk easily. They did not use lactate measurements or even heart rate or speed to guide their training. In fact, although Jo ran with a sports watch, Hans trained without a watch to estimate his distance or speed.
Both athletes did perform HIIT sessions. Hans did his interval sessions on the track, while Jo performed two fartlek sessions per week. In these sessions, Jo would do variable duration intervals, typically ranging from 1 min to 15 min. All intervals were performed at an estimated 90% of his maximum capacity, and he tried to keep short (e.g., <1min) rest periods between the intervals. These interval sessions on top of the high volume are likely the key part to achieving their exceptional performances. In the competitive period, Hans would run many competition races (800-1500m) and use these as his interval sessions. Outside of the competitive period Hans would typically not perform any track interval sessions. Instead he performed some intervals after his endurance run once per week. Examples included 2-3x 400m, followed by 1km (all around pace 3:30/km) and then 2-3x 400 in a slightly faster pace. Closer to the indoor or outdoor track season, he would perform 2 interval sessions, with one of these being shorter distances (e.g., 200-400 m on 800 m race pace with a total distance of ~2km) and the other session being similar as done outside of the competitive season. He kept long rest periods and often walked in his rest between intervals.
Hans did not report absence from training for more than 1 week in 25 years of training!
A final key learning derived from both athlete’s experiences was the importance of training consistency. Both athletes had trained consistently for many years prior to obtaining their world records. For example, Hans did not report absence from training for more than 1 week in 25 years of training! Similarly, Jo trained every day (!) in 2021 and 2022 leading up to the marathon. This consistent training stimulus might be particularly essential for aging athletes considering the potentially more rapid reductions in physiological functions such as recovery and adaptation in older compared to younger individuals.
Jo trained every day (!) in 2021 and 2022 leading up to the marathon
For those interested in more details on the training characteristics, physiology, and other nuances, please out the papers below.
Van Hooren, B., & Lepers, R. (2023). A physiological comparison of the new-over 70 years of age-marathon record holder and his predecessor: A Case report. Frontiers in Physiology, 14, 178.
Van Hooren, B., Plasqui, G., & Lepers, R. (2022). Physiological, Spatiotemporal, Anthropometric, Training, and Performance Characteristics of a 75-Year-Old Multiple World Record Holder Middle-Distance Runner. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 18 (2), 204-208. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.2022-0284