Why turning 40 could improve your results


30.08.16 at 1:18 pm


Last week I turned 40. Yes, I know, hard paper round you might say (or more specifically: two children, too much coffee and too little sunshine living on the East coast of Scotland). I hadn’t given the life-beginning moment much thought.

It became increasingly hard to ignore, however. In the run-up to the “big day” (the term my friends used, not me), numerous texts arrived, asking: “What are you doing on the big day, fella?” (told you).

As it happens I took the afternoon off, with the family. I ate pizza and chucked stones on the beach, all the while keeping track of the Brownlee brothers’ progress in the Olympic triathlon. They bagged gold and silver, at a canter.

Once again, British athletes appeared to peak for the Games – most notably the triathletes and cyclists. The 67-medal haul was impressive. Outside of this national success it was hard to look further than Usain Bolt in terms of great achievements (Michael Phelps would be a close-swum second).

Bolt managed the triple treble (three golds at three successive Olympics) with wins in the 4 x 100m relay, 200m and, of course, the 100m. He didn’t run a world record in the latter, but that’s understandable given that he set the bar at 9.58 seconds.

With this in mind, a 100m dash of 26.99 seconds seems rather feeble. That isn’t my time, but the world record set last year by ‘sprinter’ Donald Pellmann, who was competing in the 100 to 104 age group category last year. Yes, you did read that correctly – 100 to 104 years old.

Pellmann’s performance was recently studied by scientists at the University of Burgundy, in Dijon, alongside 59 others from centenarians in athletics, swimming and cycling. The team compared the best of the bunch with the world record holders in each discipline to find the world’s greatest 100-plus athlete.

It’s not Pellmann (his run was a 64.5% decrease in performance compared with Bolt’s record), but a Frenchman by the name of Robert Marchand. He holds the world record for one-hour track cycling in his age group (his 26.93km is down only 50.6% compared to Sir Bradley Wiggins’ 54.53km, set last summer).

Of course, Marchand is a bit of a super-granddad – he apparently has exceptional muscular and cardiorespiratory function for his age. His age-related decline is also far less than the norm.

Indeed, previous research has shown that athletic prowess can be maintained until somewhere between your 35th and 40th year. After that, it’s all downhill, with performance declining somewhere between 10% and 15%. Unless, that is, you’re a cyclist.

“Although the physiological characteristics of Robert Marchand are certainly exceptional, his remarkable performance could also be due to the lower age-related decline for cycling performances compared with running and swimming,” concluded the experts in Burgundy.

At the professional level, Jens Voigt springs to mind as an example of cyclists defying Father Time. The German broke the hour record in 2014 (51.115km) at the ripe old age of 42. “This was my last attempt. I’m in so much pain … but what a way to retire,” he said.

That was after 33 years of cycling. In another 33 years I’ll be 73 and my performance will likely have declined somewhere between 30% and 45%, compared to now. Hopefully it’ll be at the lower end of the scale (based largely on the fact that in 18 years’ time the kids will have left home and I’ll have more free time to exercise).

But I’ll also have another three decades of experience and, critically, far fewer athletes in my age group, allowing me to move seamlessly up race rankings. That’s reason enough to celebrate turning 40, isn’t it?

David Burrows is an environmental journalist, cyclist/triathlete, meat-reducer, father of two young-uns and faffer.

Twitter: @envirobuzz