Track meets are things most people watch during the Olympics or when their kids are participating in them – something for young people to do and older people to spectate.
But athletics has always prided itself on being an all-comers sport, and buried beneath the youthful façade is a thriving culture of older (“masters” and “supermasters”) athletes in masters-only competitions.
One of these is Jeannie Groesz of Bend, Oregon, USA. Last month, she captained a team of septuagenarian women to win the 70+ division in the 2023 USA Track and Field Club Cross-Country Championships. She also led them to first place in Masters Grand Prix series, comprised of 9 similar championships, ranging from the mile to the half-marathon. “There’s just something about an all-masters race,” she says. “We’re all aging, but still able to compete.”
And she’s far from the only one. Another supermaster, Jo Schoonbrodt of The Netherlands, recently set the age 70+ world marathon record with a time of 2:54:19 – a mark most runners only one-third his age can only dream of. His countryman, 75-year-old Hans Smeets, ran the mile in 5:41.20.
“It’s not that exercise can prevent aging, but it does delay the inevitable decline,” says Amby Burfoot, who won the Boston Marathon in 1968 and is still running at age 77 (he also spent many years as editor-in-chief of Runner’s World magazine.)
So, what’s the secret of these people – not just for running faster than many younger runners can go, but being fit and healthy enough to compete at all?
Part of it, says Jessica Piasecki, an exercise physiologist at Nottingham Trent University in Great Britain, is having the right parents. “There is definitely a genetic component,” she says.
But there are also things aging athletes can do to improve their odds of remaining not just active but competitive. These include careful attention to nutrition – Piasecki advises a lot of protein – plus a balanced mix of different types of training, including strength work in a gym or at home and low-impact workouts like cycling or swimming.
A good mindset helps. “People who have been successful into older age have probably adapted better to aging,” Piasecki says. This means realizing they can’t simply soldier on, training the same way they did when they were younger. “Rather than running six days a week,” she says, they might realize that they might be better off running maybe four days a week and going into the pool or the bike for the other two.
Older athletes can also find it beneficial to use training cycles longer than the traditional 7-day week, especially if retirement has freed them to experiment. “This,” Burfoot writes in his blog Run Long, Run Healthy, “allows you to fit in several key workouts while also taking enough time for recovery”.
Proper motivation is also important. A team led by Pauline Entin, an exercise physiologist at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, polled 517 runners of various ages, looking for the factors that kept them to keep going. They found that extrinsic factors, such as being part of a team or pleasing a parent or coach, were more important to younger runners. Masters athletes were more strongly motivated by intrinsic factors, such as self-competition, and challenge.
Staying motivated enough to train consistently is one of the big secrets of successful supermasters runners, adds Bas Van Hooren, an exercise scientist at Maastricht University, The Netherlands. “[Schoonbrodt] had been training every single day for the whole year leading up to his world record,” Van Hooren says. “[Smeets] didn’t miss more than a week of training in 25 years.” Much of this training, especially in Schoonbrodt’s case appears to have been very slow and easy, which is probably why he didn’t need to make the type of adjustments Piasecki found necessary for most older runners.
Younger athletes often mount comebacks after substantial amounts of missed training, either due to lack of motivation, injury, or childbirth.
But even for them, Van Hooren says, as little as a week off requires 2-3 weeks for a full rebound. For older athletes, that’s magnified partly because they tend to lose fitness a lot more quickly, but also because they tend to find it harder to rebuild.
“If you want to achieve excellent performance at a high age,” Van Hooren says, “you need to make sure you’re not getting injured too much, because you will lose muscle mass and decrease performance.”
Muscle mass loss is a critical concern for masters athletes because sometime around age 30, we all start to lose muscle mass at the rate of 3 to 8 per cent per decade. After age 60, the process accelerates.
It’s even possible to completely lose certain types of muscle fibers – specifically those responsible for speed, strength, and explosive power. That’s because each muscle fiber is connected to a nerve telling it when to fire. If the fibers designed for strength and power never get the signal to fire, the nerve will atrophy, along with the muscle fiber connected to it. “That’s one of the reasons why sprint performances tend to peak at, let’s say, age 20-25,” Van Hooren says.
Some of this process is an unavoidable consequence of aging, but it’s possible for the nerves serving adjacent muscle fibers to step in “and sort of rescue” cut-off muscle fibers before it is too late, thereby slowing the decline. “We call [it] motor unit remodeling,” Piasecki says, adding that it’s one of the reasons why maintaining consistency in training and avoiding injury setbacks is so important.
Meanwhile, Van Hooren took advantage of the fact that both Smeets and Schoonbrodt lived nearby to invite them into his lab in an effort to better understand how their bodies tick. One of the tests he ran was VO2max test in which he had them run at progressively higher speeds on a treadmill while measuring their oxygen usage.
Smeets maxed out at 50.5 milliliters of oxygen per kilogram body weight, per minute, the units in which VO2max is measured. “That’s the highest ever recorded at that age,” Van Hooren says.
Smeets also had an unusually high “anaerobic speed reserve”: a fancy term for the difference between his maximum aerobic pace and the fastest short-term sprint he could muster. Schoonbrodt, the marathoner, also had a high VO2max for his age, though not as high as Smeets’. He stood out for his “running economy,” a measure of how much energy he was expending at any given speed, and an extremely useful trait for a marathoner.
Interestingly, both also started competing relatively late in life: Schoonbrodt took up running at age 36; Smeets began at age 50. Groesz fits the same pattern, not discovering the sport that would make her great until she was in her 30s.
That’s significant, Van Hooren says, because athletes like Smeets, Schoonbrodt, and Groesz could easily have been elite professionals if they’d discovered their talent at an earlier age. But that might have induced them to beat their bodies into a pulp in their teens, twenties, and thirties, leaving them unable to still be competing today.
There is no scientific proof of this, of course – only anecdotal stories like those of Smeets, Schoonbrodt, and Groesz. But, along with avoiding injuries, eating well, and having the genes not to succumb to early arthritis, it does appear to be another of the secrets to high-level success at ages when most people wouldn’t even think of running, let alone racing.