Fast track: age no barrier to sporting success for Robert Marchant
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By Helen Thomson
Think you're too old to do sport? Think again. Researchers have analysed the performances of the world's oldest record-breakers and named a 104-year-old cyclist champion.
Romuald Lepers the University of Burgundy, Dijon, and his colleagues are investigating how age affects athletic performance in elite sport stars as they age. While analysing the performance of some of the best athletes over the age of 40, the team began to wonder who the world's best 100-plus sportsperson was.
To find out, they identified all the best performances by centenarians in athletics, swimming and cycling. To gauge how ability declines with age, they then compared each of them with the current world record holder for their discipline.
For example, Usain Bolt holds the 100-metre record of 9.58 seconds. Donald Pellmann, competing in the 100 to 104 age-group in 2015, completed the same distance in 26.99 seconds – a 64.5 per cent decrease in performance compared with Bolt.
The centenarian athlete who showed the smallest decline was Frenchman Robert Marchand, who holds the world record for his age group in 1-hour track cycling, among others. Cycling 26.93 kilometres in 1 hour, Marchand was only 50.6 per cent slower than Bradley Wiggins's 54.53 km record.
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Other centenarians who had spectacular performances competed in the high jump, shotput, and swimming events.
Downhill from here?
Previous studies have shown that prowess in athletic events can be maintained until 35 to 40 years of age. After that, our performance decreases by about 10 to 15 per cent per decade, says Lepers.
But Marchand has declined much more slowly. Lepers says that Marchand has exceptional muscular and cardiorespiratory function compared with other people of his age. His performance corresponds to an age-related decline of less than 8 per cent per decade for more than 60 years.
The rate of athletic decline also depends on the sport. "Our study shows that in some disciplines the decline is less pronounced," he says. Running and swimming performances tend to plummet, for instance, whereas throwing and cycling abilities tend to decline more gently.
As old as you feel
It can be difficult to qualify as a centenarian athlete. Despite being able to run 100 metres in 23.4 seconds – closer to Bolt's record that Pellman's time – 105-year-old Fauja Singh was not included in Lepers's study because he can't produce a birth certificate. They were not officially issued in India when he was born, which he says was in 1911.
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Lepers's team have yet to discover a supercentenarian athlete – someone aged over 110. But this might change, he says. "Given the increased number of centenarians worldwide, it is very likely that the number of centenarian athletes will increase in the coming years."
These athletes are not only exceptional biological examples, but also good examples for others to follow, says Lepers. Take Canadian Ed Whitlock, he says. Whitlock was the first person over 70 to run a marathon in less than three hours. He took up running in his 40s. "It's never too late to be active," says Lepers.
Journal reference: Age and Ageing, DOI: 10.1093/ageing/afw111