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Chris Froome (33) wants to race at the top level for five more years. Alejandro Valverde (38) will wear the rainbow stripes for the 2019 season. And Andrea Tafi is dead-set on riding Paris-Roubaix at age 52, 20 years after his victory at the Hell of the North. Is he crazy? Common sense says yes, but as exercise physiology graduate Zach Nehr writes, the science behind aging and endurance sports suggests there’s more to the story.
“Old” Doesn’t Mean Slow
Andrea Tafi isn’t crazy. He knows he won’t win Paris-Roubaix again. When we called him up this week to ask the big question — why are you doing this? — he didn’t use his age as an excuse. He cited it as motivation. He wondered what the years have done to him, as an athlete. And we wonder the same.
“Some people said to me, ‘Andrea, I like to remember you when you win 20 years ago and I don’t want to see how you are now,'” he said. “But I want to do that — I want to see what my limits are at this age.”
Longevity in endurance sport has been studied for years, yet it still seems baffling to see athletes competing – and winning – in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. Take mountain bike legend Ned Overend (63) for example, who first started racing in the early 1980s. In the 38 years since, Overend has won six NORBA National XC titles in the US, numerous UCI World Cups, the X-Terra World Championships, Mt. Washington Hill Climb, Master’s World Cyclocross Championships, and the inaugural UCI Mountain Bike World Championships.
Many argue that Overend is a genetic freak, but that would discount decades of hard work, dedication, and consistency in training that has allowed him to continually compete at the highest level. Overend is known for his “go by feel” training philosophy; he rarely uses a power meter, and simply rests when he feels tired. In order to combat age-related loss of muscle mass and flexibility, he’s added more stretching, yoga, and weight training to his program over the years.
These are all simple fixes and minor adjustments that any and all endurance athletes can make to their training program. It seems as though lifestyle changes (becoming sedentary, career-focused, and family-oriented) are more at fault for “age-related” fitness loss than aging itself.
The Science of Aging
So how is it that 50-year-olds can compete with 20- and 30-year-olds? Isn’t the peak of our endurance capabilities supposed to be around ages 30-35?
The decline of cardiovascular fitness is not as strongly correlated with age as it may seem. Previous studies have shown that our VO2Max begins to decline around age 30; but this is in the untrained population. Newer studies have shown that 80-year-old, lifelong cross-country skiers can have the same VO2Max as untrained 40-year-olds. In addition, well-trained endurance athletes can achieve peak performances well into their 40s.
British runner Jo Pavey earned her career-best result at the age of 41, at the 2014 European Championships where she won gold in the 10,000 meters. American Kristin Armstrong matched her career-best result just days before her 43rd birthday, taking gold in the 2016 Rio Olympics time trial.
The key takeaway here is that endurance athletes can maintain peak levels of cardiorespiratory fitness well into their 40s and 50s, by adhering to a well-rounded and consistent training program. As stated above, lifestyle changes are more likely to lead to a decrease in fitness than are the physiological effects of aging.
This can be seen in the case of five-time Tour de France winner, Miguel Indurain, who participated in a study on aging and de-training 14 years after his retirement from professional cycling. The results were fascinating: his absolute maximal oxygen uptake (VO2Max) and aerobic power output declined by 12.4% and 15.2% per decade, respectively. Even more significant was a 19.8% drop in power output at lactate threshold (which, at 46 years old, was still a very respectable 329 watts).
However, it is important to note that Indurain went from a race-weight of ~80 kg in the mid-1990s, to 92.2 kg at the time of this study. Thus, the decline in power output is even more significant due to changes in body composition, decreasing his power-to-weight ratio and overall cycling performance.
As the study’s author notes, Indurain’s “body composition changed more than [his] aerobic characteristics” and his “absolute maximal and submaximal oxygen uptake and power output still compare favorably with those exhibited by active professional cyclists.”
Muscle atrophy (loss of lean muscle mass) has long been associated with aging as well, but it, too, can be combated with a consistent training program. While age-related loss of Type II (explosive, fast-twitch) muscle fibers is more inevitable, Type I (endurance, slow-twitch) show more resilience, and can be maintained in the muscles of well-trained athletes throughout their athletic careers.
In addition to maintained cardiovascular fitness and Type I muscle fibers, older athletes who are well-trained in endurance sports show incredible levels of exercise efficiency.
A recent study also showed that lifelong endurance athletes have higher levels of glycogen across all types of muscle fibers, and higher metabolic efficiency during exercise. In sports such as cycling and running, proper muscle activation patterns are necessary for increased performance, longevity, and reduced risk of injury.
Cyclists who are highly efficient are the ones whose upper bodies seem to remain completely still. Whether they’re pedalling at 200 watts or 400 watts, it looks like you could balance a cup of water on top of their head without it spilling over. Contrast that with inefficient riders, who bounce on the saddle, rock their hips like Shakira, and bob their head up and down like they’re at a Metallica concert.
Studies have shown that older runners (ages 60-70) can achieve walking efficiencies equal to those of college students. Humboldt State University kinesiologist Justus Ortega says that a key factor in exercise efficiency is proprioception, or the awareness of your body position and how your limbs are moving. Ortega says old runners “are not only maintaining the cellular efficiency, but their bodies are able to process proprioceptive information.”
This means that older athletes can maintain high levels of exercise efficiency throughout their lifetime, simply through continued exercise and training.
So what of Andrea Tafi?
With all that said, it’s not so inconceivable that 52-year-old Andrea Tafi can compete in Paris-Roubaix. He’s already ensured his eligibility by registering for the UCI’s testing pool, and provided his Biological Passport for the necessary six months prior to competition. Tafi has certainly made an effort to stay fit, riding 18,000 km annually, and regularly competing in Italian Masters races.
Thirteen years after he retired from professional cycling, Tafi also returned to UCI-level racing at the 2018 V4 Special Series Debrecen – Ibrany (1.2) in Hungary. He finished 37th, right in the middle of the main peloton. He’s even said that he already has a team – rumored to be Dimension Data – that would give him the opportunity to race in the Hell of the North, 20 years after his initial triumph.
Based on everything above, Tafi can do it — he can race the 2019 Paris-Roubaix. Not only that, but he can be competitive, at least from a team perspective. He won’t win (sorry, Andrea), but he can certainly do a job for his team. Between his 18,000 km/year training regime and recent return to UCI-level racing, Tafi has reminded us that age is just a number.
As we have seen above, consistent training helps 50- and 60-year-olds combat age-related muscle loss, maintain high levels of cardiovascular fitness (VO2Max), and keep a high level of sport-specific exercise efficiency.
But while Tafi may be physically fit, it remains to be seen whether he can navigate through the modern pro peloton, fight for position amongst the best classics riders in the world, and survive the famous cobbles of Paris-Roubaix.
He wants to compare the old ways with the new. Bikes are better now; tires are better. Clothing is better.
“If the people see a bike now and a bike 20 years ago, it’s the same. But that’s not true, because if you [look at] each piece of the bike, the small pieces of the bike, it’s totally changed,” he told us. “And that is what the people want to see. This is my objective for my documentary and for my training also.”
The gear is different, and so is the training. By most accounts, the overall level of dedication within peloton is higher today than it was 20 years ago. Roubaix is the most physically and mentally demanding event on the pro calendar. Can Tafi mold himself to fit the modern peloton?
It will be quite the spectacle should Tafi’s plans come to fruition.
About the author
Zach Nehr is a Level 3 USA Cycling coach, a Cat 1 cyclist and a graduate from Marian University where he received a Bachelor’s Degree in Exercise Science and Psychology. He is currently undertaking a Masters degree in Physiology.