Physiological Characteristics of an Aging Olympic Athlete

Lars Nybo; Jakob F. Schmidt; Stephen Fritzdorf; Nikolai B. Nordsborg


Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2014;46(11):2132-2138. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Purpose To investigate the physiological basis of continued world-class performance of a world-class rower who won medals (three gold and two bronze) at five consecutive Olympic Games.

Methods From the age of 19 to 40 yr, maximal oxygen uptake (V̇O2max), peak HR, blood lactate, and rowing ergometer performance were assessed annually.

Results During the first years of his elite career (from age 19 to 24), V̇O2max increased from 5.5 to approximately 5.9 L·min−1 (78 mL·min−1·kg−1) and his average power during 6-min maximal rowing increased from 420 to approximately 460 W. Although his HRmax declined by approximately 20 bpm during the 20-yr period, maximal aerobic power, evaluated both as V̇O2max and 6-min test performance, was maintained until the age of 40. Furthermore, peak lactate levels remained unchanged and average power outputs during 10-s, 60-s, and 60-min ergometer tests were all maintained at approximately 800 W, approximately 700 W, and approximately 350 W, respectively, indicating that he was able to preserve both aerobic and anaerobic exercise performances. Echocardiographic analyses revealed a left ventricular mass of 198 g and left ventricular end-diastolic diameter of 5.8 cm.

Conclusions This longitudinal case indicates that until the age of 40 yr, a steady increase in the oxygen pulse may have compensated for the significant decline in the maximal heart frequency. Furthermore, the maintenance of aerobic and anaerobic exercise capacities allowed this Olympic athleteto compete at the highest level for almost two decades.


Whole-body endurance exercise performance depends on maximal oxygen uptake (V̇O2max), exercise economy, and the ability to sustain a high percentage of the athlete's maximum V̇O2.[3] Therefore, in sports such as running, cycling, and in particular exercise that involves both the arms and legs, e.g., cross-country skiing and rowing, V̇O2max is a strong predictor of performance in events lasting more than a few minutes.[12,19] Thus, for rowing, V̇O2max may explain approximately 80% of the variance in 2000-m rowing ergometer performance within a group of trained subjects, and it also seems to be a good predictor of on-water performance.[12]

In long-lasting endurance events, skeletal muscle oxidative capacity is also a strong predictor of performance[13] but close correlations between V̇O2max and performance are still observed in long-lasting ultraendurance running.[18] Without neglecting peripheral factors, exercise economy, and technical and tactical skills, it is therefore obvious that endurance athletes and especially elite rowers must possess a high V̇O2max to compete at the highest international level.

V̇O2max relies on arterial oxygen delivery and, hence, maximal cardiac output (COmax) and arterial oxygen content.[3,29] Because endurance training does not increase arterial hemoglobin concentration and because trained athletes typically experience mild-to-moderate exercise-induced arterial hypoxemia during maximal exercise,[6] the superior aerobic capacity of elite trained subjects often relates to a very high COmax. This is substantiated by reports of high COmax in athletes, with individual values reaching above 40 L·min−1.[7] Such values seem to involve exceptional end-diastolic ventricular volumes and very high stroke volumes (SV), as observed in endurance-trained athletes.[5] Whereas SV may increase with training, maximal hear rate (HRmax) does not. Rather, HRmax decreases by approximately 0.7 bpm·yr−1 with aging[31] and unless further increases of the ventricular SV compensate, COmax will decline. Accordingly, longitudinal and cross-sectional studies demonstrate that in men, V̇O2max peaks at an age between 20 and 25 yr and subsequently declines in line with the age-related decline in HRmax.[1] Furthermore, it is well documented both among nonathletes and athletes that V̇O2max decreases gradually from approximately 20 to 80 yr of age.[32] It has even been observed that endurance-trained men experience a more pronounced decline with aging than that in sedentary men.[25] In addition to the loss of aerobic power, anaerobic power and capacity also decline with aging[28] and it seems that aging may have a greater effect on the anaerobic energy systems compared with that on the aerobic system.[9]

Despite the inevitable decrease in HRmax and the common deterioration of physical exercise capacity, examples of elite endurance athletes who have been able to win world championship titles and Olympic medals at ages of approximately 40 yr exist. For example, the British rower Steven Redgrave won his last of five Olympic titles at an age of 38 and analogously, the Danish rower Eskild Ebbesen has been on the podium for five Olympic Games in a row, with the last medal won when he was 40 yr old. Also, in cross-country skiing and cycling, there have been some athletes capable of winning world titles or major competitions until their late 30s or beginning of the 40s. It is likely that some athletes may possess a unique talent that allows them to be competitive and beat younger opponents, although they are no longer at the physiological peak of their career, but it is also possible that these athletes do not experience the common age-related decline in aerobic and anaerobic power. Furthermore, the aging Olympic athlete may compensate for a loss in physical power by increased efficiency or improved technical and tactical skills. Longitudinal studies on elite cyclists[30] and a 5-yr case report on a world-class runner[14] indicate that improved efficiency is of major importance for further improvements in performance despite a lack of further increase in V̇O2max once a certain plateau has been reached. However, it remains unknown if efficiency may keep improving and how V̇O2max, efficiency, and the resulting exercise capacity are affected over a prolonged elite career. A recent case report on a former Tour de France winner[21] indicates that superior efficiency may be preserved with aging despite a normal age-induced decline in V̇O2max and that the age-related reduction in performance is explained by the decline in V̇O2max. The study of world-class athletes represents a unique population in which it can be investigated if the general physiological findings outlined above also hold true for this population.

To gain insights into the physiology of the aging elite athlete, we have collected physiological and performance data from a world-class lightweight rower across the age span 19–40 yr, representing the available test data from the beginning until the end of his elite career. The purpose of the study was to investigate if the continuous success is evident despite a reduced physiological capacity. The primary hypothesis was that a decline in V̇O2max would be compensated by increased ability to maintain a high percentage of V̇O2max for a prolonged period, which could possibly be related to improved efficiency.