George Sperzel, 63, estimates that he’s run over a hundred competitive races over the last few years.
Sperzel, a finance executive from Lake Forest, Illinois, dabbled with exercise in his younger years, but didn’t embrace competitive running until he was nearly 60. Despite his late start, though, he feels that his athletic ability has only gotten better with time: “I have found that focused training will deliver the same benefits for aging athletes as for anyone of any age,” he says.
In general, peaking in one’s 60s is somewhat of a rarity. In sports medicine, the years between 35 and 40 are often considered a turning point for serious athletes: Skill begins to erode more quickly with time as age brings changes in muscular strength and susceptibility to injury. Endurance tends to peak around age 35 and then slowly decrease until around age 60, at which point the decline becomes much steeper. And unsurprisingly, it holds true across generations that older adults as a group tend to be less active than their younger peers. Roughly one-third of Americans over the age of 65 are considered physically active, compared to around 80 percent of the general population.
But within the minority of active seniors, some, like Sperzel, have held on to or even increased their athleticism. In recent years, a growing number of senior citizens have begun competing in marathons and triathlons, causing experts to question much of the conventional wisdom about age-related changes in physical capacity. In U.S. marathons, runners over the age of 40—known as “masters” in the running world—now represent more than 50 percent of male finishers and 40 percent of female finishers, often outperforming younger athletes.