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Mov Sport Sci/Sci Mot
Number 104, 2019
Masters athletes: Age is just a number / Les athlètes masters : l’âge n’est qu’un nombre
Page(s) 21 - 27
DOI https://doi.org/10.1051/sm/2019030
Published online 18 October 2019

© ACAPS, 2019

1 Introduction

Endurance performance decreases during middle-age and declines at an even more rapid rate in older age (Tanaka & Seals, 2008). It has been shown that swimming, running, and cycling performance decrease in a curvilinear fashion with age (Lepers, Sultana, Bernard, Hausswirth, & Brisswalter, 2010). However, the pattern of age-related decline is somewhat different between the disciplines. Tanaka and Seals (2003) showed, for example, that the magnitude of the overall reduction in swimming performance with advancing age is smaller than that which is observed in running performance. Triathlon – combining swimming, cycling and running – is interesting in this context because the age related decline in endurance performance can be compared between disciplines and for the same subject. For both short and long distance triathlons, a smaller age-related decline in cycling performance exists than has been demonstrated for running and swimming performance (Bernard, Sultana, Lepers, Hausswirth, & Brisswalter, 2010; Lepers et al., 2010). Several explanations have been proposed to explain the smaller decline in cycling performance with advancing age. These include lower muscular fatigue, less reduction in locomotor efficiency, and a greater training stimulus due to the less traumatic nature of cycling as compared to running.

The magnitude of the decline in endurance performance with age appears to be greater in females than it is in males, for many activities. Although an increasing sex difference with age seems to be absent in endurance swimming events (Donato et al., 2003), a widening of the sex difference in performance with advancing age has been observed for both running (Tanaka & Seals, 1997; Donato et al., 2003; Lepers & Cattagni, 2012) and triathlon (Lepers & Maffiuletti, 2011; Stevenson, Song, & Cooper, 2013). The physiological interpretations of this increase in sex difference with age, which include sex-specific differences in muscle loss (Phillips, Rook, Siddle, Bruce, & Woledge, 1993), may be confounded by the relatively smaller number of female as compared to male participants in the older groups.

Analysis of the changes in sex difference with age at the New York City marathon over a 30-year period (from 1990 to 2009) showed that the sex difference in running times decreased until 2000 and stabilised thereafter (Lepers & Cattagni, 2012). The relative stability of the sex difference in marathon running times with age since the year 2000 suggests that the age-related decline in physiological functions that are associated with endurance performance (e.g. maximal oxygen uptake, lactate threshold and running economy) does not differ between male and female marathoners. This finding should now be verified for other endurance sports, such as the triathlon − which combines three exercise modes and can be of a longer duration (e.g. 8–17 hours for the completion of a 3.8-km swim, 180 km bike, 42 km run triathlon).

Lepers and Maffiuletti (2011) showed that for Ironman triathlon the sex difference in total performance time was stable until 54 years of age, and then significantly increased. Similarly, Stevenson et al. (2013) showed that the total time differences between the sexes were largest in athletes who were over the age of 55 years for Sprint (0.75 km swim, 20 km bike, 5 km run) triathlon, and over 60 years old for Olympic (1.5 km swim, 40 km bike, 10 km run) distance and half-Ironman (1.9 km swim, 90 km bike, 21 km run) distance triathlons.

The oldest age-group category that was examined by the studies of Lepers and Maffiuletti (2011) and Stevenson et al. (2013) was the 60–64 year category. Performance data for the Ironman triathlon World Championship are now available, for both sexes, for at least 10 finishers in each age group up to and including the 70–74-year age-group. The 2018 Ironman World Championship enjoyed the best weather conditions yet (i.e. with low levels of wind for the bike sections, and low environmental temperatures on the run as compared to previous years). Course records were achieved in the male and female professional ranks. Overall, 14 (i.e. 8 males and 6 females) new records were set over the 25 categories of age-group athletes (ref www.coachcox.co.uk). Because of this, and because performance times became available for up to the 70–74 year age group, it is of interest to update the results in the literature from those of Lepers and Maffiuletti’s (2011) study, and verify whether the sex differences in Ironman triathlon times have narrowed for the older age-group categories.

Therefore, the aim of this study was to examine, at the 2018 Ironman triathlon World Championship, the effect of age on the sex difference in performance for each of the individual disciplines (i.e. swimming, cycling and running) as well as for total event time. We took both participation rates and performance density, as the fact that these are normally lower in females than in males has been shown to amplify the sex difference in endurance performance (Hunter & Stevens, 2013), into account.

2 Methods

This study involved the analysis of publicly available data, so the need for formal ethics approval was waived. Age, sex, and both overall as well as discipline specific performance data were obtained for the 2018 World Ironman triathlon Championship in Hawaii, USA. The Ironman results were obtained from the Ironman Corporation’s Web site at http://eu.ironman.com/triathlon/events/americas/ironman/world-championship/results.aspx#axzz5hwN1WJ9o.

The averaged swimming, cycling, running, and overall time performance of the top 10 amateur male and female athletes from 11 different age groups were analysed. The age groups in question were the 18–24, 25–29, 30–34, 35–39, 40–44, 45–49, 50–54, 55–59, 60–64, 65-69 and 70–74 year age-groups. We did not include either the males or the females who raced in the professional category (n = 76) in this study.

The time difference between the first and the 10th placer was analysed and expressed as a percentage of the winning performance in each age group category, for both males and females. The magnitude of the sex difference was examined by calculating the percent difference for the swimming, cycling, and running and total times between the top 10 males versus the top females of each age group. Statistica (StatSoft France, version 7.1, Statistica) was used for all statistical evaluations of the sex difference with age. The outcome variables were sex differences in swim time, bike time, run time, and overall race time. A two-way Anova (age group × discipline) with repeated measures was used to compare the sex differences in swimming, cycling, and running times with age.

3 Results

Figure 1 shows the distribution of the number of finishers at the 2018 Hawaii Ironman triathlon. There were 2277 amateur finishers. Females accounted for 27% of the total field. The 5-year age group with the largest participation rate was 45–49 years for the males (18%) and 40–44 years for the females (at 18 and 17% of the total field for that gender, respectively). The 65–69-year-old age group accounted for 3.1% of the total male field and 3.5% of the total female field. In both the males and the females, the 70–74-year age group accounted for only 2% of the total field.

The swimming, cycling, running, and total performance times of the 10 top males and females are presented in Figure 2. For swimming, cycling, running, and for the event overall, the performance times of the athletes who were within the 70–74-year old age-group were 58, 37, 64 and 50% longer than they were for that of the fastest male. This “fastest male” was either within the 30–34-year or within the 35–39-year age-group, depending on which triathlon discipline, or whether total completion time, was being assessed. In an equivalent comparison, the performance times of the female athletes within the 70–74-year old age-group were 54, 45, 77 and 59% longer for swimming, cycling, running and for the total event, respectively, than they were for the fastest female age-group (i.e. the 25–29 or 30–34-year age-group). The coefficient of variation (CV) for total event times (which was calculated as the ratio of the standard deviation divided by the mean time expressed as a percentage), increased considerably after 60 years of age, and especially so for the females. That is, within-group variability increased. Indeed, the CV in the females was 1.6% for the 40–44-year-olds, 3.6% for the 55–59-year-olds and 6.2% for the 65–69-year-olds.

Figure 3 shows the top 10 density, i.e. the difference in time between the 1st and the athlete who finished in 10th place, for both males and females. Overall, the difference between the winner and the 10th placer was 8.4 ± 5.3% for males and 10.8 ± 5.1% for females. The top 10 density tended to decrease, i.e. the difference in time between the 1st and the 10th placer increased, with age after the age of 60 years. It reached 21% (2 hours and 27 minutes) for the male 70–74-year-olds and 22% (2 hours and 44 minutes) for the female 65–69-year-olds.

The sex differences in time performance for each discipline and total time are illustrated in Figure 4. The averaged sex difference across the ages that were examined in this study was 14.0 ± 3.3%, 15.6 ± 3.1%, 15.3 ± 6.8% and 15.1 ± 3.6%, for swimming, cycling, running and total time respectively. For swimming, there was no evidence of a significant change in the sex difference in performance with age. For cycling and running, the sex differences for the age groups that included athletes of or older than 60 years were significantly greater than those of the younger age groups. The sex difference in total event time for the athletes who were from 55–59 years old and above were significantly greater than those for the younger age groups.

thumbnail Fig. 1

Number of female and male finishers in each of the age groups at the 2018 Hawaii Ironman triathlon.

thumbnail Fig. 2

Swimming, cycling, running, and total performance times for the top 10 males and females in each age group at the 2018 Hawaii Ironman triathlon. Values are presented as means ± SD.

thumbnail Fig. 3

Time difference between the winner and the athlete who finished 10th, expressed as a percentage of the winner’s age-group performance, for males and females, at the 2018 Hawaii Ironman triathlon.

thumbnail Fig. 4

Averaged sex differences in time for swimming, cycling, running and total event at the 2018 Hawaii Ironman triathlon. Values are presented as means ± SD: a: significantly different from all age groups from 30–34 to 45–49 years, P < 0.05; b: significantly different from all age groups from 18–24 to 45–49 years, P < 0.05; c: significantly different from all age groups from 18–24 to 55–59 years, P < 0.05.

4 Discussion

The aim of the study was to examine the effect of age on the sex difference in performance at the 2018 Ironman triathlon World Championship. The main results showed that the sex difference in total event performance increased after the age of 55 years. This was mainly due to an increase in the sex difference in cycling and running performance. The sex difference in swimming performance remained stable across age groups.

Our study is descriptive in nature. Nonetheless, the analysis of changes in performance with age in highly trained athletes who are performing at their maximal capacity during a World Championship represents an effective experimental model for the study of the physiological aging process because these subjects are free from the negative effects of inactivity (Lazarus & Harridge, 2017).

4.1 Participation rate and performance density

Our analysis of the distribution of the number of finishers showed that females accounted for 27% of the total field. These data are in accordance with the results of previous studies that also focused on Ironman World Championship competitions (Lepers, 2008; Lepers & Maffiuletti, 2011; Rüst, Knechtle, Rosemann, & Lepers, 2012; Stiefel, Knechtle, & Lepers, 2014). It should be pointed that as the number of triathletes who qualify for the Ironman World Championship is directly proportional to the number of triathletes who take part in the qualifying races that take place for it worldwide, the female participation rate for the 2018 Ironman World Championship provides insight into the relative percentage of female athletes who are racing Ironman triathlons. By comparison, the relative participation of females in other endurance events is around 30% of the total field for marathons (Lepers & Cattagni, 2012), but only 20% for ultra-marathons (Hoffman, Ong, & Wang, 2010).

In the study of Lepers and Maffiuletti (2011) − which examined age and gender interaction in Hawaii Ironman triathlon performance during the 2006–2008 period, the oldest age-group category that was evaluated was the 60–64-year age group. At that time, the number of finishers in the older age groups was less than 10. The present study, which focuses on the 2018 event, extends on the 2011 study by assessing two more, older, age-group categories (i.e. the 65–69-year-old and 70–74-year-old athletes). Even though the oldest age-group i.e. the 70–74-year-olds accounted for only 2% of the total field of both males and females, the appearance of these two older categories shows that nowadays triathletes who are more than 65 years old are capable of finishing an ultra endurance event such as an Ironman triathlon in less than the 17-hour cut-off time. In fact, in 2018, the 85-year-old Japanese Hiromu Inada became the oldest athlete in the world to complete the Ironman World Championship, in 16 hours and 53 minutes (Lepers & Stapley, in press).

We have reported that the relative time difference between the winner and 10th place (i.e. performance density) at the 2018 Hawaii Ironman triathlon was, on average, slightly greater for female triathletes than it was for male triathletes. This finding confirms the results of previous studies (Lepers, Knechtle, & Stapley, 2013). The data that we have presented here also show that performance density tended to decrease (i.e. correspond to greater time differences) with advancing age. There was insufficient evidence to establish whether performance density differed between the sexes post the age of 60 years, however. Indeed, whilst performance density was demonstrably lower for females as compared to males for the 60–64-year and 65–69-year age groups, the opposite was shown to be true for the 70–74-year age-group. The inconsistency in our results as regards changes in sex difference in performance density with advancing age suggest that performance density was not a key explanatory factor for the greater sex difference in performance that exist in athletes who exceed 60 years of age.

4.2 Age-related decline in Ironman triathlon performance

This analysis suggests that the fastest Ironman total performance times are obtained by athletes who are between 25 and 40 years of age, in the case of both males and females. The aforesaid statement also held true for the three sub-component disciplines of the triathlon. Such data are in accordance with those provided by previous studies, and corroborate the finding that the best triathlon performances are obtained prior to the athlete attaining the age of 40 (Lepers, Rüst, Stapley, & Knechtle, 2013). For the oldest age group that we considered i.e. the 70–74-year-olds, total event time performance was 50% longer for the males and 59% longer for the females than it was for their fastest younger counterparts. The present results also confirmed that cycling was the locomotion mode for which the age related decline in performance was less pronounced (Lepers et al., 2010; Bernard et al., 2010). Among the main physiological determinants of endurance performance, maximal oxygen consumption (VO2max) appears to be the parameter that is most altered by age (Lepers & Stapley, 2016). Exercise economy and the exercise intensity at which a high fraction of VO2max can be sustained (i.e. the lactate threshold), seem to decline to a lesser extent with advancing age.

The greater age-related decline in performance in females as compared to males is responsible for the increase in the sex difference in performance with advancing age. The present results confirm those obtained by Lepers and Maffiuletti (2011) − demonstrating that the sex difference in total time performance is significantly greater after 55 years of age- and extend said results to the 70–74-year age-group. This finding suggests that, whilst there has been an improvement in the Ironman performance of older triathletes over the last decade (Lepers et al., 2013a, 2013b), there still persists a greater sex difference in the performance of older triathletes than exists for young triathletes. Future work should investigate the relative contribution of physiological, psychological or societal factors to the greater sex difference in performance with advanced age.

4.3 Sex difference between the locomotion modes

Independent of athlete age, the sex differences in time that were here observed are similar between swimming (14.0%), cycling (15.6%) and running (15.3%). This finding differs from that of the Lepers and Maffiuletti (2011) study, where the sex difference in swimming time (12.1%) was lower than that which was observed for either cycling (15.4%) or running (18.2%). Our observation suggests that females have improved their marathon running performance at the Ironman distance. The gap to their male counterparts has gone down from 18.2 to 15.3% in one decade. A greater improvement in marathon running performance within Ironman triathlon competition over the last decades in female athletes as compared to male athletes has already been shown for the professional category (Lepers, 2008; Lepers, 2019).

Our results also showed that the effects of age on the sex difference in performance differ with exercise mode. The sex difference in performance remained stable across the age-groups for the 3.8 km open-water swim. This observation suggests that the age-related decline in swimming performance is similar for both male and female triathletes. It supports the finding of Tanaka and Seals (1997) for 1500 m swimming, i.e. that of no differences between males and females in the rate of performance deterioration with age, up to the age of 70 years. In contrast, the sex difference in performance increased with age after 65 years in the case of cycling. It also increased after 60 years of age in the case of running, although it did not prove to do so significantly in the 65–69-year age group.

The physiological reasons for the increase in sex difference in cycling and running performance with age remain unclear. A greater age-related decline in females than in males of one or more of the physiological determinants of endurance performance such as VO2max, lactate threshold or exercise economy (Lepers & Stapley, 2016), differences in exercise-induced muscle fatigue (Yoon, Doyel, Widule, & Hunter, 2015), and or differences between sexes in the loss of muscle strength or fibre type proportion in the lower limb muscles (Doherty, 2001), are all possible explanations for our findings. The ecological conditions that underpin the possible sex differences in cycling efficiency or running economy, especially with advancing age, remain to be investigated. Extrinsic, non-physiological factors such as years of training experience, training load and injury history could also play a role (Ganse et al., 2014).

Finally, we note that absolute female participation rates, especially in the older age categories, are lower than those for males. This could in theory decrease the relative probability of there being competitors of a high fitness level in the female field. However, the athlete percentage in the different age groups is the same in both genders and this could limit the influence of said factor on the changes in sex difference in performance with advancing age.

In conclusion, this study, which focused on the 2018 Ironman triathlon World Championship, suggests that the increase in the sex difference with advancing age in Ironman triathlon performance is discipline specific. The sex difference in performance time as a function of age remained stable for swimming, but increased for cycling and for running. Whilst the lower female participation rate in the older age groups may amplify the sex difference in performance, this finding does not appear to be majorly influenced by performance density. Further examination of both the physiological (e.g. cycling efficiency, running economy, recovery process, training load) and non-physiological factors (e.g. psychological ones such as motivation) that are associated with the age-related decline in performance are required to understand why the sex difference in cycling and running performance for Ironman triathlon increases with advancing age.

Acknowledgements

The authors thank the “Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia” (the Foundation for Science and Technology), Portugal (www.fct.pt) for grant number SFRH/BPD/104394/2014.

Author contribution statement

All authors contributed equally to the paper.

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Cite this article as: Piacentini MF, Vleck V, & Lepers R (2019) Effect of age on the sex difference in Ironman triathlon performance. Mov Sport Sci/Sci Mot, 104, 21–27

All Figures

thumbnail Fig. 1

Number of female and male finishers in each of the age groups at the 2018 Hawaii Ironman triathlon.

In the text
thumbnail Fig. 2

Swimming, cycling, running, and total performance times for the top 10 males and females in each age group at the 2018 Hawaii Ironman triathlon. Values are presented as means ± SD.

In the text
thumbnail Fig. 3

Time difference between the winner and the athlete who finished 10th, expressed as a percentage of the winner’s age-group performance, for males and females, at the 2018 Hawaii Ironman triathlon.

In the text
thumbnail Fig. 4

Averaged sex differences in time for swimming, cycling, running and total event at the 2018 Hawaii Ironman triathlon. Values are presented as means ± SD: a: significantly different from all age groups from 30–34 to 45–49 years, P < 0.05; b: significantly different from all age groups from 18–24 to 45–49 years, P < 0.05; c: significantly different from all age groups from 18–24 to 55–59 years, P < 0.05.

In the text

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