I’ve never met a cyclist excited about getting slower, especially in a finishing sprint, but as hard and as smart as you train, getting older means getting slower.

So why exactly does your sprint get slower as you age, and is there anything you can do about it?

In today’s Journal Club we’ll check out a new review article asking the question: why are master’s sprinters slower than their younger counterparts?

While the insights in this paper relate to track & field athletes, we’ll do our best to apply the lessons learned to the world of cycling. Let’s jump in.

Pickering, C., et al. (2021). “Why Are Masters Sprinters Slower Than Their Younger Counterparts? Physiological, Biomechanical, and Motor Control Related Implications for Training Program Design.” J Aging Phys Act: 1-12.

We’ll start by looking at the two main questions this review paper set out to answer. 

Review Questions

1. Why Slower?

“Why are elite Masters sprinters slower than their younger counterparts?

2. How to improve?

How can we use this knowledge to enhance performance?

To get an idea for how aging impacts sprint performance, the paper starts by looking at elite performance in the 100m track & field event.

Performance stays relatively steady until you start getting closer to 40 years old.

One benefit of examining elite performance across the aging spectrum is that we lessen the chance that observed performance decline is the result of reduced motivation or training volume.

In other words, it’s safe to assume that elite athletes at any age are highly motivated, and that performance decline can be tied mostly to changes in the body, not simply changes in training quality.

Now let’s move on to the three reasons the paper lists for why masters sprinters are slower than their younger counterparts.

Less Type II muscle fiber

Masters sprinters have a lower percentage of Type II muscle fiber than their younger counterparts.

Reduced muscle quality

Masters sprinters generate less strength per unit of mass than their younger counterparts.

Reduced neuromuscular function

Masters sprinters have slower rates of muscle activation and coordination.

Changes in muscle fiber and neuromuscular function partly explain why sports that rely heavily on explosiveness and sprinting are dominated by the young. Usain Bolt was 22 when he set the world record in the 100m. The average age of players in the NBA and NFL is about 26.

Nearly all cycling events are underpinned by the oxidative energy system.

The aging process is harshest on your ATP-PCr and glycolytic energy systems which are most responsible for driving your sprint.

Cycling is a bit different with the average age of a Tour de France winner being 28, with the oldest winner coming in at 36 (Pogacar and Bernal obviously buck this trend being in the early twenties).

It’s safe to say that the aging process is more kind to endurance sports like cycling but if you ever find yourself trying to beat another rider in a sprint, understanding the mechanisms by which age chips away at your sprint performance will help you train smarter.

That’s where we’re headed next.

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