Swimmer Leianne Crittenden has recently racked up a national championship, world championship and world record, but she's not some promising college athlete.
"For an old lady I do OK," the 51-year-old attorney and masters swimmer says with a laugh. "When I go against 20-year-olds, sometimes I beat them. I think they're sort of surprised -- they say, 'Who is that woman with the wrinkles?' "
Crittenden isn't an anomaly. The notion that age offers only diminishing returns when it comes to fitness is being blown to bits -- particularly in endurance sports. Events that require pacing, strategy and mental fortitude are where many older athletes, especially women, excel.
Suzanna Bon, 43, was the top female finisher at this year's Angeles Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run, also setting a new course record. Forty-year-old swimmer Dara Torres may make history in the 2008 Olympics as the first swimmer older than 40 to compete in the Games. And Valmir Nunes, 43, won the Kiehl's Badwater Ultramarathon this year, a notoriously grueling 135-mile run from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney.
Exercise and sports psychology experts think there could be more to this success than physiology and good genes.
"I think there are a number of things that people do better as they get older," says Miriam Nelson, director of the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "They're more disciplined, they train smarter, they're consistent with their training. Whatever sport you're in, you can be smarter from a competitive edge in terms of knowing yourself, how to pace yourself."
Edge in life lessons
In marathons, for example, younger runners in their 20s often sprint out of the starting line, whereas older runners stick to a more prudent strategy that doesn't burn them out before the finish line.
"Take a 30-year-old athlete who's vigorously active, at the top of their career," Nelson says. "If they continue what they're doing, they'll be able to hold onto that for some time." That also holds true for those who stay on a steady routine of moderate to vigorous exercise.
"A 75-year-old," Nelson says, "will be more like a sedentary 35-year-old if they're fit."
That's not to say biology doesn't play a role. Younger people generally have better coordination and balance, which allows them to do better than older people in sports such as gymnastics. As people age, reflexes slow, and proprioception skills -- sensing where one's body is -- diminish.
But life experience shouldn't be underestimated.
Older athletes "know how to use what they have," says sport psychologist Ralph Vernacchia, director of the Center for Performance at Western Washington University in Bellingham and a professor in the physical education, health and recreation department. "If they only have 60% of the functional capacity and aerobic power they had when they were much younger, they can learn to get 100% out of that 60%. They're better at strategizing. As we age, we recognize that we're not going to waste the time we have . . . . Having that mental resilience and attitude is so important."
Many also learn how to train smarter.
Masters swim coach Kerry O'Brien tries to make the most of his swimmers' hour to train. Between jobs, family and other obligations, his team can't spend endless time in the pool like some of their younger counterparts.
Instead, they hit high-intensity levels during freestyle swims first. "We try to tax the body, get it tired, then do pace work for specialty strokes," he says. Swimmers get the workouts they need, but in far less time.
The desire to compete doesn't fade as gray hair appears, he says.
"At a masters meet," says O'Brien, who is head coach of the Walnut Creek Masters Swim Team, "you'll see guys who are in their 50s and 60s getting nervous in the blocks; they're very goal-oriented. And they're spending $200 and $300 for suits that make them a second faster."
But how they handle defeat, an unavoidable part of any athletic pursuit, does change. "What you'll never see at a masters competition is devastation and disappointment," he says. "They have goals, but if they don't achieve them, so what? It's part of life. They have other things that are important to them."
Getting into the habit
To be competitive, or at least be able to have the staying power to finish a game or a race, athletes should maintain a consistent exercise regimen that includes cardiovascular exercise, strength training and stretching. Starting a fitness regimen early, in one's 20s or 30s, goes a long way in ensuring that 10-kilometer runs, mountain climbs, hockey games and even ultra-marathons are possible as the years go by. Even starting in one's 40s or 50s, or older, can lead to major fitness accomplishments.