Endurance races, such as ultra-marathons and Ironman triathlons are becoming increasingly popular around the world. Whether it’s the idea of a new mental or physical challenge or just plain love of the sport, participation in these events continues to increase. In the Ironman triathlon, the overall number of finishers - both male and female - has increased dramatically over the past 30 years.

In addition to increased participation, improvements in performance in this event have also been reported. But is there an ideal age for best performance? A recent study in Switzerland looked at the participation and performance of all participating Ironman triathletes. Researchers examined the splits and overall race times of both male and female finishers in official Ironman races held worldwide between 2002 and 2015. The number of both male and female finishers in almost all age groups increased, including males aged 75-79! In terms of performance improvement, the results were varied across the population.

For example, running performance in age groups 18-24 and 40-44 improved, but performance declined in ages 45-49 and 70-74. Interestingly, the authors found that age-related performance decline occurred first in swimming for both men and women in the 25-29 age group! For running, cycling, and overall race time, age-related performance decline began in the next age groups: 30-34 for women and 35-39 for men.

This study suggests that competing prior to age 30 for women and 35 for men can help athletes to achieve their best possible race time. If you're reading this and thinking "hey wait, I'm already 30 and haven't done an Ironman yet,” don’t worry; professional triathletes were included in this study, too! And if you never plan on doing an Ironman that's ok too… sometimes we runners just like to run!

Lisbeth Hoyt, DPT

Käch, I., Rüst, C. A., Nikolaidis, P. T., Rosemann, T., & Knechtle, B. (2017). The age-related performance decline in Ironman triathlon starts earlier in swimming than in cycling and running. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1. doi:10.1519/jsc.0000000000001796