The Knowledge by Wahoo

The Aging Athlete: The performance myths between men and women.

Episode Summary

Who loses fitness faster - men or women? We dive deep into the science to reveal surprising answers to this question and many others.

Episode Notes

Things change as we age, this much is clear. But what’s less clear is exactly what is changing, how fast those changes happen, and what can be done about it all. Wahoo Sports Scientists Neal Henderson and Dr. Jinger Gottschall bring out the science to examine what happens to male and female athletes as they age. What they find might surprise you - and even break some new ground in what we understand about how men and women hold onto fitness as they get older.

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Episode Transcription

Neal  0:00  

Hello, and welcome back to another episode of The Knowledge Podcast by Wahoo, I am Neal Henderson.


Jinger Gottschall  0:06  

And I'm Dr. Ginger Gottschall.


Neal  0:10  

And today, we're going to talk about the claim that women lose fitness faster than men will.


Jinger Gottschall  0:17  

So go ahead out there, make your own guess, do you think this is actually true? We're going to talk about aging. But before that, we'll talk a little bit about the actual physical differences that lead to physiological differences in men and women. But what even leads us to believe there is a difference?


Neal  0:40  

I guess some of it goes back to when you look at some of the objective standards and competition, there's been a fairly clear difference in most sports, most activities that there is a difference between men outperforming women, especially when we look at upper body events, as well as kind of more on the strength and power side of things.


Jinger Gottschall  1:02  

Exactly. So we're talking shorter duration, primarily more


Neal  1:06  

so. Yep. And I mean, it's pretty interesting. If you actually look at some of the long really like ultra-distance competitions out there even like 100-mile running races, there actually are women that have outperformed all the men out of it. So this is not absolute women have never beaten men thing. Clearly, I know lots of women who can smoke a lot of guys. But at the absolute top end of the competition, there clearly is this difference that does exist with again, a greater difference in pure kind of strength, power-related sports, and those that are an upper body.


Jinger Gottschall  1:43  

Exactly dominant will say. And I just would like to give a little prop to all the women athletes out there, because we don't actually have all of the information and data to even make these claims or to say that this is how it's going to be forever. Because women have only been participating in these types of events that are even shorter strength and power-focused for 30 to 40 years, even less than that, in some cases.


Neal  2:13  

I mean, in track cycling, our women's team pursuit was a 3k in 2012. And it went up to a 4k which is what men have been doing the whole time in the team pursuit for many years, for decades will say, and so I mean, it's only a couple years old, and women are still actually on the track, only do a 3k individual pursuit versus a 4k for the men. Women's team pursuit this year, though, did move up to three women, just like the men with three men, and so a 750-meter distance in that strength and power event. So literally some of these things there's a year or two of history of the competition to compare to that is an unfair comparison. And I would say an unfair setup up to this point for there not to have been more equal opportunities.


Jinger Gottschall  3:00  

Exactly. So as we progress through this and see how the training changes for women, and having a little bit more experience and knowing what works and what doesn't for these differences, then you may see these gaps really narrowing in the next couple of decades.


Neal  3:17  

Absolutely. Which is pretty cool. Absolutely. I'm excited about what we're going to continue to see happen in the coming years.


Jinger Gottschall  3:25  

Exactly. And there are some physical differences. So we can't ignore the fact that there are size differences with respect to transport Oregon's, there is a difference in ventricular ejection volume in terms of the heart, and your hemoglobin concentration is even greater in men than women. Men also do have a greater muscle mass while women have a higher adipose tissue. So in terms of your percent fat-free mass, there are actually some significant differences that can be the same if you have the same masked individual, but for the most part, men have an advantage in some of these physical differences.


Neal  4:03  

Yep, and again, these are comparing average to average. So there's going to be some outliers that you would see you know, some women that have a larger heart of physical size and higher vo two Max and lower body fat, then some men, but if we compare, again, an equal group on average, you're gonna see these differences that are structurally different, which then lead to some differences then in that function in that actual capacity between them. So exactly. One of the other big things too, we have a significant difference in circulating testosterone levels, those androgens, which also have an impact on the amount of rethrowing per Wheaton. EPO. I'm


Jinger Gottschall  4:45  

glad you said that because


Neal  4:47  

it's a tricky one. It's easy to get wrong. So that's why a lot of people just use that EP Oh yeah. Which is secreted to help increase the number of red blood cells that are produced which then can allow For that greater hemoglobin mass and hemoglobin, hemoglobin concentration allowing more oxygen to be carried in the blood, therefore, you see things like the hematocrit level for men to be a little bit higher exam average.


Jinger Gottschall  5:14  

And for women, estrogen is going to lead to a greater fat mass, and a lower total body mass, and then the percentage of body fat is actually going to be greater with women due to estrogen. So these hormonal differences do then directly relate to these physiological differences between the


Neal  5:37  

two. Yep. And so with that, in combination, when we think about cardiovascular function, there is clearly a difference between the same absolute submaximal workload for men and women. So, for the same cardiac output, women would have a lot lower stroke volume, and a higher heart rate and these are due to again just that physical structural side size of a smaller heart that is able to push less blood permanent less volume of blood is being able to move through the circular circulatory system per minute at a lower rate than it would be for men specifically,


Jinger Gottschall  6:15  

and the bottom line of this is it leads to reduced oxygen consumption. Yep. So these again, physical differences, these a lot are related directly to heart size, are going to influence the cardiovascular function. Yeah. So


Neal  6:30  

In combination, these impacts of less hemoglobin, and lower cardiac output will reduce the VO to maximum the amount of oxygen that can be utilized. And when we think about cycling, the amount of work that is that can be produced at your VO, two Max will also be reduced, it is less there is less oxygen that is being delivered and consumed. Therefore less work energy is being done from that aerobic system.


Jinger Gottschall  6:58  

Exactly. And there's one more point that we just want to touch on in terms of the physiological differences between men and women before we get to aging, and that is lactate. So the peak lactate concentrations are typically lower in women. But the lactate threshold typically happens at the same percentage of your Rio to the max, this can kind of create a little unbalanced with respect to looking at it as a whole a global number rather than relative to the VO two Max


Neal  7:32  

Yep, for sure. So like, if we're thinking FTP, as a percentage of VO, two Max would be pretty similar between men and women exactly difference being that the power at the ultra Max the max aerobic power as an absolute would be a little bit higher. And for women, then the associated FTP power would also be a little bit lower, right. And so we might see something like potentially a higher peak power, neuromuscular power sprint power, and or anaerobic capacity. And then with a little bit more muscle mass in general, which and generally some of that, then you're gonna have more anaerobic capacity.


Jinger Gottschall  8:08  

Exactly. And also pay attention. When you see these numbers in the units, you want to make sure that the comparisons are on a per kilogram basis. So you're actually doing a more fair comparison between men and women. If you wanted to take this even one step further, it would be based upon fat-free mass, which is a little trickier. But that would even bring these differences between the two sexes, even smaller, even less, for sure. So that brings us then to what happens when we age,


Unknown Speaker  8:41  

we get tired, or something we say I do.


Jinger Gottschall  8:48  

Oh, we're not talking. We're not going to go through this.


Neal  8:51  

Yeah, we'll stick to some of them that might be more objective physiology, and changes that then occur as we do age. So you know, some of the things that we see even, you know, the mid-30s to early 40s, we see actually a reduction in height. And some of this is compression of intervertebral discs. Some of this is related to posture, we also have some loss of bone mass osteopenia and osteoporosis. Both these, all of these things in combination will yield a slightly lower height. I know I've lost probably over two centimeters. I've also herniated some discs. And so that's added to this for sure more than two centimeters loss over the past, say 1520 years,


Jinger Gottschall  9:42  

right. So these are leading to body composition changes that will influence your overall oxygen consumption. And let's also not neglect the fact that we have fluctuations in your actual weight or your math. And this actually is not as linear as a D decline, we typically see that weight increases for individuals between about 25 to 45 years, and then decreases once you get past about 60 to 65. When you reach those senior years, this loss of body mass comes with a lot of reduction in the muscle mass, which is sarcopenia. And there's also a bit of loss of appetite. And this could be due to reduced activity levels also, and we'll get to that in terms of what you can and can't do.


Neal  10:31  

Yeah. And so I would say in that 45 to 65 range, we see for sure that there's a little bit less clear cut, what does happen, but a lot of those changes in that age range are going to be related to the amount of activity and what your calorie intake is relative to your activity. Exactly. You have a lot of control, a rate of change in that in that same mid-40s to mid-60s range.


Jinger Gottschall  10:56  

Yes. So don't give yourself the excuse that you're getting older, because actually, some of the recent studies indicate that older athletes actually have a reduced fat content and do not make significant changes in their overall muscle mass and their central adiposity actually decreases.


Neal  11:15  

Yeah, I know, several 60s and 70-year-old athletes who are many fitters, stronger, and lower body fat than many 20-year-olds fast I know as well, you do and don't do.


Jinger Gottschall  11:30  

Exactly, it gives us hope and motivation. So no excuses with respect to h keep on at it.


Neal  11:41  

Definitely. So some of the fat-free mass that we start to see a decrease around age 40. What you know, that's going to be reducing, specifically muscle mass and bone mass. Right.


Jinger Gottschall  11:54  

And we talked about sarcopenia. How about any hormones that are changing?


Neal  11:59  

LG f1? Yep. So insulin-like growth factor one.


Jinger Gottschall  12:05  

And so growth hormones in terms of improving or enhancing muscle mass are decreasing, doesn't mean you can't do it. But that may mean a shift with respect to the type or intensity that you're doing. So not giving up on those strength power and higher cardiovascular intensities.


Neal  12:24  

Exactly. And so other things you have androgen circulating androgen levels, definitely, and men will see a greater decrease with age as well. So you know, testosterone, specifically one of those where we see a bigger change, right with age, exactly. Those are occurring, yes, the natural, normal impacts of aging.


Jinger Gottschall  12:47  

Yes, we embrace it, and we do what we can. And back to your comment, which I love is to do something about the things you can control. Super cool. We just want to add to this, that diet also makes a huge influence with respect to body composition, your percent body fat, and your enhanced fat-free mass. So it is definitely going to be this interrelationship even though myself I tend to talk about the fitness aspects a lot. But don't forget that diet is going to be a large component.


Neal  13:21  

Absolutely, there is a huge, huge impact. And again, even some of those, how you manage your nutrition can have an impact on how your body responds to the training that you do. If you feel yourself properly after exercise, you have potentially some slightly higher production


Jinger Gottschall  13:38  

of growth hormone. Yes, that is such a brilliant point, a


Neal  13:42  

protein. So again, there are little things that you can be doing to help you reduce or ameliorate these decreases that may be occurring exactly below.


Jinger Gottschall  13:51  

So cool. And with that, let's also say resistance training. We don't want to neglect that in terms of when we age, and it's never too late to bring resistance training in. Studies have shown that endurance training doesn't have as much of an effect as we age on the decrease in muscle mass. But you can really do something about it by starting to incorporate bodyweight and weight training.


Neal  14:15  

Yep. And we have multiple episodes on the knowledge about strength training in different ways. And it is honestly one of the most important things for aging endurance athletes to either add or maintain or in some cases, increase the amount that they've done historically because it is very important to help maintain the strength that we have the muscle mass, exactly, and bone density. All of those things are really important as we continue to age


Jinger Gottschall  14:44  

and the bone density to add into that fat-free mass that we keep talking about. And decreasing those negative changes that we see.


Neal  14:54  

Yep. So speaking of negative changes that we see right as we do age, there is some net impact Next, on our oxygen consumption, we see some decreases in maximal heart rate over time. What's kind of a general? You know, what are we what are people? What might we expect in terms of changes, as we age,


Jinger Gottschall  15:17  

we could expect to see about a 10% decrease per decade starting darting in the 30s. Boy, okay, yes, and this does vary. But somewhere around the 25 to 35. the year mark is when we basically see a 1% decrease per year, which then, as we do quick math leads to that 10% per decade.


Neal  15:44  

Yep. And some of the studies that are out there do show that the greater the amount of activity that there is some bit of a reduction in the rate of that decline, so you might cut that in half or so


Jinger Gottschall  15:57  

definitely, you do have control over it. The data also shows that the intensity typically declines at the same rate. So don't neglect those higher intensity intervals in your cardio training, even though they might not influence the muscle mass, they can actually influence your aerobic capacity. Yep,


Neal  16:20  

I can tell you from a practical aspect and working with a lot of masters athletes overtime in their 50s and 60s and into their 70s that are still competing, is that maintaining some of the anaerobic capacity type training sessions again, not not a bunch of them a week, this might be once a week during a higher phase of training, VO two Max intervals, kind of that high intensity well above FTP are the things that people by choice tend to do less of. But when we add them back into their training, it does maintain their performance, especially relative to their peers, even better,


Jinger Gottschall  16:54  

it's so cool. And you don't have to do them every day, even if you have these higher intensity sessions and twice a week. And I always justify it or rationalize it, or bring myself down from the cliff, but I'm nervous about these. They're shorter times overall. So I can handle a 30-minute super high intensity and then enjoy a two-hour endurance ride. That's how I kind of mentally plus and a minus, yes, yes, it's only 30 minutes, you can do it.


Neal  17:27  

Exactly. And there is that kind of high-intensity sessions shouldn't be really long either. Exactly. You know, you may kind of just be doing too much if you're doing that. So make sure you kind of have a purpose with those sessions, include them, but also then have adequate recovery after them and have the balance of the other kind of work that you do need to do. It's


Jinger Gottschall  17:47  

it's definitely a puzzle, in terms of fitting it together with what workouts you do when how to incorporate strength, making sure you're recovering and that may be longer as you age, and then the food piece, but the best thing we can recommend is doing some trial and error with yourself seeing what works for you and giving it a go. Definitely. Now speaking of trials, yeah, we actually have some pretty cool data from I don't know 7000 Plus,


Neal  18:19  

I think it's if I recall off the top of my head 7162 individuals that are 3581 women age-matched with 3581 men to look at the impact of age and gender on the changes or differences in their basically power-producing capacity from the highest end or neuromuscular power sprint power, really five-second power is the value we pulled there to anaerobic capacity, that one minute power, the max aerobic power or power at VO two Max five minute power and FTP, the 20-minute power that's produced after that maximal five-minute effort when we do that full-frontal test. Or some people might call that power profiling single session, all of those efforts being done. We have again, over 7000 filtered results of quality data where we have the power output, we have heart rate from a direct power meter. So this is a pretty solid size. Like what's the largest study that you've had, that you've Oh,


Jinger Gottschall  19:32  

that I've personally completed? Yeah. Well, this is it.


Unknown Speaker  19:36  

This is the top Yes. We're gonna make it even bigger over time to


Jinger Gottschall  19:40  

Yes, yes, I think actually, in terms of age-matched it's 104 until this study that I've done with you and Mac which is significantly 25 times greater in terms of the number of people


Neal  19:57  

which then gives us a little bit more statistical power. or, and being able to look at this kind of differences with a little bit more comfort in the changes that we see right in terms of that number of participants.


Jinger Gottschall  20:11  

So let's break this down super simple with the same topics that we just went over. So first kneel, did you see an actual sex difference? Or was there a difference in these four different intensities of power between men and women?


Neal  20:29  

Yes. And we looked at this in the power per kilogram or watt per kilogram, in each of those four metrics that in each age group, which we're using 10 year age groups from 20s 30s 40s 50s, and 60s, so those 510 year age groups all had a statistically different higher value in men than women in each of those four categories.


Jinger Gottschall  20:58  

Okay, so that takes the first component, was there a sex difference? the answer is, yes. How about age?


Neal  21:07  

Yes, there are also changes in each of those 10-year age groups, again, as individuals, all men, over that 10-year group, we're seeing a decline in values. And in women, we also see a decrease decline in each of those values from the 20s to 30s 30s, to 40s 40s, to 50s 50s, to 60s,


Jinger Gottschall  21:30  

and when you say in each of those values, you mean, there was a decrease in power for the neuromuscular, the maximal aerobic? The functional threshold, as well as anaerobic? Yes. All four? Yes. Okay. And now, Dare I ask, Was there a difference in the percent decline between men and women?


Neal  21:55  

So the crazy or interesting thing here is that there's actually a difference between the rate at which men lose versus the rate at which women are losing or decreasing in these values?


Jinger Gottschall  22:11  

Yes. And what is also fascinating is the biggest variable or domain that women maintained, this power is their robic. So the more endurance related powers are where women actually


Unknown Speaker  22:30  

lose less than men. Ah,


Jinger Gottschall  22:35  

so I'm sorry, Neil. So women


Neal  22:36  

are maintaining better than men straight up. That's it.


Jinger Gottschall  22:41  

That is so crazy cool for me.


Unknown Speaker  22:45  

Yeah, exactly. You're ahead.


Jinger Gottschall  22:48  

But again, we want to make sure that we all understand and appreciate you can still do things about this. But the myth that women lose fitness faster than men, especially in this aerobic domain, is totally false. False,


Neal  23:04  

it's a wrongness. So we're going to be presenting this at the American College of Sports Medicine annual conference. And so we'll get a link to it out there eventually, and be able to share that with everyone after we presented at the conference, it's


Jinger Gottschall  23:17  

good to be so cool to get out to the public. All right, folks, we got three takeaways for you today. And the first one is that there is a decline in your aerobic capacity or vo two Max and both men and women have about 10% per decade. And that is basically regardless of your activity level. So you can still maintain a higher percentage. But no matter what that's, that's a number that we typically see with age. Yep.


Neal  23:47  

Number two women maintain their aerobic power greater to a greater degree than men do. So women lose less than men, and men lose more as they age.


Jinger Gottschall  24:02  

I just I want that on a bumper sticker. women lose less. I love it. And the last one is just that you can influence this decline with training. So we mentioned little tidbits with respect to this with your high-intensity training, resistance training, and just keeping at it.


Neal  24:23  

Yep. So that is it for another episode of the knowledge podcast. We really hope that you have taken away and learned a few things from our discussion of this topic that will help you be a better endurance athlete. Thanks for listening