Individual sports have always been a special category and have a great history behind them. In ancient times especially, most of the competitive sports were individual such as wrestling, running and equestrian. Among them, athletics is probably the most popular together with swimming.
This research focuses on the sport of athletics and how the performance of an athlete is affected by age. Like every other sport, there is a period of time which he still develops till he reaches his peak, when he is expected to achieve at his top level. This is linked to three major physical attributes, that differ from event to event. The main objective of the researcher is to find the correlation between those attributes and the age. To do so, the text emphasizes on the performance of a sample of athletes at different stages of their career, in three events. The research seeks to answer the question : Does the peak period differ from event to event and if so, how is it linked to each physical attribute? It is anticipated that this study will provide a statistical depiction of the progress of an athlete.
Structure of Athletics
Athletics has gained popularity not only due to the variety of events that involves (from sprint races to jumping), but also due to the fact that in many cases the winner is determined by a few seconds or centimeters. It is also one of the oldest surviving and most widespread sports since it does not require advanced equipment and rules are quite easy.
Track and field events are those that usually draw the most attention. They can be divided into 3 categories, according to how athletes compete each other and what kind of physical activity they do
- Track events (e.g. sprints, mid or long distance races and hurdles)
- Field events (e.g. jumping and throwing)
- Combined events (e.g. pentathlon, eptathlon and decathlon)
Apart from the above criteria, there is another one that could be used to determine the category that each event belongs to. This has to do with the skill that is required from each athlete. A quite simple classification could divide them into events that require
- Pace and acceleration (e.g. 100m, 200m and 400m sprint races)
- Endurance (e.g. marathon and 10/20km walking races)
- Power (e.g. javelin, discus and hammer throws)
Technically, there are other events that are also based on those skills but to a smaller extent, such as horizontal/vertical jumps or the combined ones that require all 3 of them. Moreover, for the purposes of this research, technique will not be taken into consideration since it is not a physical attribute.
Purposes and method used
For each event, a period of 3 years will be determined as the period that the athlete is performing at his best. However it cannot be neglected that this may differ from person to person. The method of T – Test will be used in that case. It will compare two means (average of yearly best record during this period and during the rest of career respectively) and tell how significant those differences are. Confidence level will be set at 95% and as a result the lower the p – value is, which has to be no greater than 0.05, the less the probability that the results happened by chance.
The events inspected will be 100m sprint race (speed/velocity and acceleration), 20km walk race (endurance) and hammer throw (strength) which are three characteristic examples. The sample will be consisted of 30 male athletes who :
- Are professionals, having participated at least once in continental/world championships or Olympic Games.
- Have been active for a period of at least 12 years, different for each event, without missing more than 2 years and if so, not in a row.
100m sprint race
100m sprint race is considered to be one of the fastest races. The current world record was set by Usain Bolt in 2009 with 9.58 seconds. During that race he reached an average speed of 23.35 mph, as well as a top speed of 27.44 mph (Planet-science.com, 2012). This event however is not necessarily the fastest in terms of average speed. Athletes of 200m sprint race and 4×100 relay usually reach higher ones. The main reason is that they spend less proportion of the race speeding up till they reach their final speed. For example, Usain Bolt during a 4×100 relay race back in 2014 run his leg in 8.65 seconds (Mail Online, 2016).
Those times have been decreasing linearly over the decades, but at a smaller rate as years pass by. Jesse Owens’ 10.2 seconds in 1936 has decreased by approximately 0.6 seconds. Even though it is still unknown whether someone will ever run 100m in less than 9 seconds, it cannot be denied that it will need a huge effort.
Sprint races require a great speed and acceleration. According to a study published in 2009, speed declines between 5 – 6% per decade in professional athletes (Korhonen, 2009). This explains why most sprinters have already retired or do not compete at a high level after their mid – 30’s.
Peak period of a sprinter
By taking a closer look to this pie chart, it is quite evident that the vast majority of personal best records were achieved between 23 and 28 years. Between 24 and 26 years though, the relevant mean of annual best records is better than any other three – year period. Could it be said with much certainty that this is the most fruitful period of their career? T-Test and the p – value will give the answer.
The p – value is very low actually. In fact it is approximately 1.454E-08 which does not reject the Null Hypothesis. This means there is a significant statistical difference. So the answer to the question on the previous paragraph is positive, as numbers indicate.
The second graph of this part demonstrates the projected progress of a 100m sprinter, according to the average performance of the 30 athletes by year. His time decreases linearly till the age of 26, then stays approximately on the same level for two years and finally starts increasing again.
20km walking race
20km walk race is an event that has quite short history. Despite dating from 17th century, it did not make its appearance to the Olympic Games until 1956. It requires extra focus since one foot has always to be in contact with the ground. The current world record is 1:16:36, achieved by Yusuke Suzuki in 2015.
It is very intriguing though that by taking a closer look at all – time best records, one can realize that they keep getting improved; 11 out of 20 best times were set during the last decade. From 1:29:59 in 1956, the record has already improved by 13 minutes. It seems that running the distance in less than 1 hour and 15 minutes may be a matter of just a few years.
Unlike strength and speed/acceleration, endurance is a skilled that is affected less by age. It is not uncommon seeing amateur or professional mid and long distance athletes who are in their 40s or 50s. There are two factors that are directly linked with endurance : VO2 max or maximal oxygen consumption, and lactate threshold (Joyner and Coyle, 2008). However, the decline of VO2 max usually starts after 30 years and only by 10% per decade approximately. In fact, this rate of decline in an endurance exercise – trained athlete is 50% smaller than in sedentary adults (Tanaka and Seals, 2008). Moreover, lactate threshold is affected even less by age (Marcell et al.,2003).
The effect of age on distance races
Those facts are evident above. Contrary to sprinters, athletes of 20km walk race reach their peak a few years later, at their late 20’s – early 30’s. Again the method of T – Test will be used. The results however may be a little bit surprising. Applying this method in three different age groups (28 to 30, 29 to 31 and 30 to 32 years), the p – value was never found to be lower than 0.2 approximately. In that case it seems that the previous claim could be valid, but not considered as the rule as there are many exceptions. Probably it has to do more with experience than physical attributes. This explains the various fluctuations in the following graph.
Hammer Throw has been present on the Olympic Games since 1900. It dates back to the 15th century and is one of the most classic events of the Scottish Highland Games. Current world record is 86.74m set by Yuriy Syedikh in 1986. Unlike the previous two events, it is quite rare to see big records those days. Only 2 out of top – 20 all – time best records were set after 1992.
Hammer throw involves attributes such as timing, speed or rhythm. It is also a great example of how mathematics and geometry are applied to sports (e.g. ideal throw angle to maximize distance). However, it is mainly based on strength and less on power. Power should not be confused with strength, they are totally different things.
The older the stronger
Physical strength usually reaches its peak between 25 and 30 years (Shepherd, 1998). Then keeps steady till the age of 40 approximately, when decline starts. This explains why most hammer throw athletes achieved their personal best record at their late 20s – early 30s, as the following graph illustrates. They are probably gaining the most of their strength at this age, and additionally had the chance to develop physically or by training all the other attributes required.
If the peak period is set between 29 and 31 years, the p – value returned by the relevant T – Test is approximately 0.0246 . The Null Hypothesis is rejected and it could be said that there is a very high probability that this is the age range when an athlete is expected to perform at his best. Those conclusions are quite profound below. Personal best record follows an increasing trend till the assumed peak period, and a decreasing afterwards.
The results and conclusions of this research were quite intriguing. As it was proven, peak period in athletics differs from event to event and each attribute is not affected on the same way by age. Apparently, in distance events e.g. 20km walk race, the correlation between endurance and age was rather small. Yet, for many events a career projection could be given and in some cases with a high level of confidence.
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Marcell, T., Hawkins, S., Tarpenning, K., Hyslop, D. and Wiswell, R. (2003). Longitudinal Analysis of Lactate Threshold in Male and Female Master Athletes. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 35(5), pp.810-817.
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