In cycling, older can mean better
While the world was dazzled by Olympic teen phenoms like gymnast Gabby Douglas and swimmer Missy Franklin during the London Games, a steady presence of "older" female athletes showed that athletic potential goes far beyond the high school years.
In the sport of road cycling, Kristin Armstrong won her second Olympic gold medal in the time trial at the age of 39. In fact, the average age of the four members of the women's U.S. Olympic road cycling team was 34. While there are always youthful standouts in any sport, it is safe to say that endurance sports like cycling often reward the older athlete.
"As a kid, I was a non-athlete and always the one picked last for gym class," Team Colavita's Moriah MacGregor, 38, said of her days growing up in Whitehorse, in Canada's Yukon Territory. With no interest in sports as a child, it wasn't until her late 20s that MacGregor mounted a bike, after seeing the Canadian national championships nearby. The riders' speed and prowess touched a nerve in MacGregor.
"They were so fast and so tactical ... that race is what motivated me to take out a race license, and the next season I did my first Category 4 [beginner-level] race. I had a lot of work to do to build a base as I was starting from square one."
In 2007, MacGregor shifted her attention to cycling full time, and the results were rewarding. She had top-10 placings at many prestigious North American events, including the Tour de PEI, and caught the eye of the Canadian national team after capturing the bronze medal in her country's road race championship. From there, it was off to the Pan Am Championships and European races, where MacGregor helped vault her teammates -- and her country -- to victory in some top international competitions. In 2012, MacGregor brought her time trial and domestique skills to Team Colavita.
Yet, as with most tactical sports, it wasn't just MacGregor's fitness that was key, but also the psychological skills that come with age.
"There's a lot more to being a contributing member of a highly functional team than just the ability to perform," she said. "I think that having a bit more life experience probably helps ... it's a coping benefit to have a bit more emotional maturity."
Recently retired cyclist Anne Samplonius, 44, who was with Team Now and Novartis for MS, agreed.
"My training is different now -- I must pay attention to rest, and rest hard, as my body takes longer to recover," Samplonius said. "But I also think that what I lost in the physical aspect, I have gained with experience. I may have slowed with age, but my experience, knowledge and savvy has lessened the gap to those who are much younger that I compete against, so I [was] able to still contribute to the team, be competitive and even pull off a result here and there."
Indeed, endurance sports like cycling come with a plethora of factors that weigh into every race, from the mechanical element of the bike (and all that can go wrong with parts and tires), to fluctuating weather during five-hour races, to physical dangers like crashing, sickness and injury. There is something to be said for the mental toughness formed by experience.
"The simple fact that a person can be at the top of their career in their 30s is pretty great," MacGregor said. "Not a lot of sports afford that opportunity."
There's also a biological reason that many female distance cyclists find success later in life: The heart is on their side. Exercise physiologist Doug Loveday of Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Ariz., explains that while the anabolic status of younger athletes -- think muscle mass, strength and sprinting -- begins to decline after age 25 to 30, endurance relies on the development of the heart, lungs and capillaries.
"Endurance performance is more heavily dependent on sustainable energy production and fatigue resistance, which are based on cardiovascular and muscular changes," Loveday said. "That takes longer to develop, and can be maintained much further into an athlete's career."
Because these adaptations to the cardio and muscle energy production systems can take years -- even decades -- to develop, age is an ally in the endurance world.
"In sports where fatigue resistance over multiple hours outweighs, say, bench-press performance, often the older athlete will have an edge," Loveday explained. "If you want to win a challenge against your teenage/college-age kid, choose the 100-mile ride over the 100-meter dash."
While the cardio benefits and endurance perks may give cyclists an edge as they age, there is the drawback of bone-density loss, as cycling is considered a non-weight-bearing sport.
"Specific to cycling, both men and women over 30 should have their bone density checked with a DEXA scan," Loveday said. "There is growing evidence that cyclists, even with sufficient lean mass and strength, can suffer from bone loss much earlier than their healthy, active, non-cycling peers."
For athletes like MacGregor who come to cycling later in life, both definitions of "heart endurance" are needed to succeed. The physical one is a given, but for many older athletes, the bigger picture of life goes hand in hand with a career nearing its twilight years.
"I have some goals which I did not achieve," said MacGregor, who plans to retire next season. "But as I exit my competitive career on the road, I choose to focus instead on the highlights: all that I have learned and experienced through sport, the incredible people I have gotten to know, the places I have had the chance to see and all I have accomplished."