Is there a Time Limit for Athletic Achievement?

Has anyone been told outright that they were too old for their goals? Probably right? But is that true? Why are all gymnasts in their late teens or early 20’s, swimmers in their mid 20’s and Ironman competitors are usually in their mid 30’s. What if you want to start gymnastics as a 40th birthday present or start ironman in college does that mean you’re doomed? Is it different if you are a casual competitor or have your sights set on gold? Let’s look into how age influences our performance in sport. It definitely is a factor but I’d argue that for most of us out there it probably doesn’t matter all that much.

Photo credit: East coast running photos, my mom at tire trot

Flexibility is key

There are certain sports that rely heavily on flexibility of the competitors are also the most age limited. Think about gymnastics, ballet and figure skating. As we age we do lose some flexibility and it takes more and more work to maintain the flexibility that we do have. This is one of the reasons that gymnasts tend to retire at an age most of us are in college. But… all hope is not lost lots of us are just way more flexible than average, like me. If you have it now in big way you always will to an extent. If you have terrible flexibility now take heart, it will improve although it can be a slow process. If you’ve never diligently worked on it before just 5 or 10 minuets of work each day could soon have you the most bendy you’ve ever been

It takes a while to get certain places

The flip side of all that is that for certain sports it tends to take a while to even compete in them. Usually triathletes are former runners who have to spend a while perfecting their cycling and strokes. Ultra runners take a while to get to the marathon and then have to tire of that distance before they take on a bigger challenge. The mental focus needed for archery and shooting comes with age as do the finances of riding horses. Paddlers and rowers might not want to be mentioned in the same sentence but both sports tend to skew older at the olympic level. There are some sports where age doesn’t really seem to matter so if you have olympic or world championship dreams you might want to start there.

that one time I did an olympic!

Genetic factors apply at any age

We’re all built for certain things but not so much for others. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try though. Is everyone able to be an olympic athlete in every sport at some stage? Maybe, maybe not. But feel better because not every olympic medalist can do that in every sport either. There are things you’ll always struggle with like any sport that involves throwing if you’re me but others you’ll find a whole lot easier. If you are genetically gifted in one type of movement that will come out at any age. What if you’re just a regular person or just really like a sport that you’re not all that great at. Well the good news is you’ll get better with time and if you spend 10 000 hours doing it you might just end up at the top of your chosen sport anyway. In case you’re wondering at 5 hours a week that’s 38 years. If you stick with anything that long I’ll bet you start doing well in your age class at least!


Of course every sport also has outliers, athletes that are way older or younger than their competition. People who truly excel in a sport tend to stay on longer and those with a real gift will rise to the top even with a late start. But that doesn’t mean anything is possible for an athlete of a given age. For example I doubt we’ll ever see an olympic gold medalist in gymnastics in her 40’s. Older athletes have something younger ones will never have and that is experience in the movements, the training and the realities of competing and don’t underestimate the edge that can give you. If we focus on more local competitions though the field is probably wide open for anyone to win no matter the activity of the day.

Cumulative injury risk

I’m getting old ya’ll my knee hurts, my hip hurts and now my foot hurts. In the last 4 years I’ve started doing physio, foam rolling and epsom bath soaking now I’m toying with compression socks. These were not things I had to do when I was younger! My injury pre-dated my serious running career by a long shot but now it all hurts when I push it and my injuries are not severe enough to send me to the doctor for the most part. I used to waitress 12 hours a day at 20 but by 30 six hours of it sent me home to soak my feet. Injuries happen to the casual racer like me but they stack up faster for the professionals. If we’re being honest my running career isn’t that stelar and mostly for fun so a serious injury probably wouldn’t be the end of it. As athletes get older in their sport each one deals a bigger blow at the top levels of competition. The longer you’ve been competing the more of those injuries you’re likely to suffer. For the rest of us though it probably only means some time off and a bit of time to get back to where we were.

KT tape is a part of my life now

But time can be the major issue too

Yes there are single CEO moms that complete an ironman every year and yeah for them but just completing certain competitions takes time never mind improving on your craft. You need some time for that and some source of motivation at that time too. Once you fall in love with your sport after that you’ll make time for it. For lucky folks it might be something your parents exposed you to growing up, maybe you ran track in high school or college. It might even be something you found to lose the baby weight. The point is most elite athletes were lucky enough to be introduced to something they loved and were good at when very young. But that doesn’t mean that if you’re introduced to a sport a little later you can’t flourish at it. It only takes a couple of years to get really good at something and know that you really could excel at it if you gave it everything you had. One of my co-workers husbands got bored between jobs for 6 months and was winning local races and running marathons the very next year. They key is you can’t win it if you’re not in it yet!

Where are we now?

So where does all this put us then? Can you win the olympic gold at any sport at any age? No probably not, but that doesn’t mean you can’t compete at or near that level well outside the peak age range of a given sport. Look at Tom Brady or Serena Williams both still compete at the absolute highest level of their sports at least a decade out from the peak age of their respective sports and win. Sure both are genetically blessed but so is every single other person in the game with them. We live in an age where we have studied the minutia of every aspect of training and performance within almost every sport. Medical science often boggles the mind with what it can do at every stage and the technology, like wearables, available to even the most casual athlete used to be reserved for only professional athletes. All of this combines to explain an overall upward creeping trend across sports in the top performers or at least a few of them.

If you had what it took genetically when you were younger to excel in a given sport then you’ll probably be competitive for your age range no matter when you start if you’re dedicated to training. That’s the next point is that people are more likely to train seriously for a given event now at every age and ability. It wasn’t too long ago that people just didn’t spend time and money on a sport they loved but never excelled at. When I was a kid parents were likely to pull their kids out of an expensive activity after a few year if they just weren’t getting better, like hockey. Thankfully these days if you love a certain activity and you want to continue in it then you should. It’s no longer embarrassing not to win but an accomplishment that you finished. For most of us that’s more than enough. Now people can meet up with like minded folks and join a club they found online for almost anything. Plus if you have goals you want to push for now lots of people will hire a specific coach or trainer.

Medals and PR’s are nice but so is racing with your mom AND your 2 year old niece!

If you try really really hard can you be the first swimming gold medalist in your 60’s, probably not but after a few years you might just win your age group at ALL the races. Is it fair that you won’t get sponsored by speedo, again probably not but I don’t think it really matters for 99% of us. No matter how old or young you are you can always beat yourself and keep participating and that’s a HUGE win all on it’s own. If you have just a bit of natural ability and train like those elites I’m sure you’ll surprise yourself with just how far you’ll go! For a long, long time (think decades) you can keep pushing in your sport and improving with over time can add up to a whole lot. With demographics the way they are now doctors are likely to move mountains to keep you active no matter how slow you are. You can hire a coach, follow a great training plan and keep loving what you do at any age. For most of us that’s all we could hope for anyway.

So yes there are some limits at the very top tiers of sport that are influenced by your age. For most of us that doesn’t matter much though just ask this guy. If it’s recognition or accolades you’re after that’s cool too. I’ll bet your family and friends are more than happy to cheer you on and if not there is always social media! Plus once you age up a class you’re the youngest in that bunch for a while at least. Do you think age has held you back in your sport? If not what have you done to perform at every age?

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