Athletes and Age of Peak Performance Pt. 2

By Dan Peterson

In our last post we looked at when athletes in different sports reach their age of peak performance, and at a potential neural basis for athletic decline. The argument for a breakdown in myelin integrity turned out to not ring true, as it doesn’t peak until the late thirties, long after most elite athletes have slipped into irrelevance. Those ages of peak performance, again, are below:

* For baseball, a number of studies, using different methods, have pegged peak age between 27-29. (Link)
* For Tennis, peak age has been pegged between the early 20′s and 25. (Link)
* For basketball, peak age has been found to be at 27 for all positions, with different positions showing different patterns of decline. (Link)
* For Track and Field, peak sprinting age has been found to be in the lower-mid twenties, with endurance events having older peak ages. (Link)
* For golf, athletes have broader peaks–between 25-35, with slower declines. (Link)
* For football, running backs and receivers peak around 27, with running backs showing sharper fall-offs than receivers. Quarterbacks have a broader peak between 25-35. (Link)

It is potentially productive to examine when certain physical attributes begin to decline, and whether those might explain why athletes lose competitiveness with age. Decline does not seem to be related to a loss of physical strength. Studies have found that muscle atrophy due to aging doesn’t begin until around age 50, so that seems like a dead end.

Another potential cause might be an accumulation of injuries. Certainly in high-impact sports like football, or sports with razor-thin margins that make injuries relatively more debilitating like track and field, we tend to see younger ages of peak performance. It may just be that the wear and tear on the body over the years erodes an athlete’s ability. This idea is bolstered by research from Football Outsiders on how football running backs who carry the ball more than 370 times in a season tend to show a predictable pattern of decline in the ensuing seasons after that huge workload. Their 370 Carry Theory is: “A running back with 370 or more carries during the regular season will usually suffer either a major injury or loss of effectiveness the following year, unless he is named Eric Dickerson.”

But the metric that seems most related to decline is pure explosiveness. We see the most explosive sports, like track and field sprinting, peaking the earliest. Even within sports, as in football, positions that rely more on explosiveness (running backs) peak earlier than those that rely more on other, more experienced-based skills (quarterbacks). The neurological metric that seems to fall more in line with peak athletic age, and with this explosive speed, is reaction time. Reaction time peaks in the 20′s and then begins to fall off. Specifically, it is complex reaction time that declines fastest. (Der and Deary; Kosinski; Fozard et. al). But the discussion in the last post casts doubt on one potential hypothesis for this slowing, myelination. So why do reaction time and explosiveness peak when they do?

This post isn’t proposing any answers to these questions. In reality, athletic decline is probably due to a number of interacting causes, both physical and, potentially, neural. The exact mechanism behind why athletes peak when they do, despite the predictability and inevitability of the process, is not well understood.

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