In the world of sports, young athletes get a lot of attention: High school and college teams are full of strong, fast people. Later in life, the stereotype goes, they’ll be has-beens who can’t stop talking about that game they won or how much they benched in the weight room. But in many sports, we actually get better as we age—for at least another decade or two.
This is good news for those of us who found our favorite sports or fitness hobbies later in life, or who have simply fallen prey to the marketing of fitness as a thing only done well by young, attractive people. So when is your body really past its peak? A lot later than you think.
Peak ages for strength sports like powerlifting
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When you train for a strength sport, adding muscle mass is a big part of what helps you to lift big weights and succeed in your sport. But adding muscle takes time, which gives older competitors an advantage over their younger peers±up to a point.
In Olympic weightlifting, the best athletes tend to hit their peak around age 25, which probably reflects a balance of two factors. On the one hand, youth seems to provide better explosiveness and springy, elastic tendons. On the other, muscle takes time to build. That said, plenty of weightlifters start late in life and keep getting better as they put in more training time.
In powerlifting, the average peak for world champions is 10 years later, at age 35. Without having to be as explosive as Olympic weightlifters, lifters can keep putting on muscle and still do well in their sport. It’s also possible that powerlifters start their sport later in life, meaning they’re older when they’ve finally put in enough training time to be a champion.
Don’t forget that these numbers represent a peak, not a limit. About half of elite athletes peak later than average, by definition. And your abilities don’t plummet after you hit peak age—you just don’t improve as much as you used to.
Peak ages for endurance sports like marathons
Runners tend to peak later in life depending on the distance of their sport. Olympic medalists in shorter distance events averaged 26 years old in the Tokyo Olympics, but plenty of individuals were older than that and still competitive.
Meanwhile, a recent study on marathoners found that the peak age seems to be 27 for men and 29 for women. And small studies on ultramarathoners—people who run races of more than 26 miles—have found even older peak ages. This one found that men are fastest at 39 years old, and women at 40.
Endurance cycling also favors older ages: One study found that sprinters peak at age 26, and “general classification” cyclists closer to 29. In one long-distance (447 mile!) race, winners over the years averaged age 36 for men and 39 for women. And a study on triathletes found that while Olympic-distance triathletes seem to peak around age 27, competitors in the Ironman distance (a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and an entire marathon as the running portion) peak at age 35.
There’s hope for everybody, really
The data on peak ages reflect a lot of factors besides chronological age and training age. Female tennis players, for example, began winning at older ages as prize money for the women’s tournaments increased, making it more financially possible for players to dedicate years to the sport rather than retiring young.
In fact, if you look at Olympic athletes over time, athletes in almost all sports are competing at older ages. While there are plenty of factors that influence who makes it to the Olympics (the rule change that allowed professional athletes, for example), it does seem that elite athletes are peaking at older ages than they used to. In part, this may be because advances in training techniques and healthcare have been allowing athletes to have longer careers in their sports.
If you are a person who started sports late, it’s important to remember that training age is often more important than the number of birthdays you have had. It’s been said that the way to get stronger as you age is to start out weak. I started weightlifting in my 30s, so I’ll never have a younger, stronger memory to compare myself to. I’m now stronger in my 40s than I ever was in my 30s, so what does a theoretical “peak” age matter?
Or, to put it another way: if someone becomes a world champion at age 25, they may have started in their sport at age 15 or even 10. If you’re, say, 35, you missed that boat—but if you train hard starting now, you could be crushing your age-group opponents at age 45 or 50. And that’s true no matter your sport.