Older and wiser Torres wasn’t just losing her muscle. Her hormones were changing, and her recovery time was longer. She no longer swam through her injuries like she did in her 20s. Maximum heart rate also falls as people age, and training may take an extra toll on muscles, joints and ligaments. Maximum oxygen consumption takes a hit. For women especially, bone density may drop after age 30. Genetics may also play a role in athletic performance. “You can’t just push it like you did when you were younger,” Torres said. Hormones that drop with age include growth hormone, a naturally occurring muscle-building compound whose synthetic version has also been implicated in Olympic doping scandals, according to the World Anti-Doping Agency. Although the impacts of other hormones, such as estrogen, on athletic performance are less clear, exercise physiologists such as Arent say new technologies are only beginning to reveal the science of what happens when athletes train and recover. “We’ve seen a massive step up in terms of our ability to monitor athletes,” he said, adding that heart rate monitors, sleep trackers and biological tests are giving researchers new insight into what happens beyond the field or pool. Using personal data, athletes like Torres may change up their routines to play past their theoretical peak. If Torres couldn’t swim more powerfully, she said, she would have to swim more efficiently. “You’re gonna lose a little bit of power, but you’ll make it up in the ability to do the sport in the best possible way,” said Jeoff Drobot, an exercise specialist at the American Center for Biological Medicine, who worked with Torres leading up to her final Olympic tryout in 2012. One example of improving efficiency, Arent said, was famed cyclist Lance Armstrong’s low levels of blood lactate. Lactate, a byproduct of high-intensity exercise, causes a feeling of fatigue and burning in muscles; lowering these levels, said Arent, allows athletes to improve their performance — not by increasing their maximum strength but by staying closer to their current maximum for longer periods of time. Even then, Arent said, athletes can’t turn back the clock; they can only slow it. “As you get older … you realize that no matter what, that window is closing,” he said.?At 45 years old, Torres narrowly lost her spot in the 2012 London Olympics to competitors who were decades younger. It was then that she retired from swimming. Of early birds and worms Torres acknowledged that factors beyond training and willpower might be leading some athletes to stay in the game longer. Players might be having families later, making more money in some sports and realizing that it’s possible to continue playing professionally past a certain age. “People are seeing the Serena Williams, the Roger Federers, Tom Brady,” she said. “Before, no one was doing it, and no one tried.” But while scientists continue to research new ways of monitoring and adjusting athletes’ regimens, experts like Arent and Drobot have stressed a message of early prevention: Though exercise can benefit non-athletes at any age, elite athletes stand to uniquely benefit from an early start. “Watch what these guys are doing” to train in their later years, said Arent.
“There are lessons in this for the younger athlete,” he said. “Train smarter, not just harder.”
“Now, can you apply this earlier? Imagine how much longer (your career) can be.”By Michael Nedelman and Robert Jimison, CNN