The present longitudinal study assessed cardiorespiratory capacity and running economy of Olympic athletes over several decades to measure changes in fitness in an elite group during aging. Twenty-six male runners training for the 1968 Olympics were recruited. Heart rate, VO2max, ventilation, and running economy were measured in 1968, 1993, and 2013. In 2013, 22 of the original runners participated: three passed away between 1993 and 2013, and one declined to participate.
The mean (+/-SD) maximum heart rate (bpm) was 178+/-10.6 in 1968, 176+/-13.1 in 1993, and 168+/-16.4 in 2013 with a difference from the predicted maximum heart rates in 1968 and 2013 (both P<.001). The mean (+/-SD) VO2max (mL•min-1•kg-1) was 78+/-3.1 in 1968, 57+/-6.7 in 1993, and 42+/-8.9 in 2013. VO2max based on the original body weight (mL•min-1•kg-1) in 1993 and 2013 were 65+/-6.0 and 47+/-8.1, respectively, which were higher than the measured VO2max values at those times (both P<.001). VEmax (L•min-1) was 177+/-13.1 in 1968, 150+/-24.9 in 1993, and 118+/-22.5 in 2013; and declined at each time (all P<.001). The decline in VEmax predicted (P<.001) the decline in VO2max (R2 for 1993 = .500; R2 for 2013 = .567). Running economy (mL•kg-1•km-1) was 196+/-7.0 in 1968, 205+/-16.5 in 1993, and 240+/-27.0 in 2013; and was greater in 2013 than in 1993 and 1968 (both P<=.001).
The data suggested that higher initial fitness in younger years contributed to higher fitness with aging despite an expected age-related drop in fitness. Also, older adults could maintain high levels of cardiorespiratory fitness as they age. Expectations for fitness during aging should be more robust, especially since higher fitness could bolster quality of life.