By Martin Sigrist
On occasions I will use information about myself to make a point regarding a topic under discussion. This is because I know my own data best and I am an outlier in regards some parameters.
This sometimes incites a comment along the lines of “That’s not scientific. You can’t prove anything with n=1”. Actually you can, and thinking otherwise is to misunderstand what science actually is.
This point was made most eloquently back in 1934 by Sir Karl Popper one of the greatest thinkers regarding the scientific process. His most famous example is an imaginary scientific theory that states “All swans are white.” This would be a reasonable assumption for anyone living in the northern hemisphere. However no matter how many swans you counted you could never prove this to be true. So not only is “n=1” not a valid argument nor is “n=10,000,000”.
On the other hand, it only takes the sighting of a single black swan to prove the theory is false. So now n=1 is all it takes. This imbalance is crucial to the advancement of science. Many truly scientific experiments are not seeking to prove anything is true, they are designed to test if a theory can be proved false. Paradoxically proving theories false is what scientists most want to do. They know no theory will ever last forever so proving it wrong acts as a springboard for coming up with a new theory that is an improvement.
A classic example of this is Newtonian physics, which lasted for many centuries and is still applicable today for most applications — even sending someone to the moon. But it got some tiny seemingly trivial things wrong and that was enough, from the point of view of science, for the entire theory to be cast aside in favor of general relativity. (There is even a sequel. We know today that our theories about the universe are wrong because they don’t explain what 95 percent of it is made up of, so called “dark” energy and matter. Solving this issue is the biggest challenge facing cosmologists and one theory actually attempts to revive aspects of Newtonian physics to explain all. Only time will tell if it turns out to provide a better answer than we have at the moment.)
So what has this to do with cycling?
Well the prevailing dogma about the effect of age on performance is of the “all swans are white type.” It is categorical, the older you get the worse you become.
Take VO2max, the single most important number for an endurance athlete. A typical view is: “In the general population, VO2max tends to decline by about 10 percent per decade after the age of 30. Athletes who continue to compete and train hard can reduce the drop by about half, to 5 percent per decade after the age of 30.” https://theconversation.com/how-does-aging-affect-athletic-performance-36051
Well no actually. I am a black swan proving this is just not true. I did a VO2max test when I was 54 and another last year at 61. Far from going down my VO2max had actually gone up by 6 percent from what was already a high base despite me being slightly heavier for the second test (actual numbers 2013 62.7 2020 66.7).
How about strength?
Here is a typical view, this time from a scientific publication. “One of the most striking effects of age is the involuntary loss of muscle mass, strength, and function, termed sarcopenia. Muscle mass decreases approximately 3–8 percent per decade after the age of 30 and this rate of decline is even higher after the age of 60. This involuntary loss of muscle mass, strength, and function is a fundamental cause of and contributor to disability in older people. This is because sarcopenia increases the risks of falls and vulnerability to injury and, consequently, can lead to functional dependence and disability.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2804956/
I’ve not lost but gained muscle mass over the last decade at least. I don’t actually have any precise numbers to back this up because I didn’t start doing any focused strength training until a couple of years ago which makes me pretty typical even among endurance athletes. But I do have the baseline of how hard it was each year to carry a 30kg suitcase up a set of stairs as I had to do it every time I flew to the USA. A few years back I looked forward to this with dread as it was the hardest feat of strength that I could remember doing and I feared doing myself a major injury. Now I do “suitcase” carries for fun as a workout with loads of 40kg and more. As the quote points out, this means more than just making it easier to travel. It’s the best way to ensure I remain healthy and independent in the future.
To its credit the article goes on to consider the reasons why muscle mass may be lost and specifically says “Recent preliminary data suggest that aerobic exercise (40 percent VO2max) can also acutely increase muscle protein synthesis in healthy, independent older people” and “both resistance and aerobic exercise can be very useful to counteract sarcopenia and the associated metabolic alterations of the muscle.” That backs up my experience, when I didn’t do any strength training I lost strength, when I started doing strength training I gained it. Despite being in my 60s.
It may seem from all this that I am claiming to be special in some way. Actually it’s quite the opposite. I think there is a real danger in the prevailing “common sense” wisdom that aging is a one way street and you can only get worse not better with time. If believed it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When explorers from the northern hemisphere reached Australia they discovered that far from there being just being the one black swan needed to disprove the hypothesis that all swans are white there will millions of them. My goal is not to say how great I am but how great many could be so that there could be millions of 50+ year old black swans proving that, like a fine wine, age can make you better not worse.