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Trends in Triathlon Performance: Effects of Sex and Age

Abstract

The influences of sex and age upon endurance performance have previously been documented for both running and swimming. A number of recent studies have investigated how sex and age influence triathlon performance, a sport that combines three disciplines (swimming, cycling and running), with competitions commonly lasting between 2 (short distance: 1.5-km swim, 40-km cycle and 10-km run) and 8 h (Ironman distance: 3.8-km swim, 180-km cycle and 42-km run) for elite triathletes. Age and sex influences upon performance have also been investigated for ultra-triathlons, with distances corresponding to several Ironman distances and lasting several days, and for off-road triathlons combining swimming, mountain biking and trail running. Triathlon represents an intriguing alternative model for analysing the effects of age and sex upon endurance and ultra-endurance (>6 h) performance because sex differences and age-related declines in performance can be analysed in the same individuals across the three separate disciplines. The relative participation of both females and masters athletes (age >40 years) in triathlon has increased consistently over the past 25 years. Sex differences in triathlon performance are also known to differ between the modes of locomotion adopted (swimming, cycling or running) for both elite and non-elite triathletes. Generally, time differences between sexes in swimming have been shown to be smaller on average than during cycling and running. Both physiological and morphological factors contribute to explaining these findings. Performance density (i.e. the time difference between the winner and tenth-placed competitor) has progressively improved (time differences have decreased) for international races over the past two decades for both males and females, with performance density now very similar for both sexes. For age-group triathletes, sex differences in total triathlon performance time increases with age. However, the possible difference in age-related changes in the physiological determinants of endurance and ultra-endurance performances between males and females needs further investigation. Non-physiological factors such as low rates of participation of older female triathletes may also contribute to the greater age-related decline in triathlon performance shown by females. Total triathlon performance has been shown to decrease in a curvilinear manner with advancing age. However, when triathlon performance is broken down into its three disciplines, there is a smaller age-related decline in cycling performance than in running and swimming performances. Age-associated changes in triathlon performance are also related to the total duration of triathlon races. The magnitude of the declines in cycling and running performances with advancing age for short triathlons are less pronounced than for longer Ironman-distance races. Triathlon distance is also important when considering how age affects the rate of the decline in performance. Off-road triathlon performances display greater decrements with age than road-based triathlons, suggesting that the type of discipline (road vs. mountain bike cycling and road vs. trail running) is an important factor in age-associated changes in triathlon performance. Finally, masters triathletes have shown relative improvements in their performances across the three triathlon disciplines and total triathlon event times during Ironman races over the past three decades. This raises an important issue as to whether older male and female triathletes have yet reached their performance limits during Ironman triathlons.

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This research project was not funded. All authors declare that there were no conflicts of interests.

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Lepers, R., Knechtle, B. & Stapley, P.J. Trends in Triathlon Performance: Effects of Sex and Age. Sports Med 43, 851–863 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-013-0067-4

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Keywords

  • Female Athlete
  • Mountain Bike
  • Master Athlete
  • Ironman Triathlete
  • Olympic Distance