Swimmer Leianne Crittenden recently has racked up a national championship, a world championship and a world record, but she's not some promising college athlete.
"For an old lady I do OK," the 51-year-old attorney and masters swimmer says with a laugh. "When I go against 20-year-olds, sometimes I beat them. I think they're sort of surprised - they say, 'Who is that woman with the wrinkles?'"
Crittenden isn't an anomaly. The notion that age offers only diminishing returns when it comes to fitness is being blown to bits - particularly in endurance sports. Events that require pacing, strategy and mental fortitude are where many older athletes, especially women, excel.
Suzanna Bon, 43, was the top female finisher at this year's Angeles Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run in the Los Angeles area, also setting a course record. Forty-year-old swimmer Dara Torres might make history in the 2008 Olympics as the first swimmer older than 40 to compete in the Games. And Valmir Nunes, 43, won the Kiehl's Badwater Ultramarathon this year, a grueling 135-mile run from Death Valley to Mount Whitney in California.
Exercise and sports-psychology experts think there could be more to this success than physiology and good genes.
"I think there are a number of things that people do better as they get older," says Miriam Nelson, director of the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "They're more disciplined, they train smarter, they're consistent with their training. Whatever sport you're in, you can be smarter from a competitive edge in terms of knowing yourself."
In marathons, for example, runners in their 20s often sprint out of the starting line, whereas older runners stick to a more prudent strategy that doesn't burn them out before the finish line.
That's not to say biology doesn't play a role. Younger people generally have better coordination and balance, which allows them to do better than older people in sports such as gymnastics. As people age, reflexes slow, and proprioception skills - sensing where one's body is - diminish.
But life experience shouldn't be underestimated.
Older athletes "know how to use what they have," says sport psychologist Ralph Vernacchia, director of the Center for Performance at Western Washington University in Bellingham and a professor in the physical education, health and recreation department. "If they only have 60 percent of the functional capacity and aerobic power they had when they were much younger, they can learn to get 100 percent out of that 60 percent."
Many also learn how to train smarter.
Masters swim coach Kerry O'Brien tries to make the most of his swimmers' hour to train. Between jobs, family and other obligations, his team can't spend endless time in the pool.
They hit high-intensity levels during freestyle swims first. "We try to tax the body, get it tired, then do pace work for specialty strokes," he says. Swimmers get the workouts they need, but in far less time.
The desire to compete doesn't fade as gray hair appears, O'Brien says. But how they handle defeat, an unavoidable part of any athletic pursuit, does change. "What you'll never see at a masters competition is devastation and disappointment," he says. "They have goals, but if they don't achieve them, so what? It's part of life."
To be competitive, athletes should maintain a consistent exercise regimen that includes cardiovascular exercise, strength training and stretching. Starting a fitness regimen early, in one's 20s or 30s, goes a long way in ensuring that 10-kilometer runs, hockey games and even ultramarathons are possible as the years go by.
Bon, the Sonoma, Calif., endurance runner, says she feels better and stronger now than she did in her 20s, and she is more in tune with her body. The stay-at-home mother of three doesn't think she's that unusual.
"There is such a depth of strength that is untapped, especially for women in their late 30s and 40s," she says. "I have a lot of friends who look at me and say, 'I could never do that.' But if you have the desire and the support, you really could. The potential is limitless."
Jeannine Stein writes for the Los Angeles Times.