Last weekend, the final IFSC Bouldering World Cup of the 2022 season took place in Innsbruck, Austria. As usual, the athletes put on quite the show. Each round tested an array of athletic prowess, climbing acumen, brute strength, balance, and power.
A typical scene from the season looks something like this:
They run out onto the pads in unison, like a pack of animals on the hunt in their natural habitat, and then quickly disperse in front of their boulders, frozen, staring at the wall, analyzing each inch of terrain, and then, just as soon as they make up their minds about the plan of attack, they begin. They meticulously work through each position and move, making adjustments by millimeters with each try.
Natalia swings right, then left, and then right again, rocking back and forth between two volumes on the slab.
She looks like she is spring loaded as she settles and sinks into her hips one last time before suddenly launching out of a coiled position, effortless and smooth. In the blink of an eye, she double-clutches the first hold and pulls through to the next with the reaction time and fluidity of a cat pouncing for its prey.
Further down the pads, Tomoa wrenches into his right shoulder, pushes his left foot higher, and locks off into another nothing hold.
He looks like he could hold onto anything. As a pinch compresses under the vice-like tension of his hand, the tendons in his fingers are pulled tight like taught piano strings under maximum tension. If anything slips even a fraction of an inch, he’s off.
The climbers at this level are truly freaks of nature. They make the impossible look easy. If I wasn’t a climber, I would have no idea just how crazy strong and talented these athletes really are. Sometimes they pull so hard and so far that holds and volumes seem to drop down right into their hands.
Despite this seemingly timeless marvel of peak physiology, there remains a factual inevitability about the life-span of professional athletes. Roger Angell, a legendary baseball journalist, onced pondered this very question: How long can it all last?
“All the players know that at any moment things can go horribly wrong for them in their line of work,” Angell writes. “They’ll stop hitting or, if they’re pitchers, suddenly find that for some reason they can no longer fling the ball through that invisible sliver of air where it will do its best work for them—and they will have to live with that diminishment, that failure, for a time or even for good. It’s part of the game.”
While professional baseball players can dive deeper into their adult lives as viable athletes, the point of the quote remains the same for World Cup climbers: Eventually, catching that crimp with one hand, or stomping that volume at full-speed, just won’t quite work the same. And for most IFSC athletes, just making a Final round is extremely difficult and rare, nevermind making the podium or winning.
In reality, athletes have a short window of time to be performing at their best. Out of the top ten ranked IFSC bouldering female athletes in the world, the oldest is 25-years-old. For men, the oldest is 29-years-old. The top three men in Meiringen in April of this year were between the ages of 18 and 26. For the top three women, 21 and 24. In Brixen this month, the top three men were between 21 and 26, while the top three for women were between 16 and 21. In Innsbruck, the top three men ranged from ages 18 to 24, with the top three women between the ages of 21 to 25.
It seems that if you are 30 or older (and that’s being generous) at the highest level of competition bouldering, you are basically ancient, used up, and ready for retirement. Why do stars rise and catapult to the top in their teens and then fade away after just a few years? When do the world’s best athletes begin to drop off? And how long does human anatomy and physiology allow for that magical, peak period to last?
To find some answers, I talked with an expert. Eric Morris, who has a B.S. in Exercise Science, teaches at the University of New Hampshire, and currently runs Great Bay Strength and Conditioning in Portsmouth, NH, where he utilizes his education and certifications as a NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Olympic Weightlifting coach, and Functional Movement Systems trainer.
In the following interview, Morris offers insight into 10 major driving factors behind how age plays a crucial role in athletic performance: The endocrine system and peak physiology, injury accumulation and the muscle matrix, structural adaptation and pre-mobility, repair and regeneration, genetics and cellular degradation, and how more time under tension equals a denser body.
Our dialogue has been edited for length and clarity.
Wetmore: Why are the most successful, high-level athletes in competition climbing between the ages of 16 and 26-years-old?
Morris: There are multiple systems in the body that contribute to an athlete’s peak performance and subsequent decline. The endocrine system, which regulates hormones, is one of the most influential factors in the timeline of an athlete’s career. Peak testosterone for males is around 20-years-old, while peak testosterone for women is around 18-years-old. I’m not sure about climbing, but professional athletes across many different sports are known to take testosterone as they age so that they can recover better and boost performance.
Wetmore: Wow, I didn’t realize my golden years were that far behind me. Is that part of the reason why we see a lot of the world’s best competition boulderers, much like Olympic level gymnasts, at the peak of their sport around the age of 18-25?
Morris: Yes. Those are peak performance years. Testosterone influences not only how your body regenerates muscle tissue, but also how soft tissue, like tendons, ligaments, and cartilage, recovers as well. With enough testosterone, any type of soft tissue can repair itself. But as we age, our testosterone eventually plateaus and around the age of 28, just about everybody starts to see a decline.
Wetmore: Interesting. I guess it makes sense that the oldest top ranked IFSC boulderer is 29-years-old.
Morris: Testosterone affects more than just muscles, it also affects our brains. Testosterone has a direct impact on our thinking. The higher your testosterone, the more aggressive, the more confident, the more decisive the individual is. As we age, as we lose testosterone, we lose a little bit of that aggressive edge.
Wetmore: I can feel that in my own climbing. Bouldering hard isn’t just harder now because I feel physically weaker. It’s harder now because I don’t feel as aggressive. What about injuries? How do injuries chip away at an athlete’s potential?
Morris: The accumulation of injury over the life cycle of an athlete plays a direct role in their performance. A healthy muscle is made up of smooth fibers interlocking in what is called a matrix. When there is a muscle tear, that matrix creates a cross-hatching repair that is not as fluid or elastic in property as its original state. It’s stiffer. It has less elastin. Elastin is a property of muscle tissue that gives it a springy nature. After an injury, there are more concentrations of collagen. Collagen is a very stiff, fibrous tissue. Anytime we have an injury in our later years, we lose a little bit of capability in that site.
Wetmore: A lot of the high-end climbing athletes that we see succeeding these days started when they were very young, like four-years-old. When you dive into a sport at a young age, can you change the potential of your tendons and ligaments and how they actually work?
Morris: Oh, for sure, absolutely. For example, studies show that baseball players who started throwing the ball before the age of 12, four days a week, approximately a hundred throws a day for years, will have a structural twist in their humerus. The bone that connects the elbow to the shoulder becomes twisted so that you can lay back your arm into a specific position and throw harder. When you twist a bone, all the soft tissue around it has to compensate. In fact, people who are very right hand dominant or very left hand dominant, have more mobility in that one area. And it’s because of structural adaptations over time when they were young. So people that are regularly climbing before the age of 12 most likely have some type of structural adaptation that allows them to climb more efficiently.
Also, individuals between the ages 18 and 22 are not fully developed. Their growth plates aren’t fully developed. Not only do they still have some time where the body can repair itself, but they also have some pre-mobility that older competitors don’t have because their growth plates are fused. Growth plates don’t fully fuse until your mid-20’s. So as far as asking an athlete to get into a precarious position on a wall, it’s going to be easier for somebody who’s got free floating growth plates than [it is for] somebody who’s fused.
Wetmore: I don’t feel humungous or anything like that, but I definitely feel thicker. Does body composition change as we age?
Morris: Genetics play a huge role. Some people have specific genetics to be thin. They’re called ectomorphs. More muscular people are mesomorphs. But there’s also this concept of time under tension. If you put a lot of tension on your muscles consistently over time, they will get bigger. So take a guy who’s been climbing from age five to age 18, they’ve got 15 years of time under tension. But then you add another eight years on top of that and your body has had way more time under tension. So it’s gotten thicker, bigger, and denser. It could even be your bones that have gotten denser and thicker, which creates more weight on your body.
And I think that’s just inevitable, like as you do a sport, and as you put yourself under tension, you’re just going to get denser over time. Athletes performing at their best are in the Goldilocks zone. They have enough tension to be good at specific skills, but haven’t had so much time under tension that they start to develop so much denseness that it affects the way they perform.
Wetmore: So athletes on the podium throughout the IFSC climbing season are definitely thriving in that Goldilocks zone. This is also probably prime time for those climbers to be dynamic and powerful, right?
Morris: Yes. Being less dense is certainly helpful in this realm. When I think of an athlete being dynamic or explosive, I think of force production and their rate of force production. Those are the terms that come to mind. Whether it’s your legs or your arms, it’s more about how much force you can put into an object or press away from an object relative to your body weight to produce movement. And if you can rapidly put a lot of force into an object, you’re going to be able to be more explosive. So when a boulderer jumps and catches a hold, they are creating a ton of force at a rapid rate.
But it’s not all about muscles and tendons. This kind of fast-twitch movement requires a high functioning nervous system. One’s nervous system is the primary driver for explosive power. It’s all about your brain sending a super fast signal to your muscles to react and contract. You can train the rate and the amount of muscle mass that contracts simultaneously. The more you do it, the better you get at it. But the ability to activate near maximal muscle contraction at an instant’s notice has been observed to decline with age as well.
Wetmore: What is happening at the cellular level as we age?
Morris: The structures in our cells just don’t perform as well as they used to as we age. More specifically, when scientists talk about the aging process today, they talk about telomeres. Telomeres are structures in our cells that shorten everytime they regenerate.
The cell itself doesn’t regenerate quite the same. It becomes like a less efficient copy of the last cell after a certain amount of time. So you’re not getting cells that are 100% anymore. They’re like 99%, and then eventually they’re like 92%. And that’s at the core of the aging process. At some point, when the telomeres are too short, the cells with shorter telomeres can no longer replicate and they die. This affects more and more cells over time, leading to tissue damage and signs of aging.
Wetmore: Dang, ok. Is there anything we can do about that?
Morris: There’s billions of dollars going into this research today. Lots of very smart people are trying to figure out how to reverse the aging process. David Sinclair, a biologist, is one of the pioneers at the forefront of this cutting-edge science.
Wetmore: Well, that’s great news. I feel like I could definitely use some new telomeres.
Of course, nothing was ever meant to last forever. But world-class athletes, especially veterans, know this all too well. Yet they still go out there, bear it all to witness, and ride their wave until it crashes.
“They are prepared to lose out there in plain sight,” Rogel Angell writes about professional baseball players in their prime. “While the rest of us do it in private and then pretend it hasn’t happened.”
Surely it’s much easier to fade from the climbing scene if no one ever knew you climbed in the first place and if you’ve only ever been in competition with yourself. However, for the world’s best, it must be hard to have that gift and then watch it slip through your fingers, especially under the limelight.
Regardless of the duration of one’s competitive path, just possessing that fleeting magic for a few years must feel pretty special and while the gifted few maintain the power to float their way up seemingly impossible walls, you can bet I’ll be watching and wondering how they do it.