Until the first mass participation running boom in the 1970s, the term mature athlete was an oxymoron in the United States. Mature was popularly associated with the words "old" and "deteriorated" from a sport perspective, and aside from the so-called "beer leagues" in sports such as men's basketball and ice hockey, older athletes were unorganized. Any such persons who remained fit were usually operating on an entirely individual basis. Society at large generally perceived such persons as somewhat eccentric, as opposed to being health conscious or sports minded. Competitive athletics in all forms was regarded as the preserve of the young.
Running and its mass participatory focus changed perceptions about the older athlete and their capabilities. The combination of a changing societal demographic, with the baby boom generation passing age 40, and the nature of the races themselves, with hundreds or thousands of entrants, created a phenomenon that became known as master's competitions.
In most sports, there are a set of unalterable physiological imperatives that create a limit on the age at which an athlete, male or female, can continue to perform at the highest level. Those factors will include the decline in the function of the cardiovascular system, a circumstance that is connected to both the reduced ability of the heart to pump a maximal quantity of blood, reflected by the reduced maximum heart rate, coupled with the inevitable decrease in the capacity of the athlete to utilize oxygen, known as the VO2max. While training and careful attention to health may slow the decline of these essential athletic sys-tems, it is impossible to maintain peak physical performance past the approximate age of 40 years.
A combination of other physiological factors contributes to the decrease in the ability of the body to build muscle and to possess the same level of muscular power and endurance. In particular sports, these physiological limits imposed by aging are accentuated by the demands of the particular discipline; it is rare to see a competitive female gymnast or figure skater active in their late 20s.
Master's competition grew from the premise that while athletes over age 40 could not reasonably compete with those in their physical prime, mature athletes could compete within their own age groups in a fashion that was both participatory and equitable. Master's competitions are now a fixture in many sports, both in individual pursuits such as tennis, squash, and athletics, as well as in team sports such as basketball, soccer, and rugby.
In most master's disciplines, the age groupings are set at five-year intervals. These divisions mirror the general progressive decline of the capabilities of the human body; just as a 45-year-old runner will have difficulty competing with a 25-year-old runner, where all other factors are equal, a 60-year-old athlete will not generally be competitive with a 45-year-old athlete. In some sports, there are rule modifications made to ensure that the safety of the competitors is preserved within a competitive framework. Examples include the popularity of non-contact ice hockey among players over age 40.
The growth of participation in sport among older athletes has propelled the growth of the World Masters Games, a celebration of the competitive aspects of master's competitions. The Masters Games are held every four years; the 2005 version, which was hosted in Edmonton, Canada, attracted over 20,000 athletes in an Olympic-style format. Studies conducted using the results of both the Master's Games track and field competitions, as well as international events with a significant master's component, such as the New York marathon and the London marathon, illustrate the rate of progression in the decline from elite performance standards as the athletes age.
The world record for races ranging in distance from the 100 m to the marathon was, on average, between 5% and 7% faster than the age group world records for ages 40 to 45. The 50-year-old age group most declined by a further 3% to 6%. To age 80, the best performances continued to decline at a rate of approximately 1% per year, while a comparable decline was noted in the comparison of various strength events such as weightlifting.
Although the actual level of performance may decline with the effect of age, the training approaches adopted by mature athletes are limited only by the decreased ability of the body to work at the same physiological level, due to the metabolic changes of VO2max and maximum heart rate. Mature athletes often discover that their mental attitude towards sport, including such factors as their determination to succeed and their competitive urges, does not change in keeping with their reductions in physical ability.