How to Maximize Endurance and Longevity in Sports: Essential Strategies

Runners and endurance athletes often talk about their personal records (PRs), upcoming races, or the latest fitness tech or gadgets. But there’s always a looming question: How long can I keep going? And how can I age healthfully to ensure longevity in my sport? Let's find out.

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By Stevie Smith
Lucia Gcingca
Edited by Lucia Gcingca

Published January 28, 2024.

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Physical activity can delay signs of aging by promoting heart health, preventing low bone mass, improving coordination and balance, and lowering the risk of chronic diseases. [1] But endurance athletes also place unique strains on their bodies, which can impact healthy aging and longevity in sports.

One of these strains is oxidative stress—which also naturally increases with age. Let's look at how oxidative stress and certain blood biomarkers play a role in sports and longevity.

Key considerations for longevity in sports

The following factors play a significant part in sports and longevity:

  • Oxidative stress and exercise: Running and aerobic exercise can lead to oxidative stress, which, if not balanced with appropriate antioxidant activity, can have a negative impact on both health and performance.
  • Training status and oxidative stress: Your training status, which involves a delicate balance of training load, training intensity, and recovery, plays a significant role in managing oxidative stress.
  • Enhancing performance and healthy aging: Strategies to improve athletic performance can also be paired with those promoting healthy aging, creating a dual benefit for athletes.
  • Biomarkers for performance and aging: Several biomarkers directly influence performance and healthy aging, including: 1. Blood glucose 2. Vitamin D 3. hsCRP 4. LDL cholesterol 5. Cortisol 6. Magnesium

» Learn more about blood testing for athletes to improve performance

Oxidative stress and exercise

Free radicals are reactive, unstable molecules formed by natural processes like exercise and the breakdown of food as well as from external sources like pollution and chemicals. [2] Excessive free radicals in the body can lead to oxidative stress, which can result in chronic inflammation and cellular damage—contributing to accelerated aging. [3]

With age, the body has a decreased capacity to fight free radicals and prevent this oxidative stress and damage, which has also been connected to diseases, including: [4]

Training status and oxidative stress

Exercise also is known to increase the production of free radicals in the body. [5] A recent systematic review on the effect of running on oxidative stress found that the training status of an individual (which includes the intensity and duration of their exercise) impacts markers of oxidative damage. [6]

Another study found that while endurance and ultra-endurance events resulted in negative changes in oxidative stress balance, they could be blunted and reduced by adequate training before the event. [7]

Enhancing performance and healthy aging

Though it’s impossible to completely eliminate free radicals and oxidative stress, temporary increases in oxidative stress from exercise, acute injury, or illness can be managed. [4] First, proper training and recovery can condition the body for intense bouts of activity.

Antioxidants can also help to keep levels of oxidative stress from exercise getting out of hand. Antioxidants are chemicals that lessen or prevent the effects of free radicals by stabilizing them, making them less harmful to the body. Antioxidants are naturally produced in the body and can also be obtained through the diet.

Tips to improve: Reduce oxidative stress and support longevity by incorporating rest days and lower-impact exercises, especially as you age. Consider activities like walking and yoga. Include antioxidant-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds in your diet for vitamins C and E.

» Explore the benefits of strength training for longevity

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Biomarkers for performance and aging

PR-setting and goal-clinching are some of the most common athletic motivations. But many athletes have also begun prioritizing performance and longevity—the ability to participate in the sports they love at any age.

Oxidative stress isn't the only factor contributing to someone's ability to maintain performance and longevity. Blood biomarkers are important targets for maintaining optimal health and a strong body that can thrive under physical pressure. While each person may need to focus on optimizing different biomarkers, here are some of the top biomarkers that can directly impact longevity in sports.

5 biomarkers that impact longevity in sports

1. Blood glucose

Glucose is the body's primary source of fuel. Properly regulated glucose levels are essential for overall health, performance, and longevity. Though glucose levels normally fluctuate throughout the day—especially after meals—high fasting glucose levels can indicate an issue with how the body processes glucose. Glucose can also be elevated due to stress or a poor night's sleep. Glucose regulation also can decline with age. [8]

Tip to improve: Eating balanced meals and snacks can help regulate blood sugar levels, and exercise can increase sensitivity to insulin (the hormone that lowers blood sugar). [9]

Eat more high-fiber fruit, particularly blueberries! They're high in polyphenols called flavonoids, which have been linked to better brain health with aging, reduced risk of cognitive decline, and healthy muscle recovery. [10] Combine berries with a source of protein or fat, like a cheese stick or nuts, to keep blood sugar more stable.

» Unlock endurance and longevity in sports with zone 2 heart rate training

2. Vitamin D

Vitamin D is an essential fat-soluble vitamin that promotes healthy aging. It helps the body absorb calcium, which helps maintain bone strength, which becomes critical with age. Vitamin D also helps to regulate the nervous and immune systems.

Inadequate vitamin D increases the risk of low bone mineral density, making a person more susceptible to stress fractures. Low vitamin D has also been linked to poorer sleep quality, which can be highly detrimental to recovery from intense physical activity. [11]

Tip to improve: Aim to increase food sources of vitamin D such as salmon, egg yolks, fortified dairy products, swordfish, and cheese. Only supplement with vitamin D if blood test results show an inadequacy or deficiency of vitamin D levels.

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3. hsCRP

HsCRP is a general marker of inflammation and a critical indicator of performance and recovery. High levels of strenuous exercise can increase inflammation and cause markers like hsCRP to stay elevated. While some acute inflammation is necessary for the body to grow and repair muscles, uncontrolled inflammation can halt muscle gains. It can also put you at a greater risk of getting sick.

Internal inflammation is also connected to oxidative stress and accelerated aging, so mitigating excess post-workout inflammation is a priority as we age through sport.

Tip to improve: Incorporate regular rest days into your training routine to allow for proper recovery and mitigate inflammation. [12]

4. Cortisol

Cortisol (also known as the stress hormone) levels increase with heightened emotional and physical stress, including exercise. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone, meaning that it breaks muscle down. When levels of cortisol are chronically high, athletic performance and post-workout recovery can decline.

Elevated levels of cortisol are also associated with higher blood sugar levels, age, and sex (women typically have higher levels than men). [13, 14]

Tip to improve: ​ Focus on sleep quality. The body undergoes much more stress from poor sleep habits than you may realize. Adequate sleep (more than seven hours per night) is essential to helping your body recover.

5. Magnesium

Magnesium is a mineral that supports healthy blood pressure and blood sugar levels, strengthens the immune system, and assists in muscle contraction and relaxation. [15]

Adequate levels of magnesium in the body improve muscle strength and increase the time to muscle fatigue during short, intense bursts of exercise. Optimal magnesium levels are also associated with improved sleep quality, mood, and recovery from strenuous exercise.

Magnesium deficiencies are more common in older adults and are linked to oxidative stress. [16]

Tip to improve: Increase magnesium intake by eating foods like salmon, pumpkin seeds, and beans. A magnesium supplement may be warranted if a blood test identifies low levels.

The long game

Achieving peak performance and lasting longevity as an athlete depends on balance. It's about pushing your limits and nurturing your body's resilience, creating a perfect harmony between exertion and recovery.

In addition to personalized recommendations from InsideTracker’s blood biomarker analysis, the trinity of exercise, adequate rest, and nutrient-dense foods stands as the cornerstone of an athlete's enduring race.