Fauja Singh was the oldest person to run a marathon when he completed the Toronto race in just over eight hours. Singh is exceptional, but he is not the only one. People compete in athletic events well into their 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Scientists have new clues to how they do it. The cells of these individuals produce more than 800 different types of proteins. The cell's power comes from the mitochondria, a group of cells.

Some effects of physical activity have already been noticed. People who exercise for 30 minutes a day are more likely to produce more mitochondria than sedentary people.

Russell Hepple, a muscle biologist at the University of Florida, did some unusual field research to figure out what these proteins were doing in active seniors. Hepple's wife's father holds the record for fastest finish for an older person at the Boston Marathon. At his father-in-law's track meets, Hepple and his family handed out fliers to racers as they came across the finish line, hoping to recruit them for a study.

He and his colleagues reached out to senior world-record holders and eventually recruited 15 of them. Half competed in sprint events, half competed in endurance races, and several were best in the world for their age categories.

The volunteers were given a battery of tests to measure their balance, walking speed, and oxygen use. The vastus lateralis muscle, which stretches down the outside of the thigh, was taken for a small biopsy. For comparison, they did the same with 14 nonathletes.

Next, the researchers used a technique called liquid chromatography to remove the proteins from the muscle samples, and another method called mass spectrometry to identify them. The athletes and nonathletes produced different amounts of the same proteins. The majority of them were related to the mitochondria, which is involved in cellular respiration and boosting the number of mitochondria in cells.

Many of these were produced at higher levels. The athlete's muscle cells made less of a cellular structure called the spliceosome, which helps buffer a typical cell from some effects of aging. The proof that their cells aren't aging like the rest of us is what the study shows, says Luigi Ferrucci, a geriatrician at the National Institute on Aging.

The team found that most of the proteins they identified were used in athletes of any age. The team reported this month in eLife that the unique nature of the mitochondria could be the reason for the athletes' late-in-life athletic prowess. They probably have a lucky combination of genes.

Mark Tarnopolsky was not involved in the research, but he said that the study shows how athletes maintain their health as they get older.

Now that the scientists have a list of the proteins, they can study them in animal models. He says the hope is to someday develop therapeutic treatments to combat muscle decline.

Senior athletes are as close to a fountain of youth as you can get.