A blog by runners. For runners.

At what age do distance runners peak?

at-what-age-do-runners-peakI’ve been distance running since I was 21 — 10 years ago. I’m a lot faster now than I was back then. In fact, since turning 30, I’ve PR’d in every distance I’ve run.

Unlike fine wine, athletes in few sports get better with age. Football players commonly retire in their early 30s because they can’t keep up with younger players.

But running seems to be different.

Whenever I look up my race results, I notice the runners in their 30s — the age group I’m in — usually run faster than those in younger age groups. Take Beijing Olympic women’s marathon winner, Romania’s Constantina Tomescu–Dita, who won the race at age 38 in 2008.

But experts say there is nothing magical about your 30s. Case in point: In the next Olympiad in London in 2012, 25-year old Tika Gelana of Ethiopia took home the women’s marathon gold.

Marathoners usually peak at later ages than sprinters, but experts theorize that’s because the marathon has a larger learning curve. Most runners don’t perform well in a marathon until they have a couple races under their belts. What’s more, most runners don’t move on to the marathon distance until later in their running careers. So, it may seem like those in their 30s are faster distance runners than those in their 20s, but it’s likely only because they’re more experienced.

How age affects running

However, there does come a point where again starts to negatively impact our running performance. Aerobic capacity declines with age, regardless of how fast you are. Maximum heart rate drops by about a beat per year (max heart rate is roughly 220 minus your age). This partly explains why Masters-aged athletes can’t compete with younger ones — older athletes can’t reach the same max heart rate.

We also lose muscle as we age. Beginning at age 30, men and women alike lose about 1 percent of muscle each year — about 3/4 pound. Fast-twitch muscle fibers (muscles that generate short spurts of strength and speed) seem to be hit harder than slow-twitch (muscles that twitch more slowly but can last a long time before they fatigue) muscle fibers. So, we lose speed before endurance. This explains why sprinters peak at earlier ages than distance runners.

Our ability to recover from training and racing also declines with age, and puts older runners at a disadvantage.

Are your best running days behind you?

For elite runners, research shows after age 35, endurance drops by 5 to 15 percent each decade. But for non-elites, the decline happens later and more slowly. So, it’s possible to run your best marathon at age 40 or older.

Keep in mind we all age differently, and plenty of other factors — including diet, weight, stress, and time constraints — impact running performance as much as age. Also, remember with age comes wisdom. Older, more experienced runners tend to be smarter about training and can tolerate pain better.

At what age did you run your best race? Do you believe your best running days are behind you?

Written by Jen Matz / Photo by Stuart Grout

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