How much does age affect running performance – is it all downhill after 40?
The last twelve months have not been kind for Haile Gebrselassie. The 38-year-old Ethiopian, hailed by many as the greatest long-distance runner of all time, had to drop out of the Berlin marathon because of an asthma attack, saw two of his world records smashed by a young Kenyan rival, and has not posted a mark to qualify for Ethiopia’s Olympic team.
Many people are questioning whether Father Time has caught up with the man they call “The Emperor.” This sentiment is probably familiar to any runner who’s approaching or has already passed 40—is it all downhill from here?
Rather than provide you anecdotal evidence or make guesses at the effect age has on running performance, we’re going to examine what the concrete scientific literature has to say about aging runners.
The Science of aging in runners
First we have to take a look at how bad the aging-related slowdown really is. As “bad” as Haile Gebrselassie’s year is, he still ran a 2:08 marathon in February. So, what does the science say about the predicted slowdown for you:
Slowdown for each year over 40
The first study we’re examining is a 2010 survey by Celie et al. of nearly 200,000 participants in a 15km (~9mi) road race over a period of twelve years.1 With such a large number of participants, the authors were able to make some statistically powerful predictions. Probably the best news is that for each year over 40, the runners in this study slowed by only 0.2%. That’s about one second per mile per year.
There’s more good news if you’re a woman: As runners age, the gap between men and women shrinks significantly. By age 60, women have made up five of the ~15% difference in performance that separates the genders at age 40. While both genders slow at roughly a linear rate from 40 to 60, men’s performance decreases more sharply afterwards, while women continue on a roughly linear track.
The study also parsed runners into “trained” and “untrained” categories, presumably from something like a survey question on the race’s registration form. As you might expect, trained runners were almost 16% faster than untrained ones. If you’ve got a keen eye for math, you’ll realize there’s more good news for women: a trained woman should be able to edge out an untrained man!
Average finishing times by age group at the New York City Marathon
The slowdown found in the previous study is somewhat more moderate than that found in an earlier study of average finishing times by age group at the New York City Marathon. This study, published in 2004 by Jokl et al.,2 found a progressively greater slowdown over the 26.2-mile distance starting at age 40.
Runners over 40 slowed by 1-1.4% per year (4-6 seconds per mile per year for your average three-hour marathoner), a less encouraging result than that of Celie et al.
The reason for the discrepancy between these two studies is not clear: is it because aging impedes performance in the 42-km marathon more so than a shorter 15km race? Or were changes in finishing times due to a higher proportion of slower, untrained runners competing in the NYC Marathon? Jokl et al. admit that outliers may have affected their data analysis, since the number of very slow times (7-8 hours) has increased over the past few decades. We’ll need to look at smaller, more detailed studies for more answers on aging.
Slowdown for well-trained, highly competitive runners
What about highly trained runners? Does their performance decline any more than your average recreational road runner? A 2003 study by Stephen Bird et al.3 examined the effects of aging on male runners who had recently recorded a 10-km time between 31 and 40min, normalizing their relative performances to the best-ever time by an American of their age. The researchers then led the subjects through a battery of physiological tests to determine how aging changed their physical fitness.
Ten-kilometer race performance decreased at a rate of about 0.5% per year, or a tad under two seconds per mile per year—a bit higher than the decrease we saw in the Dutch road runners in the first study, but better than the NYC Marathon study.
On the upside, there’s more good news for everybody: many of the physiological markers that decrease with age, like maximum heart rate, muscular strength, and oxygen uptake, decreased significantly more slowly in these highly trained runners than they do in the general population. What’s more, while oxygen uptake and heart rate decreased with age, running economy—a measure of how efficient you are—hardly decreases at all!
So, what’s to blame for the drop in performance with age? And can anything be done about it?
A study published in November of last year by Timothy Quinn and his colleagues4 attempted to more rigorously demonstrate how the various physiological parameters that change with age (and those that do not) affect running performance. This might give us some hints on how to ameliorate the effects of aging.
Quinn et al. sought out runners who had finished in the top three places in their age group at large local road races; these subjects then underwent a comprehensive set of physiological tests. The findings were in good agreement with Bird et al.: older runners tend to lose their ability to take in oxygen but experience little or no decrease in their running economy. What’s more, the older runners in this study exhibited lower muscular strength, flexibility, and power.
What you can do to help prevent slowing down with age
Statistical analysis has shown that much of the decrease in race performance with age can be explained by decreases in oxygen uptake, upper and lower body strength, flexibility, and muscular (explosive) power. Therefore, this is where you should target your training as you approach your career as a masters runner: working on oxygen uptake in interval workouts, muscular strength and power with weights and strength exercises, and flexibility with stretching.
We’ve seen that some decrease in performance is probably inevitable with increasing age. But the drop in race times is much slower than you might think: about 1-2 seconds per mile per year for medium-distance races (10-15km) and 4-6 seconds per mile per year in the marathon.
While maximum heart rate, oxygen uptake, strength, power, and flexibility tend to decrease with age, training will slow the rate of decline, and running economy will be maintained even into your sixties! Improvements in running economy tend to come from high volume training. Given that running economy doesn’t change much in your later years, it makes sense to shift your focus from racking up big mileage as a younger runner to getting in (and recovering from!) high-quality workouts and ancillary training sessions as a masters runner. And incorporating more weight lifting and stretching into your routine will guard against the effects of aging on your muscles.
On top of that, it might make sense for marathoners to shake things up a bit by doing shorter races like 5-milers, 10ks, or more arbitrary distances like 7 miles, 10 miles, or 15km—studies show you might “age” slower at 10-15km than you do in the marathon. Finally, take heart that all runners tend to age slower, biologically speaking, than their sedentary counterparts.