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.

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References

1. Celie, F.; Faes, M.; Hopman, M.; Stalenhoef, A. F. H.; Olde Rikkert, M. G. M., Running on age in a 15-km road run: minor influence of age on performance. European Review of Aging and Physical Activity 2010, 7, 43-47.
2. Jokl, P.; Sethi, P. M.; Cooper, A. J., Master's performanec in the New York City Marathon 1983-1999. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2004, 38, 408-412.
3. Bird, S. R.; Theakston, S. C.; Owen, A.; Nevill, A. M., Characteristics associated with 10-km running performance among a group of highly trained male endurance runners age 21-63 years. Journal of Aging and Physical Activity 2003, 11, 333-350.
4. Quinn, T. J.; Manley, M. J.; Aziz, J.; Padham, J. L., Aging and factors related to running economy. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2011, 25 (11), 2971-2979.

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29 Responses on “How much does age affect running performance – is it all downhill after 40?

  1. Great news for those of us over 40! Even better is the advice on what areas to focus on, thanks for a very informative article.

    • I am glad you enjoyed the article, Kris! We really try to focus not just on the science, but how you can implement what the research suggests. It’s not always as clear-cut as this, but always something to think about. Good luck with your training!

    • I realize that I am a little behind in this discussion, but I just found it. I am 64 and I have been running for over 35 years. I noticed a huge reduction in my ability to sustain my normal run of 6 miles every other day in my late 50’s. At 64 I can no longer run 5 miles without stopping occasionally and walking. My recovery time is huge as well. I used to sprint through 6 miles, now I feel like I have lead feet doing just 5 every other day. No comparison to when I was in my 40’s.
      Its an heavy emotional blow to experience this loss as well. I begin to question why I continue to run. Its very discouraging. I don’t care what this survey says about mice, or humans.

      • Hi Ray, little as I like to affirm somewhat unhappy comments, I tend to believe you are correct. While there are plenty of examples of persons who run quite well into their late 50’s, they are not the norm. Most of us – including those of us who continue to run seriously – find that we are dropping off rather rapidly after hitting mid 40’s. The numbers I see in age-graded calcultors are 2.5 seconds per mile per year. But the reality seems to be closer to twice that amount.

      • It’s great to hear about folk of all ages still out there. In regard to times and ages I can say that it hit me in late 40’s. I never was much good. Despite years of training and being a grad in sports science I never could break 40 min for the 10 k’s. Genes are a big part.

        In my ex sic class there were 2 blokes that would win all the fun runs and only trained in the bar drinking beer. On VO 2 max tests they showed high readings – relatively untrained. Thats genetics.

        I keep running but at 51 I’m slow. The only thing I can add is if you find yourself stopping during the distance your going too quick, Build your runs and pace yourself so stopping doesn’t need to happen.

  2. Hey, I get in a whole new age bracket in less than two months and will leave those pesky fast kids in my current age bracket under 60 behind. I’m loving it. I can’t think of anything better than getting old, although many years ago I would have thought it would seriously suck.

    We live in a time where diabetes and obesity is seriously epidemic, so there’s not much better than trying to be a role model for your friends and peers than someone as old as them who goes out and hits it hard almost every day, even with all the congestion and chaos we face at work and home. I absolutely love to race, but if I can get a close overweight friend thru a first 5K this summer that would be as good as PRing the whole rest of the year (which I intend to do anyway)

    • Love the attitude, Michael!

      I totally agree with the mindset of being able to help others through your running. If we could all inspire just a few people to pick up running as much as we do, the US would be a much healthier place to live. While it’s slightly different, seeing the joy someone gets when they hit a PR is just as good as when I ran my best.

  3. Yes thanks for the article, as a 53 year old runner, I was very interested to understand more about how aging effects my running. But at the end of the day, my focus each day is on what I can do to stay healthy and run my best. At 53 this past year, I ran within one minute of my marathon PR which I set at age 39. I’m getting ready to break my PR and 3 hours next month in Boston. I am so glad that I didn’t let being 53 keep me from chasing my desire to break 3 hours, which I feel that I’m ready to do. This past year has been amazing, I ran a 3:04 and 3:01, my 2nd and 3rd best marathon times of my life and I have ran since high school. I’m running with so much strength and confidence and I thank Coach Jeff for helping me get to this point. Each day I complete a really tough workout and all my parts are still in working order I appreciate it. As long as there’s one Ed Whitlock out there breaking boundries, I can ask why not me? As they say you know you’re over the hill when your mind makes a promise that your body can’t fill. I’ll let you know which side of the hill I’m on April 16.

    • Awesome comment, Dannis. That’s one of the first things I remember when you contacted me. I saw the potential and I was really excited to help you change your perspective on what was possible at your age. To me, that shift in mindset about what is possible and impossible is what makes running truly great. Whether you’re a 53 year-old runner wondering if you can break a 14 year-old PR or a new runner wondering if running 13 miles is even possible, it’s an awesome experience when you accomplish goals you weren’t sure were possible.

      Boston is going to go great, you’ve put in the work!

  4. I just started working with Nate, and stumbled across this note. I fall into that third control group and have found similar age/impact progression. My question is when should an athlete work on strength training within the context of a weekly training cycle? Consider Monday/Friday runs are generally relaxed, Tuesday/Thurs runs are tempo/track day, Wednesday medium long, etc. what two to three days would a one hourish weight session best fit? Consider hill sprints are part of the schedule, what would a session look like? I’m thinking a session of bench press, military press, dips, curls, fly, lumberjacks, then squats, lunge, ham curl, leg curl, adductor, abductor press, then planks and bridges. Thoughts?

    • That’s a great question, Erik. There are two schools of thought when it comes to incorporating strength work into the schedule: (1) hard days hard and easy days easy; and (2) balancing workload.

      Personally, I believe in the hard days hard theory, which simply means that your weight training should be done on the hard days of training so that you can maximize recovery on the easy days. Given your schedule, I would include the strength training Tues and Thur AFTER your workout and perhaps on Saturday and Sunday.

      As for a specific routine, we’re actually developing a series of routines now, but my suggestion for general strength would be something like:

      Lat pull downs
      Upright rows
      Shoulder shrugs
      Shoulder lateral raises
      Triceps overhead
      Dips
      arm action running
      Single leg squats
      Box step ups
      Hip flexor cable/machine
      Pawback hamstring
      Calf raises
      Leg raises

      This obviously doesn’t include core work, which I think is more beneficial. Personally, I would do one day of general strength as described above and two days of this core routine:

      Prone
      Side/lateral holds
      Supine
      Prone knee bent
      Hip thrusts
      Donkey kicks
      Fire hydrant
      Hurdles
      Low back extensions
      Opposite arm/leg
      Double eagles

      I hope that helps!

  5. At 55 I set my pr at the Disney Marathon…3:02:11, placing 1st in age and 77 over all….It can be done…As in the other runners comment, the gym and its diversity paid off…I also ran a race, 5, 10 15k and a couple of halfs on the average of about every 3 weeks for six months prior to the marathon…the gym gave me strength I never had to this degree, and the races every couple of weeks or so gave me constant tempo push I could never get on my own…in 2010 I broke my previous Boston pr by 5 minutes………..Lots of miles left here………..

  6. The World Masters Athletics Association (WMA) recently lowered the masters age from 40 to 35.
    Is there any evidence that Road runners generally runner slower after age 35.
    I see many road runner running personal bests between 35 and 39.
    The road running Community in general still recognize the masters age as 40 and not 35.
    I see world road race records being broken by runners between 35 & 39 but do not see this in Track.

    • Everyone is different .. but the World Master at least hit ME dead on. 35 years old was precisely where I had a big dip in performance. The other big dips (so far -i’m 47) happened @ 42 and @ 44.

  7. I can confirm that it is not all downhill after 40 for everyone. In fact some people get a lot better well after 40. Some people age much more slowly. In regards to aging there was a study done in recent years where mice were made to age quickly. One set of mice ran on a wheel for 50 minutes three times a week and another set did not. The mice did that did not run showed all the signs of aging, both inside and out. The mice that did run showed little signs of aging. Whether or not this applies to humans I can not say for sure but if I had to guess I would say it does to a great extent.

  8. Wow. I’m really inspired by the posts here! I’ve been a recreational runner for years and just started to race two years ago. I finished my first half, the route 66 marathon, in 20 degree weather (I hate the cold) in 2:24 at age 46. May not sound like much to you speedier folks but, I was shooting for 2:30. Might have gone a little faster if asthma hadn’t made me struggle through the last two miles. Was wondering if I could speed up a little and when I read your posts I think definitely. Thanks for the inspiration I’m going to set a new goal for my spring training!

  9. This is great. Being 33 now, I know what I need to do to remain competitive in the coming years and that my speed is on borrowed time. The focus on aspect was most helpful! Thanks!

  10. Ran the Corporate Challenge 1/2 Marathon this morning in a time of 1:39.2 at 73 years of age and very happy with that run. My concern is that I would like to improve on that but how much training should I be doing at my age and what should it consist of. I am 6′ tall and 65 kg so there is nothing much of me. Have been running most of my life

  11. I read a study from a few years ago that showed that mice who ran 50 minutes a day, three times per week on wheel showed no signs of typical aging where the mice that did not run were grey and frail. I think this may very well carry over, at least to some degree, to humans

  12. I have been running since 1977, and I get a little slower every year, but, at almost 60 years old, I still logged 550 miles for last year. A few years ago I stopped running, because my dog running buddy got too old to run. Then I had to build it all up again from zero. I doubted that I could do it, but I did and you can too. Be nice to your tendons and rest a little more, but keep a slow and steady program. If you have a tired day, cut yourself a little slack. Everybody has different goals, but you can work toward them at any age. Keep running!

  13. I am a 60 year-old jogger, who does the best he can. I have had various injuries and surgeries, as well as breaking both arms awhile back, with the right one still not healed properly. In addition, shoulder and back problems requiring cortisone shots, arthritis, etc. I jog about 6 miles anywhere from once to 3 times a week. But I can only go very slowly the first two miles, and even then am not fast. The other day somebody said to “have a nice walk” and that was dispiriting. But I guess if you call “run” only fast running, then steady jogging between 4-6 mph is closer to a “walk” although frankly I still think of it as running because I’ll do repetitions during the jog when I do 50 & 100 yard dashes at a fast clip, etc. What I don’t understand is the sneering at jogging steadily–I would like to see how the person who made that “have a nice walk” comment would do with the same surgical problems and injuries. But whereas there is a lot of talk about it being better to do something than nothing, in fact there is a lot of nastiness out there too when one tries to do it.

    • Hi Alan, thanks for sharing your thoughts, sorry to hear about the frustrations of others being rude. It is great that you do not let this bother you, as long as you are getting out there and doing something, you are lapping many people who do not get off the couch! Keep leading the way with your actions, and let us know if we can help. We know older runners are an inspiration. You should check out some of our podcasts, you would probably enjoy them, especially this one with Margaret Webb: http://runnersconnect.net/running-interviews/margaret-webb/

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