Elite road racers make running look effortless. While most of us appear to be in pain, their cadence and form belie any of that misery. But there’s good news, middle-of-the-pack runners, because we may have the last laugh: New research shows that while elite runners peak at age 35, the rest of us may not peak until we’re 50.
These are the results of a new study that examined 16 years of data from the Chicago, New York and Boston marathons. Researchers set out to determine the age at which both elite runners and recreational runners — or the average runner, defined as the median finisher within each age group — begin to slow. They found that the fastest marathoners for both men and women are in the 25-34 age group and that performance begins to decline for elite runners around age 35.
One finding surprised them: Recreational runners have much more in the tank at 35 and may continue improving until they’re 50. That’s many more years of personal bests than we probably thought we had in us.
But first, some bad news. Once we turn 35, our muscle mass, bone density and maximal aerobic capacity begin to decrease. This means our ability to maintain high-intensity exercise also begins to diminish. As we age, we tend to reduce the volume and intensity of training because of these factors. Or perhaps we never trained hard at all because it was too uncomfortable.
This new study offers hope for recreational runners who are running to finish instead of racing for time. Continuing the full-tank analogy, we are each given one tank of gas. That tank empties slowly in our 20s and 30s, but once we hit 35, it starts emptying at a faster rate. The goal is to slow that emptying. Elite runners, because of the intensity and duration of their training, will probably empty their tank faster.
But recreational runners don’t empty their tank as quickly. Gerald Zavorsky, associate professor in the Department of Respiratory Therapy at Georgia State University and one of the authors of the study, says that these runners have more gas because they’ve never pushed themselves like elite runners. “The average runners might push themselves much later in life even though their physical peak has passed,” says Zavorsky. “Because they never pushed themselves when they were younger, they can hold themselves longer.”
James Smoliga, associate professor of physiology in the Department of Physical Therapy at High Point University and another co-author of the study, is similarly optimistic about the recreational runner. The median runner in the 25-to-34-year-old group in their study ran about a four-hour marathon. Smoliga says that “the median runner, if healthy, is physiologically capable of running a lot faster. Many people in this group could likely run three hours or less, but they don’t, simply due to lack of training.”
What it comes down to is that many recreational runners don’t train as intensely as they should. The reason? Intense training is hard. There’s an element of suffering, which is why Smoliga says that “it’s easier to maintain suboptimal performance year after year than it is to maintain peak performance.” But a 35-year-old who starts intense training tomorrow will perform better than ever for the next 10 years because she’s never pushed her physiological limits. For example, she might be genetically capable of running a 3:30 marathon, but her fitness level might allow her only to run a 5:00. In 10 years, while her genetic capability may diminish to allow her to run only a 4:00, increased training may get her close to her maximum, maybe to a 4:05.
“Age is no excuse,” says Smoliga. “If a 40-year-old says he’s slower than a 25-year-old, I’m not sure that counts anymore. Our bodies are capable of performing at a high level later in life than we think.” Life gets in the way, of course: Families and careers make training more difficult as we age. But life doesn’t have to get in the way so soon.
Of course, 40-year-olds can’t train like 25-year-olds. They have to train smarter. Many people stop improving because they train the same way for years. “Many recreational runners keep doing the same thing,” Smoliga says. “If anything, they just make their long runs longer, or they increase the distance of their daily runs. If somebody is already capable of running 26.2 miles at a relatively slow pace, more running at the same pace won’t help them run faster.”
Speed work through interval training is an easy way to get faster by improving aerobic capacity. But speed work means oxygen debt — which means discomfort. Zavorsky recommends interval training twice a week to maintain capacity, workouts like mile repeats at your half-marathon pace or half-mile repeats at your five-mile-race pace. Smoliga says that “even running five miles hard can benefit a marathon runner. Or a 10-mile run with a few hard surges thrown in will achieve both endurance training and some speed training.”
A critical part of any training program is recovery after those workouts. But recovery doesn’t mean relaxing. Rachel Miller, a physical therapist and certified running coach at ProAction Physical Therapy in Rockville, Md., recommends giving your body more recovery time through active rest. This involves incorporating other types of exercise into your routine so your legs stay fresh.
“You don’t have to train less, but you have to train smarter. Have a purpose to each of your runs,” says Miller. Active rest might mean walking, swimming or easy spinning. “Recovery is underrated, and rest time becomes more important as we age. Running on fatigued legs invites injury.”
Recovery actually trains your body to tolerate longer and faster runs. And if you’re new to speed work, Miller suggests finding a running group or a partner.
“Misery loves company,” she says. So if you’re going to suffer, at least suffer collectively.
Opipari is a former track coach and founder of Persuasive Matters, a legal-writing consulting company. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.