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How much will I slow down in my late 30s?

February 26th, 2011

While I’m clearing out my mailbag… I got a question from a 800-metre runner in his mid 30s asking about how quickly he should expect his (and his competitors’) times to decline. It’s an interesting question that can be approached in a number of different ways — age-group records, which obviously depend on outliers; population-level cross-sectional studies; individual longitudinal studies — and all give different answers.

I cover this in a fair amount of detail in my book, but a couple brief points: numerous studies over the past three decades have found that cross-sectional declines tend to be steeper than longitudinal declines. That makes sense: the cross-sectional data gets weaker and weaker as you get to higher ages because there are more injuries and fewer people interested. (The latter factor is interesting in its own right: there’s evidence, albeit in mice, that the “impulse to exercise” declines with age. So it’s not just that people get busy or bored with competition, they may also have less intrinsic drive to compete.) Anyway, the point is: if you remain healthy and continue training at the same relative intensity (big “ifs” in both cases), you should expect to be able to beat the “average” decline represented by data like age-graded tables.

Speaking of which, here’s some data. The WMA age-graded table expect that you don’t start slowing down at all until you hit 35. At that point, the decline until your 40 appears to be linear. For comparison, I’ve plotted the times put up by the inimitable Johnny “Twilight Zone” Gray:

Gray was obviously a one-of-a-kind performer in many respects. The question is: was he a freak because he was still capable of running 1:45 as a 39-year-old? Or was he a freak because he was still interesting and willing to train at the level required to run 1:45 when he was 39? How many other 1:42 guys could have done the same if they’d tried? We don’t really know the answer to these questions, but the general feeling among researchers that I’ve spoken with is that the fundamental physical decline is much less steep than we previously believed. It’s more about training and motivation (and, of course, injuries).

  1. February 27th, 2011 at 14:17 | #1

    Couldn’t agree more with your last sentence. Here is an interesting study on aging and running performance: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21151416

  2. alex
    February 27th, 2011 at 22:16 | #2

    @Jennifer Gatz
    Wow, that’s a cool study — thanks for the link! I look forward to reading it more detail. Looks like something that might merit a separate blog entry… Your website looks great, by the way.

  3. chris weber
    February 28th, 2011 at 14:53 | #3

    Hey, that could apply even in my teens (i.e. the cross-sectional)…there were some (4-5) people who were better runners than me in high school but they all lost interest and dropped out.

  4. alex
    February 28th, 2011 at 21:42 | #4

    Ha! Good point, Chris — it’s probably a pretty good general lesson for life, come to think of it. Only in very rare cases are the limits we encounter truly outside our control.

    As a random aside, was it you who used to have that Browning quote as your e-mail signature… must have been more than a decade ago:

    Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
    Or what’s a heaven for?

    I always loved that.

  1. March 6th, 2011 at 15:11 | #1