There is a truly comforting feature that running offers its newbies, especially for those looking for a little more activity in their retirement sport than that offered by golf. And for some reason, it’s hardly ever talked about.
Runner and author Joan Ullyot says it best: “No matter what your age when you start running, you can expect about 10 years of improvement. That’s how long it takes to learn the game.”
No matter what your age. 20, 50, it doesn’t make a difference. Middle agers with the itch to do a marathon or half but wondering if you’re too old to start training, you have your answer. Consider some statistics from 2007, the most recent available on marathonguide.com — in that year, the average age for marathon finishers in the United States was 38.9 years. The age groups with the best average times? For men, the 40 to 44 group was the fastest. Even the 45 to 49 group outpaced the 20 to 24 group by almost three minutes! For women, 35 to 39 was the fastest age group. And they were just seven seconds behind the 40 to 44 year-olds.
So what is it about running that makes it the exception to the younger-equals-stronger rule? What exactly are we learning over those 10 years of improvement?
A recent Runner’s World article sheds little light on the issue. There’s no question that physically, the body declines after the mid-20’s or early 30’s, at the latest. Those quoted in the article tend to believe that it really is learning that helps us run faster as we age. Learning what we’re capable of, learning what training and nutrition strategies work for us, learning to listen to our bodies to avoid injury and to decide how best to manage a 26.2-mile race.
I find this explanation extremely unsatisfying. I know that when I run now, I feel entirely different than I did in my first few years of running. My “easy” pace is much faster, my breathing is much easier, muscle soreness and injury woes are nothing compared to what they used to be. It feels like a different sport than it did then.
Granted, my body is probably not quite in the “decline” phase yet, but those improvements aren’t just the result of being at my peak age, physically. And if my improvements are mental, then they’re certainly not conscious. Yes, I’m better at managing my training and avoiding injury than I used to be, but that’s not it.
I believe that the bulk of learning, as it relates to running, is subconscious. As we run and cross-train, our brains learn to do these activities as efficiently as possible. When I go out and do six easy miles on a trail I’ve run a hundred times before, there can’t be much physical improvement happening. But I like to think that with every step, I’m learning what works and what doesn’t, quite literally finding the most economical way to put one foot in front of the other. And when I train on new terrain, do speedwork, or cross-train, new neural pathways are created to give the neuromuscular system more choices. It’s all about options. Repeat for 10 years, and you’ve got a pretty strong runner relative to the starting point, and regardless of age.
This year’s NYC Marathon winner was 34. Not old, but not young either, when you think about the physical feat a marathon winner must perform. And Constantina Tomescu Dita won the women’s marathon gold medal in the Beijing Olympics at age 38.
It takes 10 years to learn the game. What are you waiting for?
By Matt Frazier