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Nov. 16 2009 - 8:24 am | 51 views | 0 recommendations | 6 comments

Aging racefully

Constantina Tomescu at World Championships 2005

Constantina Tomescu Dita - Image via Wikipedia

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


3 T/S Member Comments Called Out, 6 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    This is what I love about running… You can do it pretty much until the day you die, which is counter intuitive since the sport is pretty extreme. I hate when 70 year olds pass me, but then again I love it, haha.

    nice title

  2. collapse expand

    Hmm, January marks my 10th year of running. I wonder if I still have some peak performances left in me? I just turned 25, so I hope so!


  3. collapse expand

    There are so many top masters runners (40+) out there, inspiring others to not retire and sit on the couch. I love seeing women in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s strutting their stuff. It motivates me to keep going and gives me hope that I can keep running for the rest of my life. As you reach a new age group you’ve got another challenge, a new PR to set.
    Masters Running is cool.

  4. collapse expand

    I agree. I actually look forward to aging up, and I’m 56. Runners seem to have healthy attitudes toward aging because there are advantages to being older. I’ve been running for 30 years, and I set a 5k PR in July. Gotta love it! And consider this: triathletes have to race with their age written on the back of their calf. If that doesn’t force you to get over the age thing, what will?

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Running Shorts is a part of the True/Slant network specializing in Running News, Trends, Insights and Perspectives. This blog is maintained by Megan Kretz (megan [dot] kretz [at] gmail [dot] com) and Geoff Decker (geoffreydecker [at] gmail [dot] com). Email either us with tips, suggestions or feedback. And thanks for reading!

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