Consider this: Most pro basketball and football players retire in their 30s, most tennis players hang up their racquets in their 20s, and nearly all gymnasts and figure skaters transition into “where-are-they-now?” status shortly after puberty. In all these sports, athletes peak in their mid-twenties and quickly decline thereafter.
Running (and other endurance sports) may be an exception to this.
As cited in "Born To Run", Professor Dennis M. Bramble, a running expert from the University of Utah, poses a question that I find intriguing:
“We monitored the results of the 2004 New York City Marathon and compared finishing times by age. What we found is that starting at age nineteen, runners get faster every year until they hit their peak at twenty-seven. After twenty-seven, they start to decline. So here’s the question—how old are you when you’re back to running the same speed you did at nineteen?”
The answer he came up with is surprising: 64. The decline in performance over forty-five years is so gradual that the sixty-four-year-old crowd can still compete with the nineteen-year-olds.
My own experience substantiates this. Over the weekend I ran a 10K road race here in Asheville, where about 675 people showed up. The majority of the best runners were over the age of 30, with plenty of top finishers in their forties and fifties. The winner- 33 years old. Average age of the Top 10 Finishers- 36. Two of the Top 10 Finishers were over the age of 50, and despite plenty of entrants in their twenties, only two finished in the Top 25.
You may be familiar with a runner by the name of George Sheehan who wrote the bestseller “Running and Being.” Dr. Sheehan, a physician, took up distance running at the age of 45 and went on to great acclaim with his regular submissions to the magazine "Runner’s World". He was also pretty fast. He was the first person over the age of 50 to log a sub-five minute mile (4:47) and competed in countless marathons. He was able to keep up his competitive 10K race pace until he was in his mid-sixties. His key to success?: run, run, run.
This brings me to my point. Your heart, lungs, and muscles are built to sustain amazing stretches of aerobic activity from childhood all the way into old age. The problem is that we allow ourselves to slide into sedentary living somewhere in the third decade. From that point on our muscles fall into disuse and our joints deteriorate under the added weight of fat; our vertebral disks suffer from lack of postural muscle tone; and our heart and lungs reward our physical complacency with poor performance.
Your body was made to move—your heart wants to beat hard, your legs want to burn under the stress of exercise—and if you manage to keep moving throughout your life you will find that your slide into old age will be a far shallower slope.
I plan to keep these thoughts in mind as I drag myself through the Trial of Miles, the Miles of Trials that are my marathon preparation. I may very well post my 5th personal record in the marathon (in as many tries) in April. I plan to beat a few nineteen-year-olds while I’m at it.