The Ageing Runner – Part 1

When I began parkrunning I was in my thirties. I’d never been a serious runner but my Saturday morning endeavours motivated me to get training and as I began my forties I started recording Personal Bests at all distances. As I approached forty-five I ran my first sub-40 10K. I was getting better with age.

Now as I move into the VM50-54 category at parkrun, I still believe there’s more to come. This is not to say that age doesn’t see a decline in your capabilities, only that I never fulfilled my potential when I was younger.

I’ve never believed the limitations of the human body are as pronounced as other people like to believe and in this five-part series of posts I’ll detail how fast older runners, both men and women, can be as they go up through the age categories and over different distances. I think you’ll be surprised to find out it’s much more than you can imagine.

There’s no doubt a fifty-something runner is not going to be capable of the times they could have achieved in their twenties, but there is a belief that this decline is rapid. It’s generally agreed athletes peak at around twenty-seven but it can be a couple of years either side. Becoming a world class athlete takes a decade of development and while the body finishes its growth by eighteen years old, there are still maturation processes going on within the brain and hormones that continue into the twenties.

Here’s a question to ponder for a moment …

If an athlete’s peak is twenty-seven and they begin to decline after this, at what age are they achieving the same standards as when they were seventeen? For example, if your parkrun PB at seventeen was twenty minutes and you continued training for the rest of your life hitting a lifetime best of fifteen minutes at twenty-seven; what is the age when you will last be able to record twenty minutes again?

I’ll give you the answer at the end of the article.

Ageing in sport is one of those myths that is slowly being deconstructed. In most professional sports, athletes are usually finished in their mid-30s with just the occasional highly skilled technician or specialist (think golfers, goalkeepers or quarterbacks) making it into their forties. I recall watching the Barcelona Olympics where Linford Christie became the oldest sprinter ever to win the Olympic Gold at the advanced age of 32!

32-year-old Linford Christie becomes Olympic Champion

In recent years we’ve seen athletes extending their careers into their late thirties despite professional sport now being played at a higher level than it was. In tennis we see Roger Federer and Serena Williams still near the top as they close in on forty; while sprinter Justin Gatlin won the World Championship in 2017 at age 35 and is still running sub-10 second 100 metres. Eliud Kipchoge just won his second Olympic marathon at 36.

As you’d expect these elite athletes are gradually losing their ability to compete at the top of their sports. I often meet runners who, having given up for twenty years or, never run when they were young, believe that because they’re older, the faster times are going to be beyond them. Now while well-trained elite runners are never going to be as fast as when they were younger, for those of us who start late, didn’t train or got poor coaching there’s every chance we can be faster and fitter than we’ve ever been before.

Within this series of articles I’m going to give you the facts and figures about what runners over the age of thirty-five are achieving. While you won’t necessarily be able to match them, what it should give you is a realistic view of how slow the decline is and how quick it’s possible to stay running well into what most people consider old age. I want you to come away from this series feeling inspired about what is possible. Whether you decide to get the best out of yourself is your choice, but age is not going to be an excuse if you don’t!

  • In part 2 I’ll examine the Masters sprinters (100m / 200m / 400m)
  • In part 3 It’s the turn of the middle-distance runners (800m / Mile / 3,000m)
  • In part 4 We’ll look at the long distances (5,000m / 10,000m / Marathon)
  • In part 5 I’ll give a brief overview of what’s happening as the body ages and what you can do to delay the effects

Answer to the quiz questionthe old age equivalent of being seventeen is sixty-five years old. That’s right. Your physical maturity peaks at age twenty-seven but the decline is so gradual that over thirty years later you’re still capable of doing what you could at seventeen years old. This, of course, requires you to stay healthy and training.