“Female long distance runners are like wine, they get better with time”

Elite Runners at Start of Rock n Roll Half Marathon - Miami Beach (2011)

With my big 30th Birthday coming up tomorrow…I thought it was appropriate to write a blog post on running and aging and how they actually do go together. And it’s what gives me hope as I continue to train and compete. I mean there has to be something to look forward to, right? So here it is:

According to experts, female long distance runners typically peak in their late 20s and early 30s. See exhibit A:

  • At the 2008 NYC marathon there were 41 elite women. There average age was 33, Two thirds were 30 or older and nearly a half were 35 and older. Some of the famous names were Paula Radcliffe 34, the eventful winner, Gete Wami 33 and Catherine Ndereba 36, the fourth place finisher.
  • And it is not just NYC marathon, just look at this list of 2008 marathon winners;
    • 2008 Beijing Olympic marathon- Constantina Tomescu of Romania, 38 Years young.
    • 2008 Berlin Marathon – Irina Mikitenko,  36 years young.
    • 2008 Chicago marathon – Lidiya Grigoryeva, 34 years young.
  • Most recently, the 2012 Marathon Olympic Trials in Houston, TX results:
    • First Place: Shalane Flanagan (age 30)
    • Second: Desiree Davila (age 28)
    • Third: Kara Goucher (age 33) — also a mom

I’ve also heard that women often peak post child birth. The questions then become: Are women peaking in these longer distances because of age or because we typically are not competing in such long distance races (as the half and full marathons) until post college and therefore are naturally older? And are they improving post child birth because of some endorphin released in to the system, because we can handle pain better, or just because women are often having babies around this age? Well, I went out on a search for these answers and more and learned some in the process.

According to RunningTips101.com expert resource Coach Rick Rothman, “Most of the time, endurance athletes peak ten years after they begin.” (This would make sense as many of us start freshman year of high school, which would put you at 14 or 15 years old.) He adds: “Many times, women tend to start running later in life (not always). But, there are many factors; it’s too much of a generalization to say women peak in there 30’s.”

According to Physiology of Sport & Exercise, 2nd Edition: “In general, maximal muscle strength peaks between the ages of 25 and 35. Beyond that age range, the ability to lift weight declines at a steady rate of about 1.8% per year. Of course, as with other measurements of human performance, individual strength varies considerably.” This strength peak has to correlate to running.

Another outlet explained the following: “The physical peak for most humans, in most sports, is between 25 and 35 years of age; during this peak period, the well-conditioned athlete can create a confluence of muscular strength, peak cardiovascular and oxygen transport, speed and reaction time, and mental capabilities (including the ability to deal with competitive pressures), all bound together by a desire to succeed.” I like that answer – and can 100% relate to it. As an athlete, discipline and maturity make training and competing much easier. The emotional baggage that I feel kept me from “peaking” in my high school and college years, I personally feel has since disipated. To the point that I often look back wishing I could tell myself to relax, not worry so much, and just go out there and run. I can recall Coach Rothman telling me that before a big cross country race my senior year of high school. He said “Go out there and just run, have fun.” He had a few jokes in there that I’ll leave out for now!

More interesting insight that I found from Advameg, Inc.: “For sports in which strength (both muscular strength and bone density), oxygen uptake, and cardiovascular efficiency are vital to success, the aging process may be slowed, though never halted or reversed. Since 1950, the average age of world champion distance runners in the 3-mi (5,000 m) races through to the 26-mi marathons (42.2 km) ranges between 28 and 32 years of age. From this peak of ability, runners will continue to perform at levels close to their personal best into their late 30s and early 40s; performance then declines at a rate of approximately 2% per year through age 80. Swimming, which like running places a premium on cardiovascular strength, shows a similar regression from best performance times as an athlete ages. The success of female swimmers at early ages (there have been numerous Olympic gold medals and world records set by female swimmers under the age of 20) is related to both the earlier physical maturation of female athletes, as well as the physical dynamics of the female swimmer in the water; the progressive decline in the performance of female swimmers due to age is similar to that of male swimmers. Consistent with these physiological constants, the oldest gold medalist in the history of all Olympic track and field events was Patrick McDonald, an American hammer thrower, who won the 1920 competition at age 42. The oldest Olympic track champion in the 1,500-m race was 31-year-old Albert Hill of Kenya, in 1988. Female competitors have the added variables of prospective pregnancy and child-rearing, which will remove the athlete from intense training and competition for an often-significant period. Childbirth may also change the physical shape of a female athlete, particularly in a widening of the pelvis, which may impact subsequent athletic performance.”

Which of course brings us to childbirth. Does it help or hurt female runners? As I noted earlier, third place 2012 USA Marathon Trials finisher Kara Goucher has a new baby. A great article in Time Out Chicago Kids touched on this subject:

“Research shows that there may be physiological benefits to having kids, from a tapering effect that allows chronic injuries to heal up during pregnancy to a surge in the hormone relaxin—which loosens pelvic and cervical joints for delivery, and hangs around the body after childbirth, possibly making a woman’s gait longer, smoother and more efficient. Also, pregnancy increases your blood volume, says Jim Pivarnik, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University who has studied pregnant athletes. As blood volume rises, so does red blood cell count, improving a woman’s efficiency at utilizing oxygen—which means running faster at the same effort. The problem is that all of these effects are hard to measure. (Obviously, researchers aren’t thrilled with the idea of turning preggos into lab rats.) Pivarnik estimates that any residual blood-volume benefit has diminished by about eight weeks postpartum. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a woman—even at the elite level—who’d race that soon after having a child. When it comes down to it, labor may make the most difference. Enduring hours of contractions and delivery—and sometimes C-section recovery to boot—may raise women’s pain threshold. Lincoln Square resident Jessi Merecki, a 38-year-old mom of two, says slashing 92 minutes off her pre-kiddos marathon best was due to “a combination of mental toughness from being a parent and physical toughness from childbirth.” She’s on to something, according to Pivarnik. “I would hypothesize that if being a mom is any help [to running], most of it would be mental,” he says. “Active moms may find that they’re more efficient and focused in training because they have so much more on their plates. It’s like that Yogi Berra saying, ‘90 percent of this is half mental.’ ” Read the full article here.

Post 30? Does the improvement continue?
According to RunningForFitness.org, “From the 30s onwards, a number of physical changes take place in the average person’s body.  Aerobic capacity decreases, muscle mass reduces, muscle elasticity reduces, lung elasticity declines, bone density reduces, the metabolism slows, body fat increases and the immune system becomes weaker. These changes will have an adverse impact on running performance. The fall in aerobic capacity, reduced stride length, reduced leg strength, and reduced ability to store energy all contribute to deterioration in performance.  In general, it is thought that running speeds over any distance deteriorate by about 1% a year from a peak at some point in the 30s; and we appear to lose aerobic capacity at about 9-10% a decade.”

Now of course that doesn’t mean older individuals can’t run…we’ve all seen the skinny, old guy in the bun huggers at the local 5K and 10K races and he seems to be doing alright. It just means that we shouldn’t expect to see many 50, 60, 70 year old marathon winners. Or better yet, expect it from ourselves. However, at age 30 there is still plenty of time for me (I hope)…and I believe I’m just hitting my 30-year-old peak marathon stride!

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