Endurance Athletes Peak Later Than You Think

In endurance sports, youth isn’t an advantage

Not everyone who runs, cycles or swims does so for the sake of performance, but even the least competitive person is bound to be just a little curious: When will I peak? Or have I already?

Common sense would seem to dictate that athleticism belongs to the young—say, early- to mid-twenties—and if you look at overall averages, you’d be right.

A landmark French study from 2011 looked at the best performances over the previous three decades by over 2,000 top male and female runners and swimmers in 25 Olympic-distance events. (The study also examined grandmaster chess players, but I’ll conveniently ignore that.) In keeping with the conventional wisdom, swimmers peaked at age 21 and runners at 26.

It’s when we look at the higher end of the endurance spectrum that things get interesting.

When we take the marathon as our shortest distance, the age of peak performance jumps: In the French study, males peaked, on average, when they were 31. A different 2011 study out of Marquette University put men’s peak marathon age at 29 and women’s at 30 based on results from the World Marathon Majors.

As the level of endurance increases, so does the age of peak performance.

A 2012 Swiss study of over 19,000 competitors in the Ironman Switzerland (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, 26-mile run) found that average age of these elite athletes was 30 to 36 for men and 30 to 38 for women. Men peaked at 31 and women at 36.

Now let’s add some “ultras” into the mix: The same Swiss team also compared the age-performance curve for males competing in Triple Iron (7-mile swim, 335-mile bike ride, 79-mile run) and Deca Iron (24-mile swim, 1,100-plus-mile bike ride, 262-mile run) ultra-triathlons. The average age of the finishers—since merely finishing these events is performance enough!—was 38 for the Triple and 41 for the Deca.

Okay, now we’re squarely in middle age, and it gets weirder:  Although the best performances for both ultra-races came in the 35-44 age range, performances in cycling and swimming were essentially the same from age 25 to 54 in the Deca. That’s a three-decade span of peak performance, enough to include both father and son—at least until they get to the last leg of the race.

If we look at ultra-running by itself we find a similar result. A new study by our Swiss team published in the Brazilian journal Clinics examines the results of every single 100-mile race from 1998 to 2011—827 races with over 36,000 finishers.

The average age of top-ten finishers was 39 for women and 37 for men. In fact, the number of people running these races is rising exponentially—thanks to the increasing participation by older athletes and women. The average age of participation during this period was nearly 45, and up to 70 percent of people who finished these grueling races were over 40.

This finding leads to a rather stunning conclusion:

“The fastest 100-mile ultra-marathoners are master athletes,” the authors write. “The definition that master runners are [older than] 35 years must be called into question, especially for ultra-marathoners.”

So for readers past thirty, here’s some inspiration: Your prime may be yet to come.