Do older athletes reach limits in their performance during marathon running?
Study by Romuald Lepers and Thomas Cattagni
In the last decades, the participation of elderly trained people in endurance events such as marathon running has dramatically increased. Previous studies suggested that the performance of master runners (> 40 yrs) during marathon running has improved. The aims of the study were : (i) to analyze the changes in participation and performance trends of master marathon runners between 1980 and 2009 and, ii) to compare the gender differences in performance as a function of age across the years.
Running times of the best male and female runners between 20 and 79 yrs of age who competed in the New-York City marathon were analyzed. Gender differences in performance times were analysed for the top 10 male and female runners between 20 and 65 yrs of age. The participation of master runners increased during the 1980–2009 period, to a greater extent for females compared to males. During that period, running times of master runners significantly (P <0.01) decreased for males older than 64 yrs and for females older than 44 yrs, respectively. Gender differences in running times decreased over the last 3 decades but remained relatively stable across the ages during the last decade. These data suggest that male (≥ 65 yrs) and female (≥ 45 yrs) master runners have probably not yet reached their limits in marathon performance. The relative stability of gender differences in marathon running times across the different age groups over the last decade also suggests that age-related declines in physiological function do not differ between male and female marathoners.
Although longevity continues to increase, some lifestyle risks might have a sufficiently large impact on mortality to halt the present upward trends in life expectancy. The lifestyle risks found in most of the populations of the world’s most affluent countries are cigarette smoking, obesity, an unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, alcohol consumption and general sedentary behavior (Harper and Howse 2008). It has been shown that regular physical activity can reduce the risk of all causes of mortality and increase life expectancy (Williams 1997, Williams 2009a). Despite the benefits of exercise, the percentage of a populations physical inactivity increases with advancing age and according to the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, approximately one-third of persons aged 65 or older lead a sedentary lifestyle (https://aspe.hhs.gov/health/reports/physicalactivity/).
The aging process in humans is characterized by significant decreases in physiological functions, but numerous studies have demonstrated that continued exercising such as running late into life, attenuates sarcopenia and is beneficial for cardiovascular health (Trappe 2007 ; Faulkner et al. 2008 ). Careful studies of people who age successfully from a physical performance standpoint may elucidate methods and mechanisms that doctors can apply to all patients to develop a more uniform healthcare approach. Older (or Masters) endurance athletes represent an ideal model to determine successful aging due to their usual participation in high intensity exercise (Hawkins et al. 2003). They are a positive example of exceptional aging and are a rich source of insight into a person’s ability to maintain peak physical performance and physiological function with advancing age (Tanaka and Seals 2008). For example, it has been shown that prevalence of hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, and diabetes decreases with the frequency of marathon participation independent of annual running distance. This may be due to the inclusion of longer training runs in preparation for marathons or to genetic or other innate differences between marathon and nonmarathon runners (Williams 2009b).
Since the early 1980’s, participation in distance running events such as marathon has skyrocketed with hundreds of marathons world-wide and several events having more than 40,000 participants (Burfoot 2007). The marathon has become a world-wide social and fitness phenomenon, and therefore represents an interesting model to analyze the participation and performances trends of athletes across the ages over a long period of time.
To the best of our knowledge, few studies have focused on the participation and performance trends of masters athletes at the marathon distance since the early 1980’s (Jokl et al. 2004 , Leyk et al. 2009). Jokl et al. (2004) showed that participation in the New York City (NYC) Marathon over the 1983–1999 period increased at a higher rate in athletes above 50 years old than in younger athletes, for both men and women. In addition, over the same 1983–1999 period, the best male and female athletes older than 50 improved their running times at a greater rate than the younger athletes, whose performance levels have plateaued. However, the changes in participation and performance of elderly athletes at the NYC marathon this last decade (i.e. from 2000 to 2009) have not been yet investigated, and it is not known whether master’s athletes still improved their marathon performance or whether they have reached their limits.
Gender differences in running have been well investigated for elite athletes (Pate and O’Neil 2007; Sparkling et al. 1998; Baker and Tang 2010; Hunter et al. 2011). However, there is paucity of data related to the combined interaction of age and gender on running performance (Leyk et al. 2007; Ransdell et al. 2009). Knowing that the physiological (e.g. muscle strength, oxygen carrying capacity) and morphological (e.g. percentage of body fat, muscle mass) functional characteristics change with advancing age, gender differences in endurance running performance may also change with advancing age. For example, some studies have suggested that elderly females may lose muscle mass more rapidly than do their male counterparts (Phillips et al. 1993; Samson et al. 2000); but it is not a general finding. An increase in 10-km running time with advancing age has been found to be greater in females compared to males (Tanaka and Seals 2003). Jokl et al. (2004) found that the time improvement were substantially greater for older female athletes compared to their male counterparts at the NYC marathon over the 1983–1999 period. These findings suggest that gender differences in marathon running performances for master’s athletes may have decreased during last 3 decades. However, the possibility of an increased gender difference in endurance running with advanced age needs to be examined.
To date, no data exist regarding the participation and performance trends in marathon running for master athletes in the first decade of the new century. Accordingly, the first purpose of this large cross-sectional study was to expand the existing data from Jokl et al. (2004) by examining the changes in participation and performance of masters athletes at the NYC marathon over the last 30 years (from 1980 to 2009). A secondary purpose was to analyze the gender differences in running performance as a function of age across the same 1980–2009 period.
Approval for the project was obtained from the Burgundy University Committee on Human Research. This study involved the analysis of publicly available data so content was waived. Age and time performance data for all runners completing the NYC marathon from 1980 to 2009 were obtained through the NYC marathon web site: https://www.ingnycmarathon.org/ . Although there is no consensus in the literature about the definition of a masters athlete, we defined masters athletes in the present study as those equal to or older than 40 yrs. For male and female athletes younger than 40 yrs, we considered two age groups of 10 years: 20–29 yrs, 30–39 yrs. To focus more on changes in participation and performance in masters athletes, we considered age groups of 5 years for males and females older than 40, as follows: 40–44 yrs, 45–49 yrs, 50–54 yrs, 55–59 yrs, 60–64 yrs, 65–69, 70–74 yrs, and 75–79 yrs. The small participation of athletes older than 65 yrs, especially for females, during the first decade studied (1980–1989), with sometimes less than 20 finishers per age group, justified the necessity to consider only the top 10 finishers. Averaged running time performances of the top 10 finishers of each age group for both females and males were analyzed from 1980 to 2009. If there were less than 10 finishers in an age group, the data were not considered. The magnitude of gender differences was examined by calculating the percent difference for running times between the top 10 males versus females of each age group. In order to simplify the analysis over the 30 years studied period (1980–2009), we pooled data into three decades: 1980–89, 1990–99 and 2000–09.
Two-way ANOVAs (age group x decade) with repeated measures on decade were used to compare percent of finishers and running times between the decades across ages, for both males and females. Two-way ANOVAs (age group x decade) with repeated measures on decade were also used to compare gender differences in running times between the decades across ages. Tukey’s post hoc analyses were used to test differences within the ANOVAs when appropriate. A significance level of P < 0.05 was used to identify statistical significance. Results Participation of masters athletes Table 1 shows that the number of total finishers increased by 65% between decade 1980–89 and decade 1990–99 and by only 25% between decade 1990–99 and decade 2000–09. The number of finishers increased more for females than for males: 145% vs. 49% between 1980–89 and 1990–99 and 68% vs. 11% between 1990–99 and 2000–09. The ratio of male and female finishers decreased over the three decades, and was equal to 5.1, 3.1 and 2.1, respectively. The relative increase of finishers was greater for the masters athletes > 40 yrs than for younger athletes for both males and females, and was greater for female masters athletes than for the males (Table 1 ). The distribution of finishers per age group over the three decades studied is shown in Fig. 1 . Over the three decades, the percent of finishers younger than 40 yrs significantly decreased (P < 0.05), while the percent of masters finishers significantly increased (P < 0.05), for both males and females. Over the 3 decades 1980–89, 1990–99 and 2000–09, male masters athletes represented 36%, 45% and 53% of total male finishers, respectively; while female masters athletes represented 24%, 34% and 40% of total female finishers, respectively.
Age and marathon performance
The mean finish times for the top 10 of each male and female age group over the three studied decades are shown in Fig. 2 . For males, ANOVA revealed that mean finish times did not change over the three decades for age groups < 60–64 yrs. In contrast, running times significantly decreased (P < 0.01) over the three decades for age groups ≥ 60–64 yr. For example, average running times of males within the 65–69 yrs age range significantly decreased (P < 0.01) by ~8 min (3.7%) between 1980–89 and 1990–99, and by ~7 min (3.2%) between 1990–99 and 2000–09. Average running time of males within the 70–74 yrs age range significantly decreased (P < 0.01) by ~13 min (4.9%) between 1980–89 and 1990–99, and by ~4 min (1.6%) between 1990–99 and 2000–09. For females, mean finish times did not change over the three decades for age groups < 45–49 yrs, except the time of the 30–39 yrs group that was lower in 2000–09 decade compared to previous decades. Female running times significantly decreased (P <0.01) over the three decades for age groups ≥ 45–49 yr. For example, average running time of females within the 55–59 yrs age range significantly decreased (P < 0.01) by ~33 min (14.5%) between 1980–89 and 1990–99, and by ~8 min (3.5%) between 1990–99 and 2000–09. Average running times of females within the 60–64 yrs age range significantly decreased (P < 0.01) by ~16 min (6.8%) between 1990–99 and 2000–09.
Gender differences in running times with age
Independently of age, gender differences in running times were significantly (P < 0.001) lower for decade 2000–2009 compared to both previous decades 1980–89 and 1990–99. Mean gender differences in running times were equal to 28.4 ± 10.3 %, 25.8 ± 6.9%, and 19.7 ± 4.2 % for decades 1980–1989, 1990–1999, and 2000–2009, respectively. There was a significant age group x decade interaction for gender differences in performance times (F = 8.7; P < 0.001), (Fig. 3 ). Gender differences at age groups > 45–49 yrs decreased over the three decades. During decade 1980–89, gender differences were significantly (P<0.01) greater for age groups 55–59 yrs and 60–64 yrs compared to all younger age groups comprised between 20–29 yrs and 50–54 yrs. Interestingly, gender differences did not differ across the ages for the last two decades 1990–99 and 2000–09.
The main findings of the present study were first that the participation of masters athletes at the NYC Marathon increased during the 1980–2009 period, but to a greater extent for females than for males. Second, during that period, running times of masters runners has significantly decreased for males older than 64 yrs and for females older than 44 yrs, respectively. Third, gender differences in running time decreased over the last 3 decades but remained relatively stable across the different ages during the last decade.
Although it lacked some data about physiological (e.g. aerobic capacity) and anthropometric (e.g. body weight, lean body mass) parameters, as well as training volume (Knechtle et al. 2009 ) and environmental conditions of the race (Vihma 2010 ), the present study has provided valuable data concerning masters athletes performances at the marathon distance during the last 30 years. Indeed, masters athletes represent an ideal model to determine successful aging due to their sustained participation in exercise. While numerous research has been conducted describing the age-related declines in aerobic capacity (Harper and Howse 2008 ), the influence of chronic exercise on physiological capacity has been less investigated. The approach that consists of examining the changes in endurance performance with age in highly trained and competitive athletes represents an effective experimental model because changes observed with advancing age are thought to be mainly the results of primary (physiological) aging (Tanaka and Seals 2008 ). It is likely that the athletes finishing in the top 10 of their age group in a competitive event such the NYC Marathon, performed to their maximal physical capacity.
Increase in participation of master athletes
The number of male and female finishers increased over the last three decades. It should be mentioned over the years, the race organisation has imposed limits to the number of entries accepted and this entry cap has increased over the years. However, if the field size limits to the NYC marathon would alter the number of allowable finishers, it would probably not change the relative proportions of males/females and ages. Based on extrapolation, Jokl et al. (2004) suggested that the male/female ratio of participation would approach 1 in 2007. Our findings did not confirm that assumption. Indeed, the relative participation of females at the NYC Marathon increased over the last 30 years (from ~17% of the total field for the 1980–89 period to ~33% for the 2000–09 period), but remained lower than participation of the males.
The growth of female and masters age groups in worldwide marathon racing has been particularly startling over the last 30 years ( Burfoot 2007 ). Present data confirm previous observations as the total participation of master runners at the NYC Marathon has increased during the last three decades and to a greater extent for female than for males. Throughout the 2000–09 decade, masters runners represented more than 50% of male finishers and 40% of female finishers, respectively. In addition, the relative proportion of masters runners in the total field has also increased for both males and females over the last three decades while those of runners younger than 40 yrs of age decreased during the same period. Similarly, Jokl et al. (2004) found that the number of participants at the NYC Marathon (older than 50 yrs of age) increased at a greater rate than their younger counterparts during the 1983–1999 period. The reasons for such an increase in participation of masters runners especially in the female field are not clear but may be related to sociological phenomena. Increases in life expectancy and good health combined with a better consideration by older people of the positive effects of physical activity upon health with advancing age, i.e. “better aging” may explain this finding (Lee & Tanaka 1997 ). However, among the masters category, the distinction between people who started training in running late in life (i.e. after 40 yrs age) and people who used to had participated in running younger age is not known. The exponential increase in participation of masters athletes especially in the female field in sporting events such as a marathon running should lead to a re-evaluation of the aging process and how it relates to athletic performance.
Performances of masters athletes
Accordingly, the present results show that the running performance times of men within the 40–64 yrs age range have plateaued during the last two decades, while running times decreased for males older than 65 yrs. Several reasons may explain the improved performance of males older than 65 yrs over these 20 years, such as a greater participation of the older age groups, which would increase the probability of finding better runners in these age groups, increase training facilities for older people, and increase the competitive spirit in these older groups. In addition, if masters athletes performed at such a high-level for so long, it is reasonable to expect that those destined to maintain that intensity could do so because they remained largely injury-free (Knobloch et al. 2008 ). In contrary, the relative stability of running performances for males within the 40–64 yrs age range, suggest that this category of “young’ men masters athletes has nowadays approached the limits of their marathon performance.
In contrast to males, the running performance times of female masters athletes decreased during the last two decades for all age groups except for the 40–44 yrs one. These results suggested that the youngest female master runners have already reached their limits in performance during marathon. Improvements of masters running performance have been much greater for females than for males as it has already been observed by Jokl et al. (2004) . For example, female running times with the 60–64 yrs age range decreased by ~7% over the last two decades, while it remained stable for their male counterparts. These data suggest that females older than 50 yrs may still improve their marathon performance in the future as the new generation of well-trained young female athletes will move into the older age group competitions. In addition to better performances for older female athletes, an increase of density such the top 10 spreads of each age group may also be expected in the future.
Gender difference in running time
The gender gap between male and female world best marathon performances has narrowed during the last 30 years. In 1980, the world record for males was 2:08:34 and for females 2:25:41, corresponding to a differential of 13.3%. The current world marathon record is 2:15:25 for females and 2:03:59 for males (Joyner et al. 2011 ), corresponding to a gender gap of 9.2%. The present results showed that independently of age, the gender differences in running performance times decreased over the last three decades, suggesting that females have reduced the gap to males. During the last decade, gender differences in running times ranged from ~12 % for the 30–40 yrs age group to ~26 % for the 65–69 yrs age group. This finding corroborates the results of Hunter et al. (2011) and Randsell et al. (2009) who examined gender differences in elite and age group runners over several marathons. During the decade 1980–89, the difference between males and females in their performance times increased significantly with advancing age from 55 yrs up to ~40%. However, since the 1990 –99 decade differences between female and male running times decreased for older age groups, therefore gender differences did not significantly differ across the age. Recently, Lepers & Maffiuletti (2011) have shown that during the 2006–2008 period gender differences in an ultraendurance event (Ironman triathlon) performance times increased with advancing age from 55 yrs. Ironman triathlon is a newer endurance event (the first even held in 1982) with less participants (~ 2000), compared to NYC Marathon (Lepers 2008 ), and that maybe explain why gender differences across the age in Ironman triathlon are currently similar with to those that were observed for NYC Marathon 30 yrs ago.
The relative stability of gender differences in marathon running times across the ages observed during the last decade suggests that the age-related declines in physiological function did not differ between males and females. Age-related changes in the physiological determinants of endurance performance (e.g. maximal oxygen uptake, lactate threshold, and running economy) between males and females have not received considerable attention. For example, Holloszy and Kohrt (1995) suggested that the relative rates of decline in maximal oxygen consumption with age are similar between the sexes. However, further investigations are required in order to analyse the age-related declines in other physiological parameters such lactate threshold and running economy in males and females.
The participation of masters runners at the NYC Marathon increased over the last 30 yrs and it will probably still grow in the future in the New-York and other marathons worldwide. Interestingly, the last two decades the master runner’s performances have plateaued within the 40–64 yrs age range for males, but only within the 40–44 yrs range for females. The present data suggest that male (≥ 65 yrs) and female (≥ 45 yrs) master runners have probably not yet reached their limits in marathon performances. The relative stability of gender differences in marathon running times across the age these last decades also suggests that the age-related declines in physiological functions did not differ between males and females. Literature on the masters athletes improvements in performance has already and, should still stimulate further research on the understanding of age related physiological changes and the potential slowing of some of the aging processes through athletic training. Further investigations are required in order to analyse participation and performance trends of masters athletes for other sporting endurance events such as swimming, cycling or triathlon, to see if present findings on NYC Marathon are similar for other endurance events.
The authors would like to extend his gratitude to Paul Stapley (Mc Gill University, Montreal, Canada) for helpful suggestions concerning the manuscript.
The authors have non conflict of interests to report.
None funding has been received for this work from NIH, Wellcome Trust, HHMI or others.
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