How does age affect running performance?

  1. Go the Runner’s World Age Graded Calculator to see your running speed less your age handicap
  2. Smile 🙂
  3. Read on to see how your handicap was calculated

It starts with the World Masters Association’s extrapolation of World Record (WR) race times for runners of all ages, at distances from 5k to 200k. A subset of the WMA’s numbers look like this: 

Running Race Times by Age

As runners grow up and mature, they tend to get faster in all races, until they peak around 22 years old. Up to the age of 28 they stay at peak for the 5k and 10k, up to the age of 32 for the half marathon, and up to the age of 35 for the full marathon. Then runners get slower, the effect increasing with age, and dramatically slowing after 70.

Running Pace by Age

The difference between World Record paces for the 5k, 10k, half marathon and marathon stay surprisingly consistent across runners’ ages. 10k pace is, on average, 11 seconds per mile slower than 5k pace, from ages 18-60. Half marathon pace is 10 seconds per mile slower than 10k pace, and Marathon pace is 13 seconds slower than half marathon pace.

If you aren’t a world record holder expect your pace differences to be larger. If you run a two-hour half marathon, roughly double the WR time, expect your pace differences to also be double that of the WR holders, so your best marathon pace (if you’re well trained) might be about 26 seconds per mile (13 x 2) slower than your best half marathon pace, your half marathon pace about 20 seconds slower per mile than your 10k pace, and your 5k pace about 22k seconds per mile slower than your 5k pace.

To make the effect of age more obvious, instead of viewing the time to finish a race by age, let’s look at how much longer (or shorter) it takes to do various races with each passing year.

Running Race Times Change by Age

You can see how much faster, world-class, young runners can expect to get in a year. 5k times shrink by 29 seconds between ages 10 and 11, 13 seconds between ages 15 and 16, and 9 seconds between ages 18 and 19. Longer races quicken even more dramatically. Between ages 20 and 21, 5k times will decrease by only 5 seconds, but 10k times will decrease 11 seconds, half marathon times by 27 seconds and full marathon times by 61 seconds.

We see that runners reach their full potential at 22 years old. The performance spike at 22 may reflect the age that many ‘amateur’ athletes turn pro. I suspect the drop in marathon performance at age 35 reflects the decision of many pros to retire on this nice round birthday.

The steady, linear decline after the age of 35 is clear. From ages 39 to 67, 5k WR times increase 6-10 seconds a year, 10k times 13-20 seconds per year, half marathon times 29-47 seconds per year, and marathon times increase from 63-105 seconds per year.  Again if you’re twice as slow as the world record holders expect your times to increase twice as fast.

Finally it’s easiest to see what’s going on when we look at pace changes per mile per year for various races at various ages. Surprisingly our paces speed up nearly identically across all race distances as we mature, then equally consistently slow down as we age. World class runners speed up about 10 seconds per mile between the ages of 10 and 11, whatever the distance, 5 seconds per mile between the ages of 15 and 16, 2 seconds at 20, 1 second at 21, then stay at peak until 28 for the 5k and 10k, 32 for the half and 35 for the full marathon. Finally we begin to slow, roughly 2 second per mile per year until our mid forties, then 3 seconds per mile until about 65.

Running Pace Change by Age

Our charts plot the numbers in the WMA 2010 spreadsheet. This sheet extrapolates World Record (WR) times and speeds for running races from 5k to 200k, for men and women, from age five to one hundred. WMA stands for World Masters Athletics, the organization designated by the IAAF to run the worldwide sport of Masters (Veterans) Track and Field. These estimates are used to drive Age Grade, the WMA’s method of handicapping* runners by age and sex.

* Handicapping, in sport and games, is the practice of assigning advantage through scoring compensation or other advantage given to different contestants to equalize the chances of winning.