Is 40 the new 20 in running?

If you’re in your 30s or 40s now, in the world of running that might mean you’re getting old and slower. Right? Not necessarily. According to a 2014 study out of Sao Paulo, you may be just starting to hit your stride.

Study: Age and Ultramarathons

The study investigated age as it relates to the peak running speed for ultra-marathons between 50 and 3,100 miles, looking closely at the ages of the winning competitors and their speed in ultra-marathons between the years of 1971 to 2012. What was revealed is that the age of both the fastest male and female runners in the 50-mile races, year after year, was on average, 35. That was the standard age for women in 100-mile races as well, while the age for men in those races increased to 38 years. The fastest female racers in 1000-mile races each year were about 43 years old; men winning those races were about 48 years old. The fastest females in the 3,100-mile races were about 35, while the men were about 39.

The study researchers concluded that not only did the age of peak running speed seem to increase with race length, but the age of the fastest runners also increased with the race length.

What About Shorter Races?

According to a report from Runners Connect, there is in fact a slowdown in speed as runners aged. But is it as big as one would think? The report analyzed the results of numerous studies, and here is a breakdown of what they found:

Marathons: A 2004 study of runners of the New York City Marathon found a 1-1.4 percent slowdown per year for runners over the age of 40. This equates to roughly 4-6 seconds per mile per year.

15km: A 2010 study of 200,000 participants in a 15km race over a 12 year period revealed that runners only slowed down about .2 percent — one second per mile — per year after 40. Further, the study showed that while both men and women slow down in a linear way from 40-60, women maintain that linear slowdown after 60 while the men’s speed declines more rapidly after that age.

What Causes Age-Related Slowdown?

The Runners Connect report states that while oxygen uptake and heart rate increase with age, the efficiency of the run in older runners does not. However, older runners do exhibit a loss of muscle tone and flexibility, which is likely the reason for the slowdown.

Do You Have to Slow Down?

Can you combat the loss of muscle tone and flexibility with age? Yes. An article from Runner’s World states that one can fight the loss of flexibility, and range of motion, with stretching. This stretching needs to go beyond the standard that most runners already do, and should contain exercises such as jumping jacks, toe touches, and similar movements that get the blood flowing to connective tissues.

Unlike the static stretches performed after the run, these flexibility-increasing stretches should take place before the run. Additionally, the article notes, runners are known to keep their competitive edge through the regular use of a foam roller and massages. As for the loss of muscle tone — which, disappointingly, tends to impact the lower body first — Runner’s World suggest vigorous weight training at least two or three times a week.

Older runners should take extra care to allow for additional recovery time, as the additional exercise won’t help if one overdoes it and winds up injured. The key is to perform workouts that are just as hard, but to allow more recovery time between those workouts.

As a human, you’re aging. As a runner, you’re aging at a slower rate than those who do not run. If you’re willing to allow for a longer recovery time after workouts and you’re ready to put in the work to maintain your flexibility and combat the loss of muscle tone, there’s no reason why you can’t stay at the top of your game, like those ultra-marathon runners, for years to come.