The Runner’s Biological Clock: Age Grading

Barb Broad regularly logs world class age grade performances from the 800 meters to the marathon. Her motto? “Age slower than my competitors!”

Last week, Salty wrote a great post about how to define a PR.  This concept can become tricky when you’re an older athlete.  For some who started focused training later in life, many PRs may still lie ahead because you weren’t training or keeping track when you were younger.  However, if you ran competitively in your youth, you may never again be able to run the same absolute time over a given distance, regardless of how well your training is going.  If you are a runner in your 30s, 40s or beyond, especially if you are on the speedier side, you may frequently find yourself racing against open runners who might be many years younger than you, and thus have a distinct competitive advantage.  At times, this can feel disheartening.

Enter age grading!

In her book Mastering Running, running coach and Boston College professor Cathy Utzschneider provides an extremely comprehensive description of the physiologic changes runners undergo as a result of aging.  As pointed out by Coach Utzschneider, key things that decline in aging are cardiac output, ventilation, VO2max, bone density, muscle mass, briskness of metabolism and ability to recover from training.  All things that are incredibly important for achieving PRs and other good race results.  No wonder our times get slower as we age!  So in light of this, how might we still continue to go after achievements with our running?

Happy Midori at The Beach My photos that have ...
You can’t stop the birthdays from coming, but running really does keep you young. (Photo credit: D Sharon Pruitt)

Age grading takes into account your age and sex when evaluating your running performance at a given distance.  An organization called The World Association of Veteran Athletics collected data and created an algorithm by which your performance at a given distance is graded against the world record performance at that distance for your age and sex.  A calculator you can use to figure this out can be found here.  So you can see how you stack up against others your age, and you can also see how you compare, percentage-wise, to times your younger self ran over a given distance.  Even if your absolute times may not be decreasing, you may actually be running faster relative to your age grading than you did when you were younger – thus achievement of relative PRs is still possible!

Another interesting use for age grading is determining whether your times are locally (60%), regionally (70%) or nationally (80%) competitive, or whether you might even be world class (90%)!    Instead of setting an absolute time goal over a given distance, you might strive to jump from being locally to regionally competitive, for example.  This can also give you a realistic view of your chances for success in road races or track meets you might want to enter.

Have you used age grading to track your performance?  How do you stack up compared to your younger self?

Mom of three kiddos and a black lab, running enthusiast, sports-med-doctor-in-training. I love the science and sport of running and all things related.

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7 comments

  1. I started running 5 years ago, at age 40. So, near as I can tell, my fastest times are yet to come – I figure I’ve got at least another 5 years in me before I’ve built my base and am ready for sharpening. 🙂

    I find age grading to be a curiosity – fun to look at, but not worth much. (Except, of course, sometimes it actually IS worth something – for example, prize money at the USATF Masters Marathon Championship.)
    Do I care that my handicap makes me nationally competitive? No. Because I’m not actually competitive on the national level.

    What I think might be interesting is watching the evolution of women’s age grading.
    We’re at the point where women entering the masters ranks had the benefit of growing up after Title IX (enacted in 1972) had become fully integrated … in other words, the incoming class of masters runners is much more likely to be made up of lifelong athletes.

    The 40-49yo divisions are already super competitive – with many of these women crowding the kids off the open/overall podium.
    So, look out!

  2. I agree (nationally competitive results are awesome, Liz)! I really like this post because I’ve always been somewhat mystified by age grading. Maybe I should be happier/prouder that my age grading for my marathon PR in 2012 is 3:15!

  3. Thank you for this….I am just under local but this really gives me perspective as to what I am going to strive for. I have always run just because I love running and I know I can run faster!! 55 – still alive and running to save my life!k