The Aging Athlete (8) – Which Leaves First … Speed or Endurance?

We are all familiar with that perennial verbal chestnut … which came first, the chicken or the egg?

In track terms, for most of us, that translates into “As I age, which do I lose first … my speed or my endurance?”

We know, of course, that both decline over time. But do they exit with the same timing? And at the same rate? A running friend of mine speculated that we lose our speed first. After all, most of us can think of elites in the distance events (particularly the Marathon) who continued well best their prime. But sprinters are harder to identify. There are a few. Justin Gatlin, Kim Collins, Dwaine Chambers, Linford Christie come to mind. And Merlene Ottey for the Women. But based upon my own experience, I wasn’t so sure.

To try and come up with some answers, let’s see what the data show. Let’s start first with the Roosters … Men, speed vs endurance as we age.

For this bit of analytical work, I have taken average Men’s “best” performances from from 2013-2016 in the 100m (to represent “speed”), and the 5000m (to represent “endurance”).

(For those who are new to this blog and site, and/or would like a “refresher/reminder” click here to see where the data comes from and how it is calculated.)

To try and derive some answers, here is what I have done. I have taken the average 100m “best” time for M35 and used that as a “base”. Then I have indexed each age-group’s average time to M35. This gives us the % slower at each age-group than we were when we were M35s (on average). I did the same with the 5000m. See the chart graphing the trend.

Click M_Ch_Egg to blow the chart up to full size.

What the chart shows is that in the early years Men’s performance decline per 5-years is extremely similar, speed vs endurance. Until we hit M55. At that point,things begin to get clearer. The race is over for endurance! From there on, we seem to lose more endurance than speed, and that decline versus speed accelerates particularly so as we hit M70. By M75, while we have “lost” 39% of our speed, our endurance is down by over 57%.

What about the elites? Is it the same for them, too?

The table below gives us some answers. I’ve also done the same analysis for the World Records. Here I should note, the M35 WRs are exceptional … probably even more than the “usual” outliers. The M35 100m WR is Justin Gatlin’s 9.92 set at the IAFF World Championships in 2017 (when Justin beat Usain Bolt). The M35 5000m WR is Bernard Legat’s 12:53.60 set at a Diamond League meet in Monaco in 2011, when he finished inches behind Mo Farah and set an American record. Comparing all later age-groups against these outstanding performances is a trifle “iffy” … but then, of course, that is essentially what age grading does. But the data shows that the “elites” … the World Record, the 90th* percentile (the top 10% of Masters in the World), and the 75th* percentile (top 25% of Masters) experience a greater decline in endurance over speed beginning at M45- M50 and growing in discrepancy from there on.

[table id=8 /]

The answer then? It’s simple. For the average man and even the elites, we lose more endurance first. And proportionately more later too.

In the next post we will examine Women’s speed versus their endurance.

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  • * It is important to realize that when I refer to “90th and 75th percentiles” these are statistical reference points and do not necessarily refer to actual performances or averages of actual performances.