26 Oct

Is 40 The New 20?

Great South Run top three

It might not have been as headline-grabbing at her medal-winning performances at the 2014 European Championships and Commonwealth Games, but Jo Pavey’s outing in Sunday’s Great South Run was no less remarkable.

Now 42 and well settled into motherhood, she finished second in 52mins 44secs along the Portsmouth sea front. It was a female over 40s world record for 10 miles and perhaps even more remarkably, a personal best. So, even though she is nearing 20 years at elite level, the Devon mum of two is still getting faster. 
The achievements of the down-to-earth Pavey are not only inspirational for the everyday runner, but they are also challenging conventional wisdom. For generations, athletes still running at international level aged 30 were considered veterans and past their peak. But Pavey – and others like American Deena Kastor, also 42 who clocked 2:27:47 at the Chicago Marathon – are provoking a re-think on the peak of endurance athleticism.
So, is 40 the new 20? A French study in 2011 revealed some interesting trends. It showed that 21 was the peak age for swimmers and 26 for runners, much in keeping with the wider perception. However, this took into account sprint and power events such as the 100m. 
It’s when analysis moves towards the long distance events - particularly for the marathon and beyond where the patterns become interesting. For marathon the peak rises to 31. A separate Swiss study also looked at Ironman and found that the peak for women was 36. A further study on ultra-running revealed 39 to be the average age of top 10 finishers for 100 mile races the world over.
So, the trends at elite level and among dedicated club athletes are following a similar trend. The age profile is rising all the time. In my own experience, it feels less remarkable at an event like a local 10k where an over 40 or two claim the major prizes. Indeed, it’s pretty commonplace. Can this also be attributed to younger people simply not training as hard as their elder counterparts? 
Maybe, but I’m not entirely convinced. I see 24-year-olds and 44-year-olds training shoulder by shoulder and racing shoulder by shoulder at my local club. The achievements at the very elite end by the likes of Jo Pavey – where every runner trains exceptionally hard shows it can’t simply be put down to who trains the hardest.
In 2004, people were amazed at Kelly Holmes winning double Olympic gold aged 34. It doesn’t seem quite as incredible now. How long until 50 becomes the new 20?