Peak Performance Part 2: At What Age Do We Run the Fastest?

At what age does 5K performance peak? To address this question and as a continuation of a two part series, I look in more depth at the dataset previously reported in Racing Among the Ages.  This dataset consisted of records of more than a million 5K finishers from almost 1300 races all across the United States.

The graphs and table presented here are based on “percentiles”. Most people are somewhat familiar with the concept of percentiles since percentiles are used in many standardized academic achievement tests.  Basically, as used here, the percentile tells an individual what percentage of same age peers are slower.  For example, if a 35 year old  female is at the 60th percentile, this means that 60% of other 35 year old females are slower than she is; and 40% are faster.  For a person at the 50th percentile, half of his or her same age peers are faster and half are slower.  Thus the 50th percentile is the median performance.

The graphs show the speed in miles per hour for 5K participants in the 50th, 90th, 99th, and 99.9th percentile.  For the years ’96, ’00, ’04, ’08, and ’12, the average age and speed of Olympic medalists (5000m) is also plotted.  The age at peak performance is shown for each of the four selected percentiles by small black triangles.

Age at peak performance GRAPH females

Age at peak performance GRAPH males

Athletes in the 99.9th percentile are very elite and most likely would be considered world class.  Athletes in the 9oth percentile are faster than 9 out of 10 of their peers and certainly should be considered very good athletes.

Consequently, the graphs suggest the following conclusion for both male and female 5K participants: Average and even very good athletes peak in their late teens, but elite, world class, and Olympic athletes peak at around twenty-five years of age.

Details are shown in the table below.

Age at peak performance TABLE

*Age shown for community runners is the average of the whole year age plus 0.5 years. (e.g. someone listing their age as 16 in a community 5K race is between exactly 16 years and 16 years plus 364 days.  Thus the average age of all 16 year olds is 16.5 years)
*The age of the Olympians is based on the difference between their date of birth and the date of the Olympic competition.
**Average of Gold, Silver, and Bronze Medalists for '96, '00, '04, '08, and ‘12 games

Peak Performance Part 1: Do We Run Faster at 17 or at 25?

At what age does athletic performance peak? As a first cut at this question, one might ask “who can run faster in a 5K race, a 17 year old or a 25 year old?”

When I have asked friends and relatives this second question, the opinions are split about evenly between the 17 year old and the 25 year old. However, a number of articles and studies of world class athletes, Olympians, and world record holders have uniformly concluded that for events requiring physical exertion comparable to the 5K, the age of peak performance occurs in the mid-twenties.  For example:

For Athletes Peak Performance, Age is Everything, in Wired

Athletes and age of peak performance, by Axon Sports

Peak Performance and Age Among Superathletes, in The Journal of Gerontology

So are my friends who think a 17 year old is faster than a 25 year old just uninformed? The answer appears to be “it depends”.  The dataset reported in Racing Among The Ages allows us to explore this question in more depth.  In this large dataset of 5K finishers, there are approximately 7,600 seventeen year old males and 9,000 twenty-five year old males.  Among females the numbers of seventeen and twenty-five year olds are approximately 7600 and 15300, respectively.

For males, the median 5K time for 17 year olds was 23:57, whereas the median time for 25 year olds was considerably greater at 26:38. As Table 1 shows, almost 40% of 17 year olds can run a 5K in under 22 minutes, but only 20% of 25 year olds can run this fast.  Clearly, among typical male 5K participants, the 17 year olds are much faster than 25 year olds.

5K Participants Achieving Selected Time Thresholds

Although less dramatic, females show a similar pattern.   The median time for 17 year old females is 30:49 whereas the median for 25 year olds is over a minute slower at 31:52.  5.4% of 17 year old females can beat 22 minutes, but only 2.7% of 25 year olds can beat this mark.

So how can we reconcile this observed superiority of seventeen year old athletes with the almost universal finding that world class athletes peak in their mid-twenties?

The answer is hinted at in Table 1. If we look at the very fastest athletes, e.g. males completing a 5K in less than 16 minutes, we see that the numbers are reversed from what is seen with more typical athletes. For example, among this elite group, the older athletes are much better represented (1.4%) than are the younger athletes (0.3%).