Age Related changes in 5K Participation Rates: Implications for Age-Grading

Have you ever noticed how few older individuals participate in 5K races? Have you noticed how many races don’t even have separate age groups for the oldest individuals?  Typically these races might advertise five year age groups which cut off abruptly at 60 years of age, e.g.:

“. . . . . . 25-29, 30-34, 35-39, 40-44, 45-49, 50-54, 55-59, and 60+”

Why would this be? In terms of athletic ability and running speed, the difference between a 70 year old and a 60 year old is much greater than the difference between a 50 year old and a 40 year old.  Why then should a 70 year old have to compete head-to-head with a 60 year old, whereas a 50 year old is shielded from having to go head-to-head with a 40 year old?

The answer, of course, is that race directors have learned from long experience that, especially for smaller races, the older age groups will frequently have few or no participants. So even If metals were acquired for these older age groups, many would never be awarded and hence just discarded anyway.

The graph below (using a log scale) illustrates the dramatic decline in participation rates among older 5K athletes. Starting at about age 40, both male and female participation rates commence an accelerating decline that continues until, by the late eighties, almost no one is either able or willing to compete. [Note that mortality among older individuals is not a factor in the graph since the rates for each year of age are expressed as finishers per one thousand living individuals of that age.]graph participation rates log scale 2

This graph was compiled by combining data from three sources:

The graph shows that for every one thousand females in the U.S. population aged thirty years, there were approximately 64 finishers per year. However, for every one thousand females aged seventy-five, there were only 2 finishers per year.  What happened to the “missing” 62 finishers among these older females? Certainly various diseases and other ailments are much more common among the older group; and injuries are more frequent and take longer to heal.

Many, or even all, of the missing 62 older females might not have the endurance to travel the three plus miles required to finish a race. They might also be too slow to complete a 5K within the requisite 60 to 90 minutes. Or they might incur pain or health risks if they did finish a race.  In some sense, the 2 older individuals that were still able to complete a 5K are comparable to the 2 fastest finishers among the 64 younger participants.  This begs the question:  “What role should participation rates be given in evaluating the performances of older athletes?”

Among females in the graph, the highest participation rate is well over 200 times the lowest participation rate. Among males the ratio of the highest to the lowest participation rate is over 40. These massive differences in participation rates suggest that participation must be considered in any age grading system that claims to compare the relative performance of individuals of widely differing ages.



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