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%).

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