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