In most sports, youth helps. The adage was that if an older person can do it better than a younger person, it isn't a sport.
But the lines of performance are lot more blurry today and youth is not a barometer. Lots of high school students can jump right to the NBA, and the first round draft pick in the NFL college draft is likely to be starting the next summer, but baseball drafts aren't big media events because no one drafted is likely to get called up for a few years. Baseball takes more practice.
And when it comes to marathons, old people really blow the sports curve. They even turn it into a U-shape; a 55- or 60-year-old runner will often finish in the same time as an 18-year-old.
The 26.2 mile race is now called a marathon because the Greek Phidippides died after running from Marathon to Athens to warn the city about a new invasion force that landed nearby. Don't think you are superior to him because you can manage that jog - he had also just run to Sparta and back (280 miles) and fought all morning in heavy armor before making his fatal trip in three hours.
Since its Olympics re-introduction in 1908, there have been numerous scientific studies conducted on endurance runners. Most concluded that performance in long-distance races decreases progressively from the age of 25 onwards, as we expect from most sports.
But that is not telling an accurate story, say researchers from Camilo José Cela University in Madrid, who instead find that the relationship between the amount of time a race takes and the runner's age is not increasing and linear throughout adulthood, but rather forms a U graph.
They made their conclusion after compiling a database with the times of more than 45,000 runners who took part in the New York marathon in 2010 and 2011. "This information included the top ten runners in both the male and female categories between the ages of 18 and 75," Juan Del Coso Garrigós, scientist from the Madrid university and main author of the study, explained to SINC.
The results demonstrated that in men, the best times were achieved at 27 years old, while the age for the best running performance in women was 29. Before this age, athletes' marathon times were 4% slower for every year under this age in both men and women. Afterwards, athletes increased their race times at a rate of 2% per year in both sexes.
"While the rate at which performance drops is moderate until the age of 55, from then on the drop becomes sharper in both male and female runners," Del Coso stated.
An unusual U
This relationship between physical performance in a marathon and age reveals the unusual fact that it takes an 18-year-old athlete a similar amount of time to finish a marathon as a 55- or 60-year-old runner.
Lastly, the study found a certain contrast between the sexes. "The difference in the amount of time it takes men and women to finish a marathon remains at approximately 20% until 55 years of age. But from this age onwards the differences between the sexes are greater and reach more than 40% at 70 years old," the expert concluded.