In a few months I will turn 30 and while that number has no particular significance to me, I started to realize while watching the Olympics that, physically speaking, I am hitting my peak.
While competing at Rio earlier this month, Michel Phelps described himself as a ‘mature athlete’ and commentators made note of how much effort it took for him to climb out of the pool after one of his races, describing it as ‘gingerly’. He announced his retirement this year. After 16 years of racing at the Olympic level, he is ending his career. He is 31 years old.
30 tends to be when people stop being able to compete at their athletic peak. There is some variance per athlete, but the trend is pretty consistent.
Here are some data I grabbed from the Association of Road Racing Statisticians (my new favorite association) that shows the fastest marathon time recorded by a runner with a given age. The chart goes from the age of 5 (wow) to the age of 93 (WOW!). You can check out the actual times on their website, but I made a quick heat map to show the trend. The fastest time ever recorded was by someone that was 30 years old (text in red) and you can see a clean normal distribution around that.
There are certainly a few athletes that have performed excellently past the age of 30, some even as Olympians. Anthony Ervin, the 35 year old swimmer from the USA took two gold medals home from Rio and swam his fastest race ever. Bernard Lagat, a runner, at 41 years old runner won the 5k in the USA Olympic Trials, though his time was slightly slower than his personal best.
Even including those outliers, it is apparent that the human athletic peak, with the technology we have today, hits somewhere in the range of 30, plus or minus a few years. That means for me it is fast approaching.
The Optimism Of Youth
It wasn’t that long ago that I watched Michael Johnson run at the summer games in Atlanta – his gold shoes reflecting the camera flashes as he set world records for the 200m & 400m. He was my running hero, and I knew that if I worked hard enough I could be on that same stage some day. Everything was in the future and everything was possible.
Year after year I improved. My times got faster, I grew stronger, I learned more about the sport and dedicated myself more. Forward progress plays a funny trick where as long as you are improving, anything seems possible with the fullness of time. There is always a future that is faster than today. There is optimism as long as there is progress.
This eventually stops being true. At some point soon I will run the fastest race that I will ever run. Perhaps it was my marathon last month. It is a strange shift to realize a constant that has been true your entire life, athletic improvement, will no longer be the a rule. What comes after that?
There are two options that I see and that I am beginning to prepare myself for – changing the activity and changing the competition.
Changing the Activity
What I’ve been discussing so far are mainly pure athletic events – running & swimming.
While I focused on the age of 30, it is important to note that 30 isn’t the peak age for every race distance. Some shorter events have a younger peak age, the 5k is at 18 for example, the 10k at 22 and the half marathon at 28. This is why many runners increase their distance as they get older – they can’t run quite as fast, but they can deal with pain for longer.
Perhaps the 50 mile or 100 mile race still hold something for me after 30. By changing my event, I might find new life, similar to what I found when switching from the mile to the 5k or the 5k to the marathon.
Another option is changing sports altogether. While athleticism does peak at around the age of 30, it turns out that the decline isn’t immediate or dramatic. As we can see in the heat map above, it is very gradual. This means that if someone is improving in their knowledge of the activity, efficiency, dedication, etc. it is still possible to improve. Now for running, it is unlikely I’ll have a breakthrough of those sorts, I’ve simply done the sport for too long and honed many of the aspects. (But that doesn’t mean I’m not willing to try a few crazy experiments to hold on – more on that soon.)
What this means is that I can find improvement in activities I’ve never been good at. Basketball, rowing, cross country skiing, etc. By changing the sport I focus on, I’ll open myself up to all new possibilities of progress. Though my new peak might never be what it would have if I’d taken up that sport earlier, at least I’ll get to experience setting new personal bests again.
When thinking about changing activities, one point of note is that not all activities require the same degree of athleticism. If you were to break down activities into building blocks, you would find a wide set; skill, knowledge, strategy, reaction time, grace, etc. Not every activity requires that same ratio. This is great because not every one of those building blocks peaks at the same time.
Skill and knowledge are something that can continue to improve much longer. Therefore an activity that requires more skill and less athleticism, can sustain a higher peak age. Consider Peyton Manning, known for his strategy and knowledge, who played quarterback in the NFL until he was 39.
I was going to pull some data on peak ages at different activities, but as always, fivethirtyeight.com beat me to it. They look at median age for Olympic events and you can see a few stand out as sustaining older athletes: equestrian, shooting, beach volleyball & golf particularly.
Those activities require more skill and less pure athleticism than running or swimming, which means it is possible to enjoy a peak later in life.
That is the first option, changing the activity.
Changing the Competition
The second option is to change the benchmark you compare youself to.
Competition is truly relative. Many athletes compete only against themselves, trying to improve. Some compete at a local level, trying to improve their spot on a school or club team. A rare few compete at a national or global level.
I’ve found the key to competition is finding goals and competitors that are challenging enough to push you but realistic enough to periodically beat.
We’ve established that at some age, athleticism peaks and so it will no longer be possible to set personal records in events you’ve excelled at. It will also no longer be possibly to compare yourself to athletes at their peak. But there are other options.
Age group awards are one of the best ways to change the competition. What they do is level the field by comparing individuals to those similar to them. Comparing a 55 year old man to a 30 year old is unfair, but comparing him to other 50-55 year old men is much more reasonable. I recently spoke to a few runners in their late 60s who said that they move slow, but fast enough to get top spots for their age and they enjoy that.
As I cross my peak I’ll be able to look forward to being on the podium again. I’ll have the new challenge of trying to age more gracefully than my peers, but as knees wear down and injuries build up, if I can maintain my health, I might be able to do things that are impressive for my age.
In a similar vain, if you will recall the peak age chart above, you’ll remember that it resembles a normal distribution, a slow build before a peak and a slow decline. What that means is that on either side of the peak are points that are somewhat similar. For example the fastest time by a 35 year old is very similar to that of a 26 year old, even though those times are 10 years apart.
As you go further out, eventually you will hit a point where two similar peak performances are 27 years apart. That happens to be the age gap between my oldest son and I. That means at some point on my decline, he will be on his incline and pass me. While I don’t know if he’ll be a runner, (though his current love of it certainly suggests he might), if he becomes one, there will be a point where we are similar in speed.
Another way to change the competition might be to see how long I can go before my children pass me. That one seems particularly exciting, because though I will work hard to delay it, it will be a great moment of joy for me when they do eventually best me at whatever it is they chose to do.