Why Elite Women Over 35 Dominate Running


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Long-distance runners prove that age isn’t always a barrier to athletic performance. In December 2021, 1,500 meter specialist Sara Vaughn made headlines after her debut in 26.2, winning the California International Marathon in 2:26:53 at the age of 35. In January 2022, Keira D’Amato set the US marathon record, running a 2:29:12 in the Houston Marathon at the age of 37. Over the same weekend, Sara Hall, who turns 39 in April, set a new U.S. half marathon record of 67:15.

Why do they spin so well? Discover, Women’s running contacted Sandra Hunter, professor and director of the Center for Sport and Human Performance Research at Marquette University. Hunter is an expert on the differences between male and female runners and the effects of aging on athletes, and has been listening to the impressive performances of the Masters for years.

The model is not new

In 2008, when Constantina Tomescu of Romania won gold in the marathon at the age of 38 at the Beijing Olympics, it caught Hunter’s attention. She and a team of undergraduate students in her lab conducted a study to see if there was a trend or cause that women ran better into middle age than men.

“We found that there was no difference between elite male and female marathon runners and that the peak age for all marathon runners is on average 29,” says Hunter.

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When it comes to aging, Hunter explains that the decline in performance is linked to a decrease in heart rate that begins when we are only 20 years old. While our hearts stay the same size, decreasing heart rate means less cardiac output. Everyone loses about one beat of their maximum heart rate per year. The equation is 220 – your age = your maximum heart rate.

“No matter how fit you are, your maximum heart rate goes down and it really starts to impact your aerobic capacity after age 40,” says Hunter. “So with these women being under 40, they’re still somewhat in the peak performance age range.”

(Photo: Nate Castner)

Yet most athletes retire long before these women start breaking records. So what’s up? Hunter hypothesizes that women like D’Amato, Hall and Vaughn have had life experiences that might be considered atypical for other competitive runners: motherhood, careers and off-road factors that have leads to more free time and less wear and tear on their bodies. These social factors could explain success at older ages.

Beyond the Race

D’Amato is a real estate agent and mother of two children. She actually quit the sport in her twenties. When she reached her thirties, she started running again, like many women, to exercise and take time for herself. “It’s not lost on me that I’m older than the majority of people I’m competing against, which is why I really took every opportunity I could,” she said. Outside shortly after snatching the American marathon record.

Hall, who is a mother of four and known for her consistent attitude, has gravitated towards longer distances in the past few years alone. On the track, she stood out, but never in the lead. That changed in 2019, however, and since then she has run her three fastest marathons and two fastest half marathons.

“I’ll be 39 this spring and I’m getting stronger and stronger,” she said. Women’s running in January. “If you can stay healthy and keep your body healthy, you can actually keep building that engine for a long time. I love competing more than ever, which is a total shock at my age and point of But I think I have a lot more to give to the sport and I’m excited to keep improving my craft and seeing what happens.

And Vaughn, who is a mother of four and a real estate agent, has raced professionally for the past 12 years but has had no pregnancies.

“I know for me and Keira, we had some big breaks,” Vaughn says. “Keira took eight years off. And I probably had eight cumulative years off from intense training with pregnancies and comebacks. So, I feel really strong right now. I think all the miles added up, but I think those breaks were a key part of it.

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Training history

Besides the time spent away from training, the way these women train and their running history could also factor into their current fitness. Hunter says training to improve running economy (the amount of oxygen your body needs to run at a certain pace) can offset the natural decline in maximum heart rate.

That might explain why Hall and Vaughn, who are middle-distance specialists, do well in endurance events. Speed ​​comes naturally to them and they’ve been building their aerobic machine for over a decade. This training, combined with the increased volume needed for the half marathon and full marathon, is a winning equation for improved running economy.

Experience is also an important factor that cannot be ignored. With age comes a more intimate knowledge of your body and its rhythms, its limits and its ability to push. Vaughn calls it body wisdom.

“I make adjustments to my training based on how my body is feeling at the time,” she says. “When I was younger, I would have done any workout on the program at the sacrifice of everything else. But now I feel like what I’m doing is more intentional.

Beyond training and the various elements that may or may not explain recent breakthroughs in American women’s distance running, Hunter says there is one factor that can be scientifically proven, and that is the new technology of great shoe.

“When the shoes hit the market around 2017, we immediately saw running times start to drop, at the very elite level, for both male and female runners. I just write an article which revealed that elite marathon runners benefit from high-performance running shoes, but women benefit more than men,” she says. More studies need to be done so she can draw conclusions about why it helps women more than men; it could have to do with body weight or energy return.

For Vaughn, the answer may have to do with recovery and the ability to bounce back from long or tough workouts. “I feel like the shoes protect you and save your legs a bit,” she says. “I really believe the effect of shoe technology is undeniable in recent performance.”

This spring, all eyes will be on Hall and Vaughn at the 2022 Boston Marathon. D’Amato hinted at a goal of making the 2024 Olympic team. Age-wise, they’re all in uncharted territory , which has Vaughn wondering if maybe we don’t know enough to say when female distance runners perform best.

“I think we all thought women hit their peak in their early thirties because that’s the last time they would compete. They would retire and start a family. Now you see so many more examples of women who don’t, and more women are giving it a chance in their 30s and near 40. I think soon the perception of retirement age or maximum age is going to change.

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