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Age may have its advantages in endurance sports

November 20, 2009 |  2:31 pm

Endurance sports such as ultra-marathons, ultra-triathlons and cycling marathons have exploded in popularity over the years. Among them is the grandaddy of the genre, the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, which began in 1974 and meanders through the Western States Trail in Northern California. A new study looked at how the race has grown, and finds some interesting trends among the runners -- mostly that they've gotten older and faster.

K40tglnc Researchers from the Department of Veterans Affairs' Northern California Health Care System and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond analyzed details of the thousands of people who have competed in the race from 1974 through 2007. About 3,459 runners have finished the race since its inception, but the profiles of those men and women have changed. Many more women, for example, are competing: from 1986 to 1988, women made up 10% to 12% of the field, but since 2001 that has almost doubled to 20% to 22% of all runners.

Competitors are older too -- the average age of male and female race starters has gradually increased since 1986. In 1986, the average male runner was 41, but between 2000 and 2007 the average runner was 45 to 47. Researchers chalk those statistics up to the fact that more women age 40 and up and more men age 50 and up have been competing, and also fewer men under 50 have entered the race.

From the very first race, the average age of the top five finishes has risen from the early 30s to the late 30s. While the top five men have shown only minor changes in finish times between 1979 and 2007, not so for the women -- they've improved 37 minutes every 10 years from 1980 through 2007. That means the differences in finish times between the top five men and women have gotten smaller by 4% per decade, to about 14% in 2007. The researchers note that there was a 12% time difference between top five finish times for men and women in both the 2007 Hawaii Ironman competition and the 2007 New York City Marathon.

The study appears in the December issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

-- Jeannine Stein

Photo credit: Richard Hartog / Los Angeles Times