Women Run Fastest Marathons at Age 29, Study Says

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If you’re a big marathon runner, 29 may be the age you post your best time ever, a new Spanish study says.

Researchers from Camilo José Cela University in Madrid analyzed the finishing times of more than 45,000 runners who took part in the New York City Marathon in 2010 and 2011, including the top 10 finishers in each male and female age bracket. Their results, published in the journal Age, show that the participants' average times followed a U-shaped curve in relation to their ages.

Men tended to have their best races at 27 years old, while women peaked two years later on average, at 29. Younger athletes' times improved by about 4 percent a year leading up to those pinnacles, while older ones got about 2 percent slower for every year afterward. The analysis also found that 18-year-old runners and 55- to 60-year-old runners tended to finish the marathon in about the same amount of time.

These results were somewhat surprising, the authors wrote: Previously, it was believed that a person's endurance-sports potential decreased progressively from age 25 on. Now they know that an athlete's natural peak is actually a few years later; they also found a sharper decline in performance after about age 55, especially among women.

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Chicago-based running coach Jenny Hadfield, co-author of Marathoning for Mortals, says the findings seem reasonable, in a broad sense. "The marathon distance requires physical and mental strength, and both of those qualities tend to peak in our late 20s," she says. "When we are younger, we are still new to the distance and evolving our physical limits. As we age beyond our late twenties, our times may slow due to the aging process, more life responsibilities with family, childbirth, and more."

Still, she adds, don’t take this study too personally: Trust your training—and your own body—over some generalized statistics. "I coach runners into their 60s who are running personal records, so it truly comes down to the individual,” she says.

What do you think of this study? How old were you when you posted your best race time? Tell us in the comments below or tweet us @Shape_Magazine!

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