We've all been there. You're in the middle of a 5K, half marathon, marathon, or other intense race, thinking you're absolutely crushing it. In between singing lines of Katy Perry's "Roar" you realize that someone is passing you—and they're old enough to be your grandparent. Consider your ego totally wiped.
The good news? You're not alone. Being young, bright-eyed, and bushy-tailed might give you some advantages in the fitness world, but when it comes to long-distance running, why does it seem like the more seasoned competitors have a leg up? As it turns out, there's some science behind aging into running; elite marathoners peak around 30 years old, according to a 2011 study by Marquette University. And when it comes to ultra-marathon runners, the peak for women seems to be about 39 years old, according to a Swiss study that looked at almost 36,000 elite race finishes of 100-mile races. While 30- and 39-year-olds are faaaaaar from being considered old, they're way older than the young whippersnappers fresh out of college who own the top spots in other sports. Why? We grabbed running expert Danny Mackey, Brooks Beast Track Club coach, to find out what really goes on as you age into running.
1. Your Brain Gets Better at Running
Think of your brain as a supercomputer. It knows everything that's going on inside your body at all times. Whether you set out for a 1-mile run or a 100-mile run, your brain can calculate how much effort it will take to get through the distance, and set your pace accordingly—at least that's how it works according to the Central Governor Model, a running theory by Timothy Noakes, M.D., world-renowned exercise physiologist and author of Lore of Running. Noakes argues that in long-distance running (like marathons), your brain regulates performance in anticipation of the physical exertion. Translation: Your brain tells your body to go slower so you can run the full distance, rather than pushing too hard too early.
"The theory is well-tested," says Mackey. It says that our brain is a governor, like in a car engine. It looks at a different metrics like our temperature, carbohydrate stores, hormone levels, etc., the same way a mega-computer in a race car looks at the oil, heat, and road conditions. "What's amazing about this is that—assuming we have high motivation and that nothing else problematic is going on—our brain is really good at measuring what kind of effort we can put out over a distance." (If this is blowing your mind, you'll love what Mackey has to say about whether it's better to run faster or longer.)
What does this have to do with age? Well, just like #adulting in general, this type of pacing is a learned skill. "In a younger athlete, their central governor might not be as tuned-in, so they could be a little off with pacing strategy," says Mackey. "Whereas an older athlete has more experience and a better ability to measure out an optimal intensity." So a younger person might charge through the starting line at a pace she just can't maintain over the full race, while an older athlete might chill out and maintain a better speed throughout the whole run—basically the tortoise and the hare IRL.
2. Your Body Learns What to Burn
You might be familiar with basic carb-loading, but there's actually a lot of science that goes into how your body gets energy during long bouts of exercise. It pulls from all different energy sources for fuel, but it will get about 20 percent of its energy from carbs. Once it runs out of those, it will start burning fat—aka fat oxidation. Believe it or not, you could run something like eight marathons back-to-back without eating because we have so much fat stored in our bodies, says Mackey. The catch is that fat is harder to break down into energy, meaning you'd be slow, and TBH, pretty miserable.
The good news and the reason age matters: You can teach your metabolism to be more efficient at using those fat stores. "If an older runner has learned to optimize their consumption of fat and save some carbohydrates, that would help them not "bonk" or run out of carbs," says Mackey. How do you train it? Depletion runs (running without eating beforehand) or doing hours of training at a slower intensity (which recruits more fat as an energy source instead of carbohydrates).
"It's reasonable to assume that athletes who have been training for 20-something years, doing depletion runs and long, slow training are better at fat oxidation than a younger athlete," says Mackey, meaning they can go longer, stronger.
3. You're More Emotionally Mature
Think emotional maturity only matters in your love life? Actually, it matters out on the race route too. Specifically, "delayed gratification and the ability to focus your emotions," says Mackey.
A 2011 study done on ultra-marathon runners found that higher emotional intelligence might be a key to explaining why some athletes respond better to repeated bouts of hard exercise, and that those with higher emotional intelligence reported higher pleasant and lower unpleasant emotions during races. "Older runners are able to handle ups and downs and smooth those out a little bit more," says Mackey. "And if you're in a long race, those ups and downs are going to happen. You're going to hit rough patches."
What This Means for Your Running Career
So, no, you don't suddenly grow a tolerance for distance running once you turn 25, and you aren't guaranteed to ace marathons once you hit 39. But if you're already a regular runner, relish in the fact that you have many racing years yet to come.
Key ways to make your legs last through the years and miles: plenty of sleep (Mackey says it's the number-one rule of recovery for his Beast athletes) , proper nutrition, and preventative exercises and strength training to keep your body in tip-top shape. (We have more secrets on optimizing your recovery straight from the guy in charge of U.S. Olympics athletes.)