BREAKING3: PERFORMANCE PHYSIOLOGY OF AN ELITE 70-YEAR-OLD MARATHONER

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Putting this feat of endurance into perspective

To help us appreciate just how fast this 70-year-old needed to run for his record-breaking marathon performance, let’s look at the distribution for male and female marathon runners of all ages.

Below are data showing how many runners finished at different marathon times. The red arrow indicates where this master athlete fits among nearly 1 million marathon finish times.

Image from: Allen, E. J., Dechow, P. M., Pope, D. G., & Wu, G. (2016). Reference-dependent preferences: Evidence from marathon runners. Management Science, 63(6), 1657-1672.

Image from: Allen, E. J., Dechow, P. M., Pope, D. G., & Wu, G. (2016). Reference-dependent preferences: Evidence from marathon runners. Management Science, 63(6), 1657-1672.

The 2:54:23 marathon performance from December 2018 works out to 6 minute and 39 second mile pace…repeated 26 times in a row. If you want to match this performance, go ahead and set your treadmill to 9.0 miles per hour and try to keep at it for three hours. Not so easy for anyone, let alone a 70-year-old.

And this was not a one-time event. The master athlete ran 2:55:17 at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon on October 2018. He also ran 2:57:43 at the Rotterdam Marathon in April 2018. He has also ran several courses over 200 miles.

 

Our Question

As you can see in the graph above, the red arrow is very far to the left, indicating this runner at age 70 is faster than a significant portion of the field.* When compared to all male runners over the age of 70 years historically, this athlete has the fastest time recorded.

We wanted to figure out why.

What we discovered

1. His maximum oxygen uptake was 47mL O2/kg body mass/min. This is much higher than male adults his age who average 26mL O2/kg body mass/min.

2. However, a maximum oxygen uptake value of 47 is not that special among marathon runners of all ages. As a 26-year-old recreational runner, my maximum oxygen uptake value is ~50, but I would need to train for several months to attempt a to run a marathon in under four hours.

3. Thus, because his lactate threshold was much higher than performance-matched younger runners we tested, we concluded that his ability to maintain a remarkably high percentage of maximum oxygen uptake played a role in enabling him to run a marathon in 2:54:23.

Wrap-up

Finally, check out the video below for interviews with Gene, the researchers, and clips of the performance testing trial.

As always, feel free to share your thoughts, comments, and questions.

Thanks for reading (and watching).

-Joe

 

This piece was edited by Austin Robinson, PhD.

Photos and videos by Digital Media Specialist and Videographer Ashley Barnas at the University of Delaware.

Curious to learn more? Check out these related resources.

* The master athlete’s record performance would put him in the 98th percentile of all male marathon runners (1 hour, 15 minutes and 47 seconds faster than the median time of 04:10:10 for male runners) and in the 100th% of male runners over 70 years old (2 hours, 31 minutes and 46 seconds faster than the median time of 05:26:09 for male runners in the over 70 age group). [Link to website]

To read more about the performance physiology testing we conducted and the results we gathered, check out our recently published article. Special thanks to co-authors Austin T. Robinson, Matthews C. Babcock, Michael J. Joyner, and William B. Farquhar.

Check out these related articles from:
- The University of Delaware (by Kelly Bothum)
- Lifetime running, and
- Podium runner (by Amby Burfoot)

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