Where are the good young runners?

Sometimes, well — often — it bugs me. Where are the good young runners?

I finished Chardonnay in 13th place, 4th in my age group of 16 (so in the top quarter) and with one woman ahead of me. I’m 51. I ran at 79.5%. Any man/boy between 13 and 50 who runs at 79.5% should be ahead of me. Also any woman 17 to 37 running at that level should be ahead of me.

There were 161 men/boys 13-49. So if other age-groups were as speedy as mine, and a quarter of those in the 50-54 category were my pace or faster then you’d expect at least 40 younger male runners ahead of me. There were 202 women 17-37. So you’d expect 50 women ahead of me.

Now that was just if other age-groups were as fast as mine. But younger runners should be faster, not just my speed.

So given where I placed in my age-group you’d expect there to be more than 100 people in front of me, but there were 12 (three of whom were my age). Why is my age group so much faster than the younger ones?

There was one woman ahead of me when there should have been a bit more than 50. That’s a pretty extreme ratio. There were 8 men ahead when there should have been a lot more than 40. That’s not quite so bad, but still…

So I looked through the SBAA database again to see what how well various age-groups have run over the last 10 years.

It does look as though there is a general trend (in SB at least) that people in late middle age are better runners (that is, closer to world-record times for their age) than younger ones. There is also a huge difference in how well women approach their world-record times compared to how well men do.

(the sample size gets very small for the older age-groups — the above 65s — the statistics more doubtful, and individual fluctuations more likely to be prevalent).

The above graph is based on downloaded data from 4 races outside SB and has a sample size of ~90,000 runners

I guess it makes some sense that people in their 30s are too busy with family and establishing careers to put in the time to train well (so that explains the dip in abilities for runners in their 30s), and as we age both children and careers become more independent we have more time for fun.

It’s interesting that more people in their 30s actually run, they just don’t run well. Perhaps we self-select as we age and only fast people race?

The graph above is a superposition of two graphs, each showing the percentage of runners (in the SBAA database) who run at a certain age-graded percentage. The green graph is for runners aged 45-59, the blue is runners 20-34.

Looking at the “All” category in the first graph… The percentage of men who run at 80% or more is about the same as the percentage of women who run at 75% or more, and the percentage or men who run at 85% is similar to the percentage or women at 80%. I find that amazing.

The above graph shows the superposition of the graphs all age graded entries for men and women in the SBAA database. Men in blue, women in red. The graph for women is more condensed than that for men, and women seem to peak about 5% behind men.

Remember, age grading already corrects for the difference between male and female world records. This says that women don’t approach their world records as closely as men do.

Why? Why aren’t more women motivated to go faster? Perhaps women are more interested in their families than men and are less willing to run? Except there are more women runners than men runners… so they must want to run. Perhaps it’s a different motivation, running for friendship more than to race?

Or perhaps women runners are disproportionately young and so less likely to do well? But no, the difference holds true for all age groups.

In an effort to test if this was something odd about Santa Barbara I have made similar graphs for some large out of town races. There seems a general agreement that women are less likely to approach their world record times, and women tend to have a more concentrated (hence taller) distribution. I still don’t know what to make of it.




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7 Responses to “Where are the good young runners?”

  1. phil gans Says:

    I think the best answer to the question you pose is to ask where were you and I when we were in our twenties and thirties (and even forties). The answer in my case is that I was not running at all – certainly not training hard and entering local races. I think it is safe to conclude that the vast majority of the (potentially) good young runners are simply not running. Some are involved in higher intensity/higher impact sports that geezers like us tend to avoid, others are too busy with family and careers. Perhaps the more interesting question is what is driving all us old folks to train like maniacs as if our lives depended on it. Maybe that’s it – glimpses of of our own mortality.

    • georgeruns Says:

      True. I did not race at all after high school until about 45.

      But the odd thing (if you look at my previous post) is that MORE people actually run when they are young. I have 21,000 entries for people in their 20s; 24,000 for people in their 30s; 21,000 for people in their 40s; 11,000 for people in their 50s; 3,500 for people in their 60s. The more runners there are in an age-group the worse that age group seems to do. Or maybe bad runners run when they are young and good runners run when they are older?

    • georgeruns Says:

      Oops. Closer examination makes me alter my statement… there are more runners in their 30s… but there are more male runners in their 40s, and more women runners in their 20s.

      However a couple of women runners have complained to me that the same thing is true for them, women in their late forties are running better than women in their 20s.

      So there may need to be different answers for men and women…

  2. Nirmal Says:

    I suspect you answered your own question – only the really good runners still race when they are older. I think.

    • georgeruns Says:

      It’s a bit more than that. There are 5,736 entries in the db for male runners 30-34, of these 3.6% ran above 75%. There are 3006 entries for males 55-59 of these 12% ran above 75%. So if the 2730 slow runners dropped out you’d expect 6.9% of the remainder to be above 75%. Instead 12% were.

      Maybe the age-grade tables are too easy on 55 year olds?

      But I tend to think having more time or inclination to train must be a factor…

  3. Adger Says:

    Maybe the world records for the older ages are too slow and will soon be broken. Do you know how quickly records are broken for various age groups?

    • georgeruns Says:

      Not specifically. I do know that the men’s age graded tables have not been upgraded since 2002, while the women’s have been upgraded twice since then. I presume this means than the men’s records are fairly stable while the women’s are still being changed by significant amounts.

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