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5-Decades Sub 3-Hour Marathoners Analyzed

Physiology journal report reveals how lifetime sub 3-hour marathoners declined less than 7% per decade.

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A series of articles that began at PodiumRunner a year ago have now morphed into a scientific journal report. At Frontiers in Physiology, Romuald Lepers has analyzed the performances of 39 men and 1 woman (Joan Benoit Samuelson, of course) who have run sub-3 hour marathons in five consecutive decades, i.e., the 5DS3 runners.

Lepers is a French physiologist who specializes in exercise and aging. He has previously written about how lifelong endurance exercise slows loss of aerobic capacity, and about Tommy Hughes, the 60-year-old Irish marathoner who has been shredding age-group records the last two years.

Lepers’ new report concludes: “With consistent training and racing regimens, it is possible to limit the age-related decline in marathon performance to less than 7% per decade at least until 60 years old.” The 5DS3 runners lost just 64 seconds per year over nearly 33 years of marathoning. The Marastats.com website estimates that only 4% of all marathon runners of any age manage to break 3 hours for the classic distance.

The physiology literature has plenty of papers about performance at different ages. For example, it’s popular to compare a group of fit 70-somethings with a group of unfit 70-somethings and a group of fit 30-somethings. Or the marathon world-record holder with the 70-year-old record holder. As interesting as these “snapshots” are, they tell us almost nothing about the typical individual’s aging through his/her life course.

That’s why groups like the 5DS3 runners are important. (They are also rare.) We get to trace the self-same individuals through their marathon careers.

The 40 runners in the 5DS3 group that Lepers studied included 11 who had run under 2:20 when young, and 3 who achieved a sub-2:15. However, the group also included several who started with times in the 2:40s or 2:50s and simply stayed close to their best performance. For 73% of the athletes, their PR came between the ages of 25 and 34. On average, the age for personal bests was 26.9 years.

In most cases, runners’ PRs came about five years after a first marathon in their early 20s. When they reached their early 40s, the runners were achieving times similar to their first efforts. Their rate of slowing down increased after the late 40s, as shown in this graphic.

Graph of marathon running time slowing over the years
Marathon performance arc 5DS3 runners over 33 years

The runners in the 5DS3 group had an average of 32.9 years from their first sub-3 to their fifth. Most ran their first in 1978/1979 and their fifth in 2010/2011. Five have since notched a sixth decade by running sub-3 in 2020. We wrote about the first four last spring and summer. In September, Mark Murray joined them via his virtual Boston Marathon that was Strava measured-and-timed at 2:58:13 (26.23 miles) in Sacramento, CA.

Jim Miller holds perhaps the most significant mark: the 43 years, 77 days between his first sub-3 (June, 1977) and his most recent (Aug., 2020). This is the record that future long-time sub-3 marathon runners will be looking to extend. Miller was 18 when he ran his first sub-3 and a week short of 62 for his most recent.

Joan Benoit Samuelson is the only woman in the 5DS3 group. She ran the Boston Marathon in 2:35:16 in 1979 and the Chicago Marathon in 2:47:50 in 2010.

Joan Benoit Samuelson Boston
Joan Benoit Samuelson running 2:49:08 at the 2008 Olympic Trials Marathon at age 50. Photo: 101 Degrees West

Japan’s wondrous Keizo Yamada is believed the first runner to achieve 5DS3 status. He arrived there way back in 1980 when he ran 2:49:12 at age 53 (and one week) in the Honolulu Marathon. Yamada finished his first sub-3-marathon at 22 in 1949. He also won the Boston Marathon in 1953, and ran 4:24:07 at Boston in 2007 at age 79.

American marathon legend and two-time Boston winner John A. Kelley ran under 3 hours in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. In 1970, he clocked a 3:03—just missing his chance at 5DS3. Kelley of course continued running Boston until he had accumulated 58 finishes (the last at age 84), still the record for most finishes in an annual marathon. Like Yamada, he was still fast late in life, running 4:19:56 at age 79.

In his analysis of persistent excellence, Lepers refers to several recent physiological studies of top age-group runners. Both Gene Dykes (the over-70 marathon record holder at 2:54:23) and Tommy Hughes, who recently ran 2:30:02 at age 60, had long periods of no running or minimal running in midlife. In fact, Hughes had a 16-year break from age 32 to 48 when he says he did no running. Then he came back with a vengeance, running up to 100 miles a week while preparing for his recent record-setting efforts.

Gene Dykes Rotterdam Marathon
Gene Dykes running 2:57:43 at the 2018 Rotterdam Marathon at age 70. Photo: Erik Van Leeuwen

Dykes and Hughes have both been tested in physiology labs, and their results published. Dykes here, and Hughes here. The reports showed that both were capable of running the marathon distance at an unexpectedly high percentage of their VO2 max—at 90 to 93%. This implies that while aging runners will get slower as their VO2 max declines, they may continue to excel at the marathon because they can cover the distance at a high percentage of their aerobic fitness.

Cyclists and swimmers decline at a slower rate than runners, at least in part because their sports remove some of their body weight. Running is quite literally a pounding, punishing activity by comparison. Few can retain a high training and racing level for decade after decade. That’s why we admire them, and hope to learn from them.

The next age-group frontier is clearly age 60 and up. The First Running Boom athletes from the late 1970s are storming toward 70 in huge numbers. Since Lepers finished writing the new research article, Hughes has dropped the over-60 marathon record from 2:36:30 to 2:30:02, and Japan’s Marika Yugeta, at 62, lowered her own over-60 mark from 2:56:54 to 2:52:13.

Leper’s concludes, in his best scientific tone, that it will be fascinating in the near future to see “if such a low rate of age-related decline in endurance performance can be maintained after 60 years of age.” For example, if Hughes loses only 7% in the next decade, he will run 2:41 at 70 vs Dykes’ current mark of 2:54:23.

Lepers running outside
Physiologist Romuald Lepers at the Berglauf-Cup Zürich Oberland 2017 Photo: courtesy Romuald Lepers

Interview with Exercise and Aging Researcher Romuald Lepers

Lepers answered several questions for us about his paper and about exercising through the decades.

What did you find most surprising or impressive about the 5DS3 runners?

“I had previously shown that one former Olympic marathoner, Tommy Hughes, had managed to limit his decline to about 5% per decade. The 5DS3 runners show that a larger, non-Olympic group can maintain their performance almost as well as Hughes—at about 7% per decade.”

Why are the top runners at age 30—Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, etc.—generally not the best at 60 and 70?

“We do not know this for certain. They might get injured from their hard training when younger. But most likely it is a matter of maintaining a high level of motivation for many years, which is a challenge.”

Obviously, Joan Benoit Samuelson is quite special, and women should have an “equivalent target” rather than sub-3:00, perhaps sub-3:20. Do you think men and women runners age differently or the same?

“The sex difference in marathon running performance in elite runners is around 10%. The studies generally show that this sex difference increases with age. For example, Marika Yugeta is about 14.7% behind Tommy Hughes at the same age. But I don’t believe there’s any physiological reason why women should age-perform differently by men. I think it’s likely there are simply fewer women racing hard in the older age-groups.”

In your studies of aging endurance athletes, what are the key attributes–physiology, training, psychology, other—that are required for success over 30-40-50 years?

“We’re learning that it’s possible to keep your decrease in VO2 max at about 5 to 7% per decade. That’s very important. And we’re also seeing that the best masters marathoners can run at a very high percent of VO2 max. We need to learn more about their running economy.

“Training is crucially important, and we don’t know much about how masters athletes change their intensity, duration, and frequency of training. Also, recovery is a huge topic. Most masters runners say they have to change their recovery with aging, but we don’t have scientific data on how to do this optimally.

“In the end, it all comes down to motivation. No one can perform at a top level without the motivation to train and race hard. They might be chasing personal records, or maybe world records. But they need very high motivation.”

Any thoughts about the risks of hard training vs modest efforts at an advanced age when chronic aging diseases become a reality for everyone?

“That is THE question: ‘How much is too much?’ It is very difficult to answer. We don’t know if an older runner risks more heart disease or other health issues by training and racing hard. I have heard masters athletes say they will limit their activity if the doctor orders. Others feel that their exercise is so important to the life they have led that they will continue training anyway and face the risks. People make their choices in different ways.”


Read more about the runners who have completed a sub-3 hour marathon in each of the last 6 decades, and how they train and race, in PodiumRunner’s 6DS3 collection.