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Female distance runners are proving that age is not always a barrier in athletic performance. In December 2021, 1500-meter specialist Sara Vaughn made headlines after her 26.2 debut, winning the California International Marathon in 2:26:53 at the age of 35. In January 2022, Keira D’Amato set the American marathon record, running a 2:19:12 at the Houston Marathon at the age of 37. In the same weekend, Sara Hall, who will turn 39 in April, set a new American half-marathon record in 67:15.
Why are they running so well? To find out, Women’s Running reached out to Sandra Hunter, professor and a director of the Athletic and Human Performance Research Center at Marquette University. Hunter is an expert on the differences between male and female runners and the effects of aging on athletes, and she’s been tuned into impressive masters performances for years.
The Pattern is Not New
In 2008, when Constantina Tomescu of Romania won gold in the marathon at the age of 38 at the Beijing Olympics, it caught Hunter’s attention. She and a team of undergraduates in her lab conducted a study to see if there was a pattern or cause of women running better into middle age compared to men.
“We found that there was no difference between elite male and female marathoners and that the age all marathoners peak, on average, is 29,” says Hunter.
When it comes to aging, Hunter explains that the decline in performance has to do with a decrease in heart rate that begins when we are just 20 years old. While our hearts stay the same size, the decrease in heart rate means less cardiac output. Everybody loses about one beat of their maximum heart rate per year. The equation is 220 – your age = your max heart rate.
“No matter how fit you are, your maximum heart rate comes flying down and it really starts to impact your aerobic capacity after 40,” Hunter says. “So with these women being below 40, they are still somewhat within the age range of peak performance.”
Still, most athletes go into retirement well before these women started breaking records. So what is going on? Hunter hypothesizes that women like D’Amato, Hall, and Vaughn have had life experiences that might be considered atypical for other competitive runners: motherhood, careers, and factors off the road that led to more time off and less wear on their bodies. These social factors could account for success at a later age.
D’Amato is a realtor and a mother of two. She actually walked away from the sport in her twenties. When she reached her thirties, she started running again, like many women, for exercise and time for herself. “It’s not lost on me that I am older than the majority of the people that I compete against, which is why I’ve really seized every opportunity that I can,” she told Outside shortly after seizing the American marathon record.
Hall, who is a mother of four and known for her never-quit attitude, turned to longer distances in just the past few years. On the track, she was a standout, but never the frontrunner. This changed, however, in 2019, and since then she has run her three fastest marathons and two fastest half marathons.
“I’m turning 39 this spring and getting stronger and stronger,” she told Women’s Running in January. “If you can stay healthy and keep your body healthy, then you can actually keep building that engine for a long time. I enjoy competing more than I ever have, which is just a total shock at my age and my point of life. But I think I have a lot more to give to the sport and am excited to keep improving my craft and see what happens.”
And Vaughn, who is a mother of four and realtor, has run professionally for the last 12 years, but did not run through pregnancies.
“I know for myself and Keira, we had big breaks,” says Vaughn. “Keira took eight years off. And I have probably had a cumulative eight years of a break from intense training with pregnancies and come backs. So, I definitely feel strong right now. I think all the miles have added up, but I think those breaks were a key part of it.”
Aside from time away from training, the way these women train and their running backgrounds could also factor into their current fitness. Hunter says that training to improve running economy (i.e., how much oxygen your body demands to run a certain pace) can offset the natural decline of maximum heart rate.
This might explain why Hall and Vaughn, who are middle-distance specialists, are faring well in endurance events. Speed comes naturally to them, and they have been building their aerobic machine for over a decade. This training, combined with the volume buildup necessary for the half and full marathon, is a winning equation for enhanced running economy.
Experience, too, is an important factor that cannot be dismissed. With age comes a more intimate knowledge of your body and its paces, limits, and ability to push. Vaughn calls it body wisdom.
“I make adjustments to my training based on how my body is feeling at the time,” she says. “When I was younger, I would’ve done whatever workout was on the schedule at the sacrifice of everything else. But now I feel like what I do is more intentional.”
Beyond training and the various elements that may or may not explain the recent breakthroughs in women’s American distance running, Hunter says there is one factor that can be proven scientifically—and that is the new super shoe technology.
“When the shoes came on the market around 2017, we immediately saw race times begin to drop, at the very elite level, for both male and female runners. I just wrote a paper that found that the elite marathoners do get an advantage from high performance running shoes, but women get it more than men,” she says. More studies need to be done for her to draw conclusions as to why it helps women more than men; it could have to do with body weight or energy return.
To Vaughn, the answer may have to do with recovery and the ability to bounce back after long or hard workouts. “I feel like the shoes protect you and saves your legs a little bit,” she says. “I definitely believe that the effect of shoe technology is undeniable in performances recently.”
This spring, all eyes will be on Hall and Vaughn at the 2022 Boston Marathon. D’Amato has hinted at a goal to make the 2024 Olympic team. In terms of age, they are all in uncharted territory, which makes Vaughn wonder if maybe we don’t know enough to say when female distance runners perform at their best.
“I think we all thought that women peaked in their early thirties because that’s the latest they would ever compete. They would retire and start a family. Now you just see so many more examples of women not doing that, and more women are giving it a chance into their thirties and nearing 40. I think soon the perception of retirement age or peak age is going to change.”