I Am Speed (not)

I’ve been thinking a lot about speed lately.

Before I go any further, I want to clarify that I’m talking about my own speed. There will be some of you that I am faster than. There will be others of you who I am slower than. So when I talk about feeling fast or feeling slow, both groups might roll their eyes at me. But hopefully all runners understand that whilst our own speed is relative, the principles  are the same whether you run 12 minute miles or 6 minute miles. I strongly believe that, no matter your speed, we are all runners.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about speed and my big question to myself is: am I really going to run much faster than I am running at the moment?

In the past two years, I’ve brought my half-marathon PR down from 2.06 to 1.53. That’s beyond anything I dreamed of. My next half-marathon goal is 1.52 but that feels like such a daunting goal! Admittedly, when I trained for my first sub-two half, that felt daunting too…but 1.52? Me? That intimidates me so much.

Yay! PR
Yay! PR

I am definitely faster than I was. But at some point, surely a runner reaches her peak speed, her maximum capacity for speed. How do you know when you’ve reached that speed? I’m 38, not far off 39. Am I just ‘there’?

To complicate my personal case, my heart condition means I am cautious about pushing myself too far. Other runners speak about running till they vomit and part of me would kind of like to push myself that far. But I know that it wouldn’t be healthy for me.

When do runners peak?  According to the interwebs,it’s your early 30s or post child-birth. I trumped both those cards by running slowly in my 20s then ditching running until my mid-thirties, post childbirth. So HA to the stats. The article goes on to say that speed is maintained for late 30s/early 40s and then declines. So I might hang on at my current speed for a little longer.

According to RunningForFitness.org, “From the 30s onwards, a number of physical changes take place in the average person’s body.  Aerobic capacity decreases, muscle mass reduces, muscle elasticity reduces, lung elasticity declines, bone density reduces, the metabolism slows, body fat increases and the immune system becomes weaker. These changes will have an adverse impact on running performance. The fall in aerobic capacity, reduced stride length, reduced leg strength, and reduced ability to store energy all contribute to deterioration in performance.  In general, it is thought that running speeds over any distance deteriorate by about 1% a year from a peak at some point in the 30s; and we appear to lose aerobic capacity at about 9-10% a decade.”    Source

During Monday’s long-run  I was listening to the latest Marathon Talk podcast and they mentioned a British marathon runner called Emma Stepto. She’s in her early 40s and over the past few years has brought her marathon PR steadily down, year by year to 2.35. I find this really inspiring! I’m almost looking forward to turning 40 in 2015…I’ll officially become a ‘Master’ (Mistress?) and I might even place in my age-group when I’m the youngster there 🙂

Remember that time when the Husband mistakenly won his age group?
Remember that time when the Husband mistakenly won his age group?

But at some point, both you and I will reach our peak. We will never achieve a new PR again We will have to learn how to accept the inevitable decline.  So how do you cope with always failing to improve, because that must be quite soul-destroying.

 At the Half Moon Bay Marathon last month, I had the pleasure of meeting the very charming Burt Yasso from Runner’s World and, with the confidence that comes from having said ‘hi’ once, I contacted him to ask that very question. He was once a super-fast marathoner and ultra-runner who, primarily due to lyme disease, can now not run further than 3 miles. I asked him how he handled that change. This is what he said.

‘I look at the races I still have the opportunity to run and have no problems running slowly. I’m just happy to be part of the running family.’

Isn’t that a lovely thought – just being happy to be part of the running family! I like that.

All in the Running Family together!
All in the Running Family together!

Anyway…this post has been slightly depressing. Sorry…you can blame the PMT! But I would really welcome your thoughts on the following questions. (This isn’t a cheesy blogger ploy to get comments, I actually want to know).

1) How do you know when you’re running about as fast as you can go and you won’t get any faster no matter how much you try?

2) How would you deal with that, mentally?

Thanks for your thoughts and for listening to my middle-aged rambles.

13 Comments Add yours

  1. I’m not sure about this. Elites who are at or near their maximum athletic ability (who train for months to shave just a few seconds off their marathon PR) will decline with age. But regular people who aren’t trained at that level have so much room to improve before we hit our natural limits — if we ever do!

    1. Cathryn says:

      Yes, I agree with this. Also, I spent my 20s running slowly so it’s been relatively easy to spend my 30s running faster. So I agree that the elites will decline faster than we do. But I still think we will all at some point reach our peak.

      I don’t mean to be morbid, honestly! Not trying to depress everyone.

  2. Jen says:

    The statistic that I’ve always heard is that every person has a 3-5 year window in which s/he will continue to get faster, regardless of age. After that, there’s a plateau/decline.

    After Sunday’s race, I was thinking about this topic from a different perspective, which is that I would like to make more non-PR/non-time-based goals. Yes, PRs are exhilarating, but at some point they’re harder and harder to come by, not to mention the unpredictability of a new course, etc. I definitely would’ve enjoyed MCM more if I hadn’t spent the last 12K of the race realizing my PR was slipping away with every mile. Anyway, to answer your question! I think that if we’re being realistic with ourselves, we will get slower with time and that’s a bit depressing, but my long-term goal is to be able to keep running well into my 60’s and 70’s, so let’s enjoy our “speed” while it lasts!

    p.s. “Mistress” — LOL.

    1. Cathryn says:

      In terms of running goals…YES!! We can’t PR at every race we do, so fixating on a PR every time isn’t helpful! I was disappointed with my HMB time, even though I knew I wasn’t in PR shape so we do need to find other race goals. I’m thinking that, in 2014, I focus on trails and on exploring via running, with one or two road race PR attempts thrown in there. Enjoying running for the challenge of the course, rather than the clock.

      Can’t wait to read your MCM recap. You were like a metronome for the first 30k!!

  3. Juli Bronzini says:

    Hmmmm…. I certainly haven’t done any research on this subject, but it is so relevant to my last half. I’ve wondered if that was my glory race…? I’m just going to say no, so as to not depress myself. I’m 35 and feel like I (hopefully) have more time and opportunity to improve my speed- I certainly have in the last 5 years, that’s for sure. As for you Cat- I think you do as well! I want to still be racing and running in my 50s and 60s too, which will certainly be it’s own PR(: And I never want to race and train so hard I vomit or lose control of my bowels or anything like that. SO not worth it to me. I definitely consider my body a temple and my temple needs cake(: And wine(: And the Halloween candy I just ate! Pretty sure Mr. Yasso has it all figured out just fine.

    1. Cathryn says:

      I think you have loads of time to speed up, you’re just a pup!! And I agree that just continuing to run for many years is more important than new PRs…and not losing control of my bowels is the most important thing of all.

  4. When I realize that I’m not going to improve my overall times, I’ll focus more on new PR’s for the new age groups I’m in. Congrats on your half-marathon PR!

    1. Cathryn says:

      Thank you…I still get excited when I think about it! I also think that when I get to that point, I’ll switch 100% to trail racing – every course is so different that you can’t compare them in the same way! And it brings a different kind of pleasure.

  5. Bean says:

    First I really liked this post and didn’t think it depressing but thoughtful. My thoughts on speed are right now I feel like working on getting faster and feel that I can be a bit faster but when I look back on my favorite races they are not my PR races. They are the ones that were in a great location, presented a challenge that I felt I stepped up to, or got to do with friends/ family there. This makes me think that I am not really there for the glory of being speedy but to have a good time.

  6. Not sure I believe what they are saying about declining at 40. I didn’t start really running until late 30’s and now I am 41 and getting faster. Not elite status but sometimes faster week to week. I don’t feel like I am to the point that I can’t get faster. I do know it takes a lot more dedication and work to get faster than it did when I was younger (aka highschool). When I have reached that point, I think I will be okay with it. I am setting PR’s that no one can take away from me and I will always have even better I will always have the experiences of each race.

    1. Cathryn says:

      I agree with what you say. I also quite like that it takes more dedication and work than it did when we were younger – we appreciate things more when we work for them.

  7. Angela says:

    I think a lot about this, and I’ve read a lot of different things, and have no idea which is most reliable. I’ve heard that from the time you start training consistently, you get about 10 years’ worth of improving before you’ve optimized just about everything you can (but I think that window is probably shorter for shorter distances, just because the longer your races, the longer it takes just to develop a real base). I’ve also heard that you need two years of consistent training–no breaks, no injuries–before you even have an *inkling* of what you’ll be able to do peak-wise. (ie, two years of picking “low-hanging fruit” in terms of training.)

    I also agree that it’s a completely different game with elites vs recreational runners — elites pick so much low-hanging fruit so early that they’re probably going to peak a lot earlier than those of us who don’t start training consistently until we’re already in our late 20s/30s/etc., so I would guess that we’ll have more time before we start to plateau.

    1. Cathryn says:

      I knew you’d have good comments about this, I’m glad you’re back from your holiday. I feel like the general consensus is ‘we don’t know how long we have as individuals until we peak, but it’s probably not yet’. So I shall push for that 1.52 😉

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