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High Performance at Any Age: How to Reframe Your Thoughts About Performance Over Time

When I went for my training run this morning, I knew I could not hit the pace that I had marked out on my training plan. My legs just wouldn’t be able to sustain it. I’m preparing for a 10 mile race in April. As my training cycle for this race, I have adopted the last 12 weeks of the 16 week half marathon plan from my trusty copy of Run Less, Run Faster. Today’s run called for 10 miles at ‘half marathon pace plus 20 seconds per mile.’ My race pace for the 10 miler is 5:59/mile. I had substituted this pace for the half marathon pace without too much thought. The best I could sustain today over 10 miles was 6:49/mile.

I had two realizations. First, although I think the half marathon workouts are good preparation for a ten miler, the pacing between the two CANNOT be equated. My best half marathon pace is 6:27/mile. My best 10 mile pace is 6:02/mile. I was unnecessarily making myself feel bad every time I couldn’t hit the prescribed pace target.

My second revelation was when I decided to compare myself to this time last year. I ran the same 10 mile race last April, and set what was a personal record (PR) at the time. One year ago, doing a training run on a similar route over 8 miles, I ran 7:40/mile. On March 12, 2022, I ran the same training route for 7:10/mile over 10 miles, then went on to run 6:12/mile in the race on April 3, 2022. It really put into perspective my 6:49/mile effort today.

I’ve always believed the healthiest competition is against one’s former self. Where you fall in comparison to others can provide feedback, though. In healthy competition with others, each competitor is making the other better. But you have to withhold self-judgment about your competition against others. There will always be someone better, faster, stronger, unless you are the absolute best in the world (in which case, congratu-friggin-lations).

How we think about our former self needs to be adaptable though. Part of optimizing performance as we age is striking the balance between directly comparing performances (i.e. striving for the upper limits of our capabilities), and putting our performances in the appropriate context of age and other life factors. Stress does not discriminate. If work or family is particularly demanding during a season of your life, your athletic performance may not look as stellar when taken out of context.

I know that running performance typically drops off at about a rate of 1% per year starting in the late 30s or early 40s. But I also know that I haven’t reached my true potential. So I’m still going for PRs. Inevitably, I will at some point no longer be able to notch a PR. At that point, I’ll probably have more interest in age-adjusted performance calculators like the one found here. It gives a score as “a percentage of the world-best time for the distance for a given age and gender.” When I put my best 10 mile time into the calculator, it scored me at 74%, which they classify as ‘regional’ level. (80% is national, 90% is world class.)

You can’t beat the reaper, but you can perform better at any age. Just put that performance in the right context and be willing to re-frame your view of yourself.

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