Boston Qualifying Times for Different Age Groups
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I had a question related to the qualifying times for the Boston Marathon. First, I finished your book Fitness After Forty and remember reading that after age 25 we begin to lose 1 per cent muscle every year. Is that the reason why we have time requirements and age groups in marathons? The time requirements for Boston are 3:05 for male runners 18-34, then the BQ shifts up to 3:10, 3:15, 3:25 as runners pass through various 5-year age categories. Women aged 18-34 qualify with 3:35 and benefit from similar increases. Does that assume that everyone loses 5 percent muscle mass in 5-year age periods? If I strength train, can I slow the muscle loss and gain an advantage? Celebrating a 45th birthday would seem to improve my chances considerably.
Did I say 1% muscle loss per year in that book? Hmmm. A lot of scientific research has been done since publication of that book. The 1% loss might be true if you look at the averages over several decades, but the performance loss is more like a Bell curve with a steep increase in performance from birth until around age 20, followed by somewhat of a plateau before a decline after age 40 that gets steeper as we pass through succeeding decades: 50, 60, 70 and onward. Loss of muscle mass will slow you as a runner (particularly in the shorter distances on the track), but there are many confounding factors as we age, cardiovascular efficiency being one of them.
But, yes, you definitely can slow the decline by strength training. I was part of a longitudinal study by Michael Pollock, Ph.D of the University of Florida, who followed two dozen elite masters runners over a period of several decades. Those who continued to compete, he found, retained fitness more than those who did not, but the crème de la crème were those of us who strength trained. We lost much less fitness than the others and continued to win races at the world and national masters level.
The Boston Athletic Association began to implement qualifying standards in the 1970s: 5 minutes every five years. That gave aging runners hope, because each time they crossed into a new age category, it became easier to qualify. But as statisticians began to examine the times of masters runners, they soon realized that while 5-every-5 worked for runners in their 40s, for those 50 and over, the decline was much steeper.
I was among the first individuals to point this out, and to the BAA’s credit, they looked at the numbers and modified their standards. (To see the current BQ standards, click here.) But, yes, you are right: Every time you cross a 5-year barrier, it becomes much, much easier to earn your BQ than it was the year before. Good luck in reaching your goal.