One aspect of Peak Performance rarely discussed in coaching circles is the runners' "Career Life Cycle”. This cycle is basically three phases: Improvement, peak/plateau, and decline. Each of the three phases may last for several years depending on when you started, your health, your biomechanics/orthopedic health, your interest level/life style, and your talent/training capacity.
One of the most notable example of an individual with a long improvement curve/extended peak is US distance runner Bernard Lagat whose career has spanned three decades and who, at age 36, posted his Personal Best 5,000m track time (12:53.60) and ran a 3:51.38 mile the same year. Last year, at age 40, he ran 13:15 and 3:57, great marks, but well off of his age-36 times. He is now, at age 40, well into his decline phase. Yet, given the present state of U.S. middle distance running, may compete successfully well into his 40's.
One of America's greatest distance runners, 2004 Marathon Olympic Bronze Medalist, Deena Kastor, has experienced a similar competitive improvement/peak/plateau lifecycle, winning national championships well into her 30's and running a 2:26 marathon this year at age 42.
Lagat and Kastor share several characteristics: First, they are off-the-scale talented; second, they are highly motivated; and, third, they possess great biomechanics/running efficiency. Talent is primarily a function of natural aerobic capacity, motivation is a personal attribute resulting from a combination of inherent, developed, and environmental factors (such as monetary compensation), and great biomechanics is mostly inherent.
As alluded to earlier, the level of U.S competition facilitates their continued financial success, always a great motivator. Both can win prize money/collect appearance fees as long as they continue to win against relatively weak domestic competition. Kastor, for example, won in excess of $10,000 as 1st American female/masters at this year’s Chicago Marathon and was ranked 3rd fastest American marathoner in 2015. Assuming she stays healthy, she will very like mile a few more years out of her professional running career.
What do their career life-cycles have to do with your running? Not much, other than that they are no exception to the improvement/peak-plateau/decline cycle. The major difference is that their huge talent and exceptional longevity fueled by financial motivation will keep them at a high competitive level in the sport for a long time.
Unfortunately, most of us will have much shorter career phases than Lagat and Kastor for various reasons. A typical high school runner participating in track and cross country will have a 4-year career before permanently hanging-up the spikes, most likely falling far short of reaching his peak phase. As a rule of thumb, the later you start your competitive running career, the shorter will be your improvement curve.
For example, my clients who start training and competing in their mid-forties may have a 4-5 year improvement window whereas my high school clients may continue to improve through their twenties. If you start running in your 30's, you might have an improvement window as long as 6 years. Mind you, these are my observations of hundreds of runners over many years of coaching. There are rare exceptions such as Lagat and Kastor.
If you are lucky enough to still be running after years of training and racing, the name of the game becomes longevity/slowing the rate of decline through age-appropriate training. This usually means less volume, relatively more quality, and more rest/recovery. I will address keys to extending your competitive career in another article.