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For marathoners, lifetime bests are generally set between about 25 and 35 years of age, after which the inexorable decline begins.Anatoly Tiplyashin/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Way back in 1980, a 53-year-old Japanese runner named Keizo Yamada notched a finishing time of 2:49:12 at the Honolulu Marathon. The time was seemingly no big deal for the former Olympic runner and Boston Marathon champion, but it represented a milestone: He was the first person to run sub-three-hour marathons in five different calendar decades.

By the end of 2019, only 39 other people – 38 men and one woman (1984 Olympic champion Joan Benoit Samuelson) – had joined Yamada in this exclusive club. These 40 runners are the subject of a new analysis in the journal Frontiers in Physiology, and their remarkable feats suggest that our usual assumptions about the trajectory of physical aging may be too pessimistic.

It’s tricky to pinpoint exactly when physical decline begins, since different physical capacities such as strength, balance and agility fall off at different rates. For marathoners, lifetime bests are generally set between about 25 and 35 years of age, after which the inexorable decline begins.

“It is frequently said that the age-related decline in VO2max [a measure of aerobic fitness and endurance] is about 10 per cent per decade after 40,” says Romuald Lepers, a professor of sports science at the National Institute for Health and Medical Research at the University of Burgundy in Dijon, France, and lead author of the new study.

But there’s a caveat to this rule of thumb, Lepers adds: “There is not much data on longitudinal studies.”

Most studies of aging rely on cross-sectional data, which compares groups of young people to different groups of old people. Even if you compare similar groups of people – young runners and old runners doing roughly the same amount of exercise, for example – this approach assumes that aging is a relatively smooth and predictable process.

In practice, though, that’s not what you see in longitudinal studies, which follow the same people for several decades. As researchers from the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Demography of Health and Aging argued in a 2019 paper, individual health trajectories frequently follow a pattern of “punctuated equilibrium” – long periods of relative stability interrupted by short periods of sudden decline thanks to challenges like a bout of pneumonia or a broken hip.

If that’s the case, then people who manage to mostly avoid these mini-catastrophes should see their performance decline along a gentler slope. And that, indeed, is what Lepers and his colleagues found in their cohort of “5DS3” (five decades sub-three) marathoners.

On average, the runners set their personal best about five years after their first marathon, reaching their peak in their late 20s or early 30s. Then the decline started. But they lost only 64 seconds a year over a span of more than three decades (most of them notched their first sub-three in the late 1970s, and their last in the early 2010s). That works out to a decline of about 7 per cent per decade, substantially better than the typical 10 per cent.

So what’s their secret?

“Training consistency, and even racing consistency, is the key,” says Amby Burfoot, a journalist with PodiumRunner, a co-author on Lepers’s new paper, and a former Boston Marathon champion himself. Burfoot has been tracking the 5DS3 cohort for several years now, and has interviewed many of them. “I remember that some of the guys had setbacks,” he says, “but not big ones.”

Of course, it’s hardly groundbreaking to suggest that you should try to avoid injury and serious illness. But the feats of the 5DS3 runners strengthen the case that the best way to bend the aging curve is not with short-lived periods of heroic workouts, but with consistency over the course of years and decades.

As for when the curve eventually steepens, that’s not yet clear. Since the new decade started in January, 2020, five of the 5DS3 runners have recorded yet another sub-three-hour marathon, establishing the fledgling 6DS3 club. More will surely follow.

Alex Hutchinson is the author of Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Follow him on Twitter @sweatscience.

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