What determines the rate at which a runner’s performance declines with age? Is it genes, training, life-style, or a combination of all three? There is no clear answer to this complex question, but there are intriguing clues. I will set the scene in this post with some anecdotal evidence gleaned for a comparison of the two greatest veteran distance runners of all time: Derek Turnbull and Ed Whitlock. In my next post, I will examine some of the relevant scientific evidence.
Both Turnbull and Whitlock were talented athletes in their youth, though in those early years neither reached the world-class level that they went on to achieve in later years.
Derek Turnbull was a New Zealander born in 1926. During his student days, he had a personal best for the mile of 4:23 on a grass track and achieved fourth place in national three- and six-miles championships. He was awarded a University Blue for these performances. After leaving Massey University with a diploma in farming, he travelled for several years before settling down to continue the family tradition of sheep farming. He eventually recommenced running largely as the whim took him across the fields and through woodland in his neighbourhood.
Ed Whitlock was born in London in 1931. As a schoolboy he achieved his greatest successes in cross-country events. During his university days, studying mining engineering at the Royal School of Mines at Imperial College, he won the University of London cross country championship and was also the University’s 3 mile champion on the track. One of his noteworthy achievements was a cross county victory over Gordon Pirie. Pirie went on to set a world record for 5,000m when he beat the formidable Russian, Vladimir Kuts in an epic ace in Bergen, Norway, in June 1956. Meanwhile Whitlock completed a university degree and emigrated to Canada where he took a job in mining engineering in a relatively remote region where there was no opportunity to continue as a competitive athlete. After moving to Quebec, he recommenced running at age 41, almost by accident after his wife had volunteered him to do some coaching at a local school. Fortuitously, his return to running coincided with the birth of competitive masters athletics.
World Masters 1500m championships, 1977 and 1979
Both Turnbull and Whitlock came to international prominence at the 2nd World Veterans Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden, in 1977. Turnbull won gold in the M50-54 1500m in a time of 4:23.5. Whitlock took silver in the M45-49 1500m in 4:06.1. Two years later, in the 3rd World Veterans Championships in Hannover, Germany, Turnbull again won gold in the M50-54 1500m in a time of 4:17.0 and Whitlock won gold in the M45-49 1500m in 4:09.6.
In 1987, Turnbull became the first 60 year old to break 2:40:00 for the marathon with a time of 2:38:46, in my home town, Adelaide. Four years later Luciano Acquarone shaved 31 seconds off Turnbull’s record, and then in 2009, Yosihisa Hosaka reduced the record to 2:36:30. Nonetheless, Turnbull’s time remains the fourth fastest ever recorded in the age category M60-64. Turnbull went on from his record breaking performance in Adelaide to a golden period of record breaking. In a two month period prior to the London marathon in 1992 he set M65-69 world records in 800m, mile, 3000m, 5000m, and 10000m; all of which, apart from the 800m record, still stand. In the marathon itself he set a new M65-69 marathon world record of 2:41:57. That record still stands 23 years later. These performances mark him as the greatest middle-aged long distance runner the world has ever seen.
Although Turnbull remained capable of world class performances at age 70, there had been a marked decline in his late 60’s, as illustrated in figure 1. The deterioration in the 800m and 1500m was discernible even before his phenomenal performances at age 65 in in 1992, whereas there was only minor deterioration in 5000m, 10,000m and marathon between 60 and 65. In fact the minimal deterioration in the longer events between 60 and 65 is remarkable. However after his amazing performances at age 65, there was acceleration of decline across all distances with the greatest rate of deterioration in the longer distances. His marathon time of 3:15:59 recorded at the World Masters Athletics championships in Durban, South Africa at age 70 places him 28th on the world all-time list for the M70-75 category.
fig 1: Derek Turnbull; change in performance with age, expressed as the proportional change in time compared with time recorded at age 60
Unfortunately, he suffered a stroke in 2001. Although he continued to compete in track, road and trail races after that stroke, sadly he died in 2006 at age 79.
Whitlock exhibits a markedly different pattern of decline with age. He had achieved his life-time personal best of 2:31:25 for the marathon at age 48, although he was not focused on the marathon at that stage. In his late 60’s after retirement from work he turned his attention to the marathon. He developed his unique training program characterised by frequent long slow runs. By age 68 he was running three of more runs of at least 2 hours each week. That year, he set a time of 2:51:02 in the marathon in Columbus Ohio, and the following year returned to Columbus to record a time of 2:52:50. He had his eyes on becoming the first 70 year old to break the 3 hour mark. The following year, 2001, in London, Ontario, he just missed out on that target with a time of 3:00:23, which was nonetheless a M70-74 world record at the time.
The following year was blighted by arthritis, but then in 2003, at age 72, he achieved his goal of breaking 3 hours with a time of 2:59:09. But the best was still to come. He further increased the duration of his long training runs typically doing 3 or more runs of 3 hours duration each week. In the 2004 Toronto Waterfront Marathon he achieved the utterly astounding time of 2:54:48, arguably one of the greatest marathons of all time.
He was a frequent winner of his age category in the Waterfront marathon in the ten years from 2004 to 2013, often setting a single-age world record time. In addition to the M70-74 world record set in 2004, he also set the M75-79 and M80-84 records, with times of 3:04:53 at 76 and 3:15:53 at 80. In 2013 he set the single-age world record for an 82 year with a time of 3:41:57, giving him a total of 11 single age world records for the marathon spanning the age range 68 to 82, and demonstrating his near total domination of the marathon over this age span.
He missed the Waterfront marathon in 2014 due to an injury to his upper thigh. He attempted to rebuild his fitness in 2015. However he was dogged by a series of troublesome injuries that prevented him from building training volume consistently for more than a few months at a time. He did achieve a M84 single age world record in the Longboat Island 10,000m in September. However he was unable to build his training to the level required for a marathon, and did not start in this year’s Waterfront Marathon.
Genes, life-style and training
Apart from the knowledge that he was from a family that had farmed in New Zealand for several generations, I know little of Derek Turnbull’s family background. However he himself lived a robust life as a sheep farmer: mending fences; heaving ewes into pens; shearing.
He cultivated a self-deprecatory attitude when describing his racing and training. Roger Robinson reports that he would say “I don’t train. I just run — when I feel, where I feel, how I feel.” By all accounts his training was spontaneous. Much of it was over rugged terrain on his farm or nearby; and much was fairly demanding: either long runs over hilly routes or fast shorter runs. According to Robinson’s account, Turnbull’s spontaneity produced a well-balanced program of long runs, tempo, and fast work.
By most standards, Derek Turnbull would be rightly considered to have lived a remarkably healthy life. His ability to work hard and train hard though his sixties is a testimony to his extraordinarily robust constitution. Despite the stroke at age 74, he continued to run and to work on his farm, shearing sheep up to the year of his death at age 79. However, the decline from his superlative marathon performance at age 65 to a performance that is merely 28th on the world all-time list at age 70 raises the question of how long it is possible for a distance runner to remain at the pinnacle of international competition.
I have described Whitlock’s background and training in detail in a previous post. With regard to the present topic, a potentially key issue is the fact that he comes from a long-lived family, with an uncle who lived to age 107.
After taking up running again in his early 40’s, at first he merely jogged, but after he joined a club and became involved in competitive masters athletics, his training was largely track based and included demanding interval sessions. After his gold medal in the 1500m at age 48 in the World Veterans Championships in Hannover, he continued to train for track events though his 50’s and 60’s. In the 1995 World Masters championships in Buffalo, NY at age 64 he came 7th in the 5000m. It is nonetheless noteworthy that a time of 4:46 for a 1500m in Toronto at age 66 confirmed that he still had quite impressive speed in his legs. But in his mid-sixties, after retiring from work, he turned his attention to the marathon.
As outlined above, for the majority of the past 16 years the central feature of his training has been multiple slow runs each week, typically building-up to 3 hours per session for at least 3 days per week . These long, slow sessions are complemented by quite frequent races over distances from 3000m to 10Km. This markedly polarised program has kept him at the pinnacle of veteran marathoning throughout that 16 year period, apart from the four years in which his training has been blighted by arthritis or injury.
He has generously shared a great deal of information about his training in his comments on multiple threads on the Lets Run forum over the years. A striking feature of his training is the care he takes to minimise stress. Most importantly he maintains what he describes as a ‘glacial’ pace. He runs with a short stride, scarcely getting airborne, in order to minimise the impact at footfall. He trains in the Milton Evergreen Cemetery only a few blocks from his house so that he will be near to home should an injury develop. He keeps to the level paths and in particular avoids the only short incline in the cemetery. He tolerates the monotony of repeated short loops around the paths of the cemetery in exchange for the advantage of avoiding protracted battles against headwinds.
Whenever he has had a break from training due to misadventure or injury he builds up very slowly, starting with runs as short as 15 minutes and building at a rate sufficiently gradual to avoid accumulation of fatigue from day to day. As a general rule, his only rest days are the days after a race, although he is not obsessional about training every day, if some other event intervenes. It typically takes him many months, even as along as a year or more, to build up run duration to 3 hours
Similarities and Contrasts
Both Whitlock and Turnbull had taken a break for regular training after their student days and then in mid-adult life resumed regular training. Although Whitlock’s approach to track sessions were probably more systematic than Turnbull’s rather spontaneous approach, it appears that both benefitted from a substantial amount of quite intense training, leading to gold medals in veterans world championship in the 1500m; Whitlock in his late forties and Turnbull in his early fifties.
The marked contrasts emerged in their 60’s. Turnbull had his golden period in his early and mid sixties, setting world records across the full range of middle and long distance events. In those years he continued to work as a sheep farmer. He combined days of strenuous farm work with demanding training sessions. The remarkable lack of deterioration in his performances over 5000m, 10000m and marathon in the period from age 60 to 65 suggests that after his record breaking run in the Adelaide marathon at age 60 he had increased the volume of his training to a new level, with a greater focus on longer training runs, though I do not have any direct evidence for this. Perhaps his relaxed spontaneous approach to training protected him from over-training during this golden period. By age 70 he was still competing creditably in international events, though no longer setting world marathon records.
In contrast, although Whitlock competed in his early and mid-sixties, he recorded few exceptional performances in those years. It was only after retiring from work and developing his training program based on multiple long slow runs each week that he blossomed as a marathon runner. He showed signs of things to come with his world single age record in Columbus, Ohio at age 68, but his greatest performance was his M70-74 world record time of 2:54:48. at age 73. He has continued to set world records into his eighties, not only in the marathon but in a variety of shorter events. This year, at age of 84 he is struggling to achieve sustained training for a period of more than a few months, but nonetheless set a M84 single age world record in the 10,000m in September
There are few general conclusions that can be drawn from anecdotal evidence regarding two unique champions, though the similarities and differences do prompt some interesting speculations. However, before engaging in these speculations, it is informative to examine briefly the career of another marathoner who until recently appeared to have the potential to challenge the records of Turnbull and Whitlock: Yoshihisa Hosaka.
I have described Hosaka’s training in some detail in a previous blog post. Like Turnbull and Whitlock, he had been a champion at regional level in his student days, but gave up running to pursue his talent for surfing in his twenties and returned to running in his thirties, initially in relatively short road races and then, from his mid-forties, in the marathon. At age 60, he set a new M60-64 world record of 2:36:30 in Beppu Oita, taking nearly 2 minutes off the record that had belonged to Derek Turnbull a few years previously.
The key feature of Hosaka’s training in those days was an unvarying daily schedule of two sessions, each of which included intervals at a pace which would be only moderately demanding in isolation, but in the context of a daily total of 32Km of running, contributed to a formidable weekly total volume and intensity. He fitted his twice daily sessions around an 8.5 hour working day as a businessman. He included regular strength training to increase his defence against injury, and he argued that his unvarying daily schedule allowed him to monitor how well his body was coping with the training much more effectively than a program that alternates hard and easy days.
In 2013, four years after setting the M60-64 record, he ran 2:46:14 at the Gold Coast Airport Marathon in July, and then in November was frustrated by tightening of his leg muscles in the mid-stages of the Toronto Waterfront marathon, finishing in 2:50:44. Although it is unwise to read too much into two performances, these times were perhaps the first glimmering of evidence of accelerating deterioration as he approached his mid-60’s. Nonetheless, he planned an assault on Turnbull’s M65+ record in 2014. He won the M65-69 age group at the Gold Coast marathon but his time of 2:52:13 was well outside Turnbull’s record of 2:41:57, and he did not start in the Toronto Waterfront Marathon that year.
This anecdotal evidence from the careers of Derek Turnbull and Ed Whitlock,and also that of Yoshihisa Hosaka, is consistent with the claim that it is very difficult to remain at the pinnacle of international performance as a distance runner for many decades.
In their student days, all three demonstrated that they were endowed with substantial talent, but it was only after they again took-up intense training a decade or more later that they came to prominence on the international scene. For all three, there were aspects of their life-style and training that probably provided some protection against injury and burn-out, allowing them to achieve great performances in their 60’s.
Perhaps it was Derek Turnbull’s relaxed spontaneous approach to training, together with the robustness engendered by his farming life-style that protected him in middle-age, though combining strenuous farm work with intense running on a whim creates a risk of excessive stress in the long term. In contrast, Hosaka’s disciplined and consistent training made it possible for him to judge accurately how well his body was coping, while his resistance sessions probably helped strengthen the connective tissues of his body. However, as with Turnbull, a life-style and training schedule as demanding as that of Hosaka carries a risk of eventual burn-out
Whitlock stands out on account of his longevity at the top. His family history of longevity makes it likely that genes played a crucial role. But genes alone rarely shape outcome; it is highly probable that aspects of his life-style and training have also played a crucial role. He has designed a program of training and racing that places a strong focus on avoiding stress as much as possible despite the very high volume of his training. The notable features are making the most of his retirement from work to devote his energies almost exclusively to running; a markedly polarised program with a very large volume of very low intensity running, augmented by regular intense racing; a very gradual build-up of training volume with a degree of day to day consistency facilitating a sensitive assessment of progress; and a training gait designed to minimise impact forces on his legs.
In my next post I will examine some of the scientific evidence about the role of genes, life-style and training, and the possible interactions between them in determining longevity as a distance runner.