Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Bernard Lagat vs. Aging

Last weekend 38 year old Bernard Lagat, a multiple Olympic medalist in the 1500m, broke the American record for the indoor 2-mile run at the Millrose games in New York City.  His time was just over 8:09.  This prompted Nick Thompson of the New Yorker to post an excellent piece “Will Bernard Lagat Live Forever?”   It highlighted a number of things about Lagat, a native of Kenya who now competes for the United States, and I was able to provide a bit of physiological insight for Mr. Thompson into why such a great performance was possible by such and “old” runner.   In this post I want to take a bit of deeper dive into: a) just how unusual this performance is, b) some of the physiology behind it, and c) how long Lagat might continue to run fast.

 A Fast Time by a 38 Year Old?

Every time someone in their late 30s or early 40s runs, swims, or rides a bike fast it causes a stir.  That having been said the first thing to remember is that this is not unprecedented.  Here is a top of my head list of other examples of people who have run very fast in their late 30s or early 40s (there are Wiki sites on all of these folks).

  • Jack Foster – multiple fast marathons in his late 30s and early 40s.
  • Carlos Lopes — 1984 Olympic marathon champ at age 37
  • Francie Larrieu (Smith) – 5 time Olympian, last at age 40
  • Steve Scott – broke 4 minutes for the mile 136 times, the last when he was 37
  • Eamonn Coughlin – broke 4 minutes at age 41
  • Haile Gebrselassie – set the world record for the marathon at age 35
  • Miruts Yifter – gold medals in the 5k and 10k in 1980 when he as at least 36
  • Constantina Diţă — won the Peking Marathon in 2008 at age 38


The 2-Mile Run is a Max Test!

It turns out a 2-mile run is essentially a VO2 max test and highly dependent on the maximum ability of the body to deliver oxygen to the exercising muscles.   In fact the velocity at VO2 max on a flat incremental treadmill test to exhaustion is a great predictor of 3k or 2-mile time.   This measurement also considers running economy because more efficient or economical runners will go faster while consuming a given amount of oxygen.  The other thing to remember here is that while VO2 starts to fall at age 30 in untrained subjects it is both much higher and starts to fall later in the super fit who continue to train hard and do intervals.


What About Lagat, and How Fast for How Long?

Lagat is a relatively light trainer in terms of his weekly mileage, but he runs his mileage fast and does the type of interval training critical for maintaining a high VO2 max as you age.   He also ran very fast indoor 3k times in 2010 and 2012, so fast times in races lasting about 8 minutes are nothing new.   His relatively light training also probably protects him from physical injury and psychological burn out.   All of this is consistent with information I shared in a previous post on running fast while getting older.  So the only question is how much longer can these fast times last?   The short answer is who knows, but longitudinal data on elite male distance runners over 20 plus years shows that those who continue to train intensely  lose the least and those who train the hardest (not the most) lose almost nothing (2%) into their middle to late 40s.   So, if Bernard Lagat wants to keep running fast, there is no physiological reason he can’t be running almost as fast as he is now for at least five more years.   1% of a fast 2-mile is about 5 seconds and somewhere under 8:20 would certainly seem possible for Lagat 5 years from now.  He would only be 43!


One Response to “Bernard Lagat vs. Aging”

  1. March 25th, 2013 at 6:01 am

    Aging & the Other Bernard | Human Limits: Michael J. Joyner, M.D. says:

    […] month there was a lot of hullabaloo when 38 year old Bernard Lagat ran a very fast 2-mile (8:09) indoors at the Millrose games in New York City.  On March 9th 48 year old Bernard Hopkins […]

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