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At what age will an athlete achieve peak performance?

Frank Horwill explains at what age an 800m and1500m athlete will potentially achieve their best performance and how to best prepare for these events.

An 800 metre and 1500 metre male runner is most likely to run his fastest at around the age of 25. If you don't believe it, compare the ages of past and present world record holders for these distances. For females, the peak is delayed to the age of 27. Why women differ in this regard is a mystery. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule but these are rare. Also having achieved an all-time best time at these ages, the athletes often continue for another decade with world-class times. Seb Coe, for example, ran 1:41.73 for 800 metres at age 24 and 1:43.52 for 800 metres at age 33. Steve Cram ran a mile in 3:46:32 aged 25, and 3:53.8 when he was 30. The age at which a male runner is most likely to run a lifetime best for 3K and 5K is 27, for females, 29. For the 10k, it is 29 and 31, respectively.

What is the significance of these statistics?

First of all, they tell the 14-year-old keen club runner that he or she has a long way to go before they reach true potential. Parents of such athletes who want to see their offspring on the Olympic podium in their teens have little chance of seeing that dream fulfilled. These statistics point the way to changing the competitive distance to a longer one. Moving up a distance before the indicated age is not a good idea. All longer distance events are associated with what the athlete has achieved at a shorter one. For instance, the calculation for running a 5K is three times the 1500 metre time plus 2.5 minutes e.g. best 1500 metre time=4 min 5k=4 min x 3 + 2.5 min=14 min 30 sec. At world-class level add 2.25 minutes e.g. best 1500 metre time=3:40 min x 3 + 2.25 min=13 min 15 sec. The same applies to the 10k distance. This is usually calculated at twice the 5K time plus one minute e.g. best 5K=14 min 10k=14 min x 2 + 1 min=29 min. To run sub 27 minutes for the 10k, an athlete would need to have a time of around 3:30 min for 1500 metres, which indicates a 13 min/5K, which makes a sub 27 min/10k a possibility. The age of peak performance in the marathon is between 30 and 37 years of age. This, too, is largely dependent on what the athlete has done at 10k. A rule-of-thumb indicator is five times the 10k time equals the potential marathon time e.g., best 10k time=30 min - marathon=2 hrs 30 min.

This is considered a little pessimistic by some and optimistic by others, however, by adding plus or minus five minutes to this original formula, we won't go far wrong.

10k Marathon
Emil Zatopek 28 min 54.00 sec 2 hr 23 min 32 sec
Liz McColgan 30 min 57:07 sec 2 hr 27 min 32 sec
Eamonn Martin 27 min 23:06 sec 2 hr 10 min 50 sec

Hanging in there

The other quality that age statistics give to an athlete is patience. I recall a 24-year-old Royal Marine miler who was stuck at 4:08 min for the 1500 metres, which he had done four times. A new coach took him in hand and at the age of 25, he ran a 3:56 min/mile. He also broke the UK 1500 metre record (3:38.78) in 1972. This runner was on the point of giving up athletics at the age of 24! An apt saying to remember when progress seems to slow down at this crucial time is: "Keep on, keep on, until a little something inside you says, 'KEEP ON!"'

Time for action

The age allowance also permits the athlete and coach to assess personal strengths and weaknesses and gives time for concrete action to be taken. Here is an example. Paula is a 22-year-old club runner with personal best times of 4 min 40 sec 1500 metre, 2 min 12 sec 800 metre, and 56 sec 400 metre.

What do these times tell us?

If we apply the 5-second rule for females, we get some fascinating results. This rule is when 5 seconds per 400 metres is added to the distances above. For instance, 2:12/800 metres is 66 seconds per lap, but if we add 5 seconds to her 400 metres time of 56 seconds it equals 61 seconds, and if multiplied by two it equals a potential of 2:02 for 800 metres (61 seconds per 400 metres). If we take this further, her 1500 metres time should be 66 seconds per 400 metres (4 min: 7.05 sec). Quite, this athlete has not achieved her potential, but why? Her 400-metre time is good, but her 800 metres time is double the 5-second rule instead of being able to run two consecutive laps of 61 seconds (56 + 5), she can only run 56 seconds + 10 seconds (2:12). Further, she can only run 74.5 seconds per lap in the 1500 metres, where her potential is 66 seconds per 400 metres, some 8.5 seconds faster. As the event distance increases, she gets proportionately slower. She lacks endurance for longer distances beyond 400 metres.

What must be done?

First of all, she will have to start training at these new speeds regularly. She will have to inoculate herself with these speeds consistently so that when experienced in races they will not come as an unwelcome shock. So, she could train at 1500 metre speed on Sunday, 800-metre pace on Tuesday, and 400-metre speed on Thursday. On the days between these track sessions, she could bind together the speed sessions with the steady runs. For example - Monday, 1-hour steady run - Wednesday, 45 min acceleration runs (15 min slow, 15 min steady and 15 min fast) - Friday, 30 min fast run - Racing on Saturdays at this juncture should be a secondary consideration for about 12 weeks.

Reducing recovery times

At this point, it is wise to remember the old Chinese maxim: "A 10,000-mile walk starts with the first step". The main task is to get used to the new speeds, which means adequate recovery times after repetitions. This recovery MUST be reduced gradually as the times are achieved.

Here is a table of starting times with progressions:

  • 1500 metre speed - 8 x 400 metre in 66 sec with 400-metre jog recovery (3 min). Reducing the 400-metre jog by 100 metre (45 sec) to 300-metres, then to 200 metres (90 sec)
  • 800-metre speed - 8 x 200 metres in 30 sec with 200-metre jog recovery (90 sec). Reducing to 100 metres jog (45 sec) when achieved
  • 400-metre speed - 1 x 350 metres full out, jog 800 metres (6 min), 1 x 300 metres full out, jog 800 metres, 1 x 250 metres full out, jog 800 metres, 1 x 200 metres full out. Reducing the jog recovery in stages by 100 metres until 400 metres (3 min)

As these distances are achieved, they can be increased to bear a relationship to the actual race distances. e.g. 1500 metres speed, 4 x 800 metres in 2:12 with 400 metres jog recovery (3 min). 800 metres speed, 4 x 400 metres in 61 sec, 400 metres jog recovery (3 min).

In place of early preparation races, meaningful time trials over segments of the race distance can be done. Traditional favourites are 1200 metres for the 1500 metres, 600 metres for the 800 metres and 300 metres for the 400 metres.

I recall an athlete saying to me many years ago at the end of a track season, "l am very disappointed with my 800 metres time this year". Asked how many he had raced, he replied, "One".

Dean Cromwell, former chief coach to four US Olympic teams, compared racing to find an old pair of shoes in good condition in the attic. First of all, the dust is removed (Race 1); then the polish is applied (Race 2); then they are polished to a shine (Race 3); finally, they are buffed to a fine sheen (Race 4).

The analogy implies that a minimum of four races is required at any distance to bring about minimum results. This would be four of each at 400 metres, 800 metres and 1500 metres. Many will find that double this number may be needed. In the US there is a preference for racing under distance more than the specialist distance. Thus an 800-metre specialist would race, say, eight 400 metres races and only four at 800 metres. There is a psychological advantage in preceding a longer race with a shorter one e.g. 400 metres followed by 800 metres; 800 metres followed by 1500 metres; 1500 metres followed by a 3K or 5K. There would, of course, be a week or a fortnight's gap between such races.

What I said about lack of endurance in the example applies equally to lack of speed. There is often an air of hopelessness about not being fast at 400 metres. One thing is for sure, if regular sprint work is not done, it will not improve. There is also a right and a wrong way to sprint. Leg strength is a vital ingredient in a sprinter. One simple test is the number of hops needed to cover 25 metres; 10 hops on each leg are indicative of good leg strength for sprinting. If an athlete is way off this target, regular hopping exercises and/or judicious weight training under expert supervision can develop it. As leg strength improves so does the stride length, and provided the strike rate remains the same, the athlete will automatically go faster.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • HORWILL, F. (2003) Knowing at what age an athlete is likely to achieve peak
    performance is a big help in planning a training programme. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 3 / July), p. 3-4

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  • HORWILL, F. (2003) At what age an athlete is likely to achieve peak performance is a big help in planning a training programme [WWW] Available from: [Accessed