Although longevity continues to increase, some lifestyle risks might have a sufficiently large impact on mortality to halt the present upward trends in life expectancy. The lifestyle risks found in most of the populations of the world’s most affluent countries are cigarette smoking, obesity, an unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, alcohol consumption, and general sedentary behavior (Harper and Howse 2008
). It has been shown that regular physical activity can reduce the risk of all causes of mortality and increase life expectancy (Williams 1997
). Despite the benefits of exercise, the percentage of a population’s physical inactivity increases with advancing age and according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, approximately one third of persons aged 65 or older lead a sedentary lifestyle (http://aspe.hhs.gov/health/reports/physicalactivity/
The aging process in humans is characterized by significant decreases in physiological functions, but numerous studies have demonstrated that continued exercising such as running late into life attenuates sarcopenia and is beneficial for cardiovascular health (Trappe 2007
; Faulkner et al. 2008
). Careful studies of people who age successfully from a physical performance standpoint may elucidate methods and mechanisms that doctors can apply to all patients to develop a more uniform healthcare approach. Older (or masters) endurance athletes represent an ideal model to determine successful aging due to their usual participation in high intensity exercise (Hawkins et al. 2003
). They are a positive example of exceptional aging and are a rich source of insight into a person’s ability to maintain peak physical performance and physiological function with advancing age (Tanaka and Seals 2008
). For example, it has been shown that prevalence of hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, and diabetes decreases with the frequency of marathon participation independent of annual running distance. This may be due to the inclusion of longer training runs in preparation for marathons or to genetic or other innate differences between marathon and non-marathon runners (Williams 2009b
Since the early 1980s, participation in distance running events such as marathon has skyrocketed with hundreds of marathons worldwide and several events having more than 40,000 participants (Burfoot 2007
). The marathon has become a worldwide social and fitness phenomenon, and therefore represents an interesting model to analyze the participation and performances trends of athletes across the ages over a long period of time.
To the best of our knowledge, few studies have focused on the participation and performance trends of masters athletes at the marathon distance since the early 1980s (Jokl et al. 2004
; Leyk et al. 2009
). Jokl et al. (2004
) showed that participation in the New York City (NYC) Marathon over the 1983–1999 period increased at a higher rate in athletes above 50 years old than in younger athletes, for both men and women. In addition, over the same 1983–1999 period, the best male and female athletes older than 50 improved their running times at a greater rate than the younger athletes, whose performance levels have plateaued. However, the changes in participation and performance of elderly athletes at the NYC marathon this last decade (i.e., from 2000 to 2009) have not been yet investigated, and it is not known whether masters athletes still improved their marathon performance or whether they have reached their limits.
Gender differences in running have been well investigated for elite athletes (Sparkling et al. 1998
; Pate and O’Neil 2007
; Baker and Tang 2010
; Hunter et al. 2011
). However, there is paucity of data related to the combined interaction of age and gender on running performance (Leyk et al. 2007
; Ransdell et al. 2009
). Knowing that the physiological (e.g., muscle strength, oxygen carrying capacity) and morphological (e.g., percentage of body fat, muscle mass) functional characteristics change with advancing age, gender differences in endurance running performance may also change with advancing age. For example, some studies have suggested that elderly females may lose muscle mass more rapidly than do their male counterparts (Phillips et al. 1993
; Samson et al. 2000
), but it is not a general finding. An increase in 10-km running time with advancing age has been found to be greater in females compared to males (Tanaka and Seals 2003
). Jokl et al. (2004
) found that the time improvement was substantially greater for older female athletes compared to their male counterparts at the NYC marathon over the 1983–1999 period. These findings suggest that gender differences in marathon running performances for masters athletes may have decreased during the last three decades. However, the possibility of an increased gender difference in endurance running with advanced age needs to be examined.
To date, no data exist regarding the participation and performance trends in marathon running for masters athletes in the first decade of the new century. Accordingly, the first purpose of this large cross-sectional study was to expand the existing data from Jokl et al. (2004
) by examining the changes in participation and performance of masters athletes at the NYC marathon over the last 30 years (from 1980 to 2009). A secondary purpose was to analyze the gender differences in running performance as a function of age across the same 1980–2009 period.