Posted by: Joe English | July 27, 2011

Racing — Age Grading Provides Context for Runners & Triathletes

running-advice-bugToday I’m going to share a bit of an e-mail exchange that I had with one of our readers and a friend of mine. She had just finished her first half-Ironman and after kvetching about the race, she summarized in a direction that got a little under my skin. As many of you know, I’m a proud bearer of the “masters” title and it surprised me in how she was comparing herself to everyone else in the field and not giving herself more credit for how well she actually did. You’re going to hear both from her and me in the discussion below that has to do with a concept called “age grading” of performances. Her comments are marked “HER” and mine are marked “ME”.

Way Above Average

HER: “So what does all of this mean to me? Well as you know in the end I ranked at 813 out of 1,651, which means I finished at 49.2%. That in turn means I was, well in fact average! I finished right in the middle. So I was AVERAGE! And guess what? I’m okay with average. Because here’s what I understand to be true. My results were average but in an event that not every average person ever attempts to complete. It’s really so much like your “slowest of the fast” concept. I’m happy being in the middle of the pack in a sport that not everyone would ever consider participating it! Perhaps if I work hard this will mean that in fact I’m just a little bit above average and perhaps I can improve.”

ME: While it is very healthy to strive to get better, it is important to understand that we need to compare ourselves to people with whom we’re similarly situated. So when considering averages, you’re missing a very important factor, which is called “age grading”. Although you finished right in the middle of the field as a whole, you’re not average at all. When you take out all the 22 year-olds, you’re way above average. This is why the “masters” category becomes so important. It’s important to recognize that athletes begin slowing down after the age of 30 and you should be judging yourself against women over the age of 40, where the Masters designation kicks in in the sport of Triathlon, because it helps provide more context to your performance.

But remember that there are fewer people competing at that age, so you can’t just look at where you fall in the age group of this particular race. That might be only a few people – or even only a few really fast people – you need a statistically significant sample to judge your performance and this is where age grading comes in. When you consider this, you were way better than average.

HER: “I really don’t forget that I’m in the “Masters” category and that I need to factor in all of those young girls and boys screwing up the average. I get it. But I just prefer to avoid the asterisk of “for her age”! It’s no different when people say “you look great for your age.” What, like if I were younger I’d be ugly or out of shape, or my performance and therefore results would suck? Let me put it in this context for you. Say you’ve just won a race and someone says, “you have such endurance and stamina. It’s was incredible….especially considering your age”……hmmmm. yeah. sucks just a bit, doesn’t it? Perhaps you’ll argue it’s different, but performance is performance isn’t it?”

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