Amby Burfoot won the Boston Marathon in 1968 as a Wesleyan undergrad, where Bill Rogers was his roommate and teammate. Amby’s best marathon time of 2:14:28.8 at Fukuoka later that year was just 1 second off the American record.

Amby became a leading chronicler of the running boom as editor-in-chief of Runner’s World for many years, where he continues to serve as editor-at-large. Amby and I developed a close friendship after he came to me for TI instruction in 2006 to help extend his enjoyment of the running life.

A measure of just how much Amby loves running is that he recently ran his 54th consecutive Manchester CT Road Race, a record-breaking streak dating from age 17 to 70!  Running Manchester annually has given Amby a rare record of the effects of aging on his performance, which he described with humor and unflinching honesty in an email:

“The Manchester course has not changed over my 54 years, so I have an accurately depressing data set of performances. My best was about 22:22. Today I ran a not-proud-but-what-can-I-say 37:12–roughly 67% slower than my best, or 1.24% slower per year. 

This hasn’t been a straight line. For over 4 decades, my decline rate was .9% per year, but the last 7 years have been more like 3% per year.

I’d say my training has been a constant for the last 40 years. Roughly 25-30 miles a week, including intervals, occasional 5K race efforts, and a couple hours of gym time.”

Amby’s message made me curious about my comparative decline in performance. I chose the 1650y (equivalent to 1500m) freestyle as my performance benchmark, both because it’s the longest swimming event for which a rigorous measurement is available, and because it’s closest in duration to the Manchester Road Race of all standard swim race distances.

I swam my fastest 1650 of 18:02 at age 20. I’ll swim my next 1650 on Dec. 11 and have no doubt, it will be a ‘lifetime slowest.’  Based on my current training, I estimate I might swim it in about 26 minutes. This would be 45% slower than my fastest, for an average decline of exactly 1% per year.

Like Amby my decline has been quite uneven, but there are few other similarities between our experiences.

  • Between age 20 and 55 I slowed by only 10%, or an average decline of only .28% per year.
  • Between 55 and 64 (last March), I lost a further 21%, an average performance decline of 2.3% per year.
  • Over the past 8 months—if my projection is correct—I’ll have lost an additional 14%, a function of the effects of cancer treatment.

I’ve slowed a lot less since age 20 than Amby has, but have declined far more precipitously of late.  And while he’s run Manchester for 54 consecutive years—and never took a hiatus from regular run training—I ‘retired’ from swimming at age 20, returning to the pool at age 37. I didn’t race a 1650 for 21 years from age 20 to age 41. Yet—despite my lengthy hiatus–I slowed only 50 seconds, or just 4%, from my best during that period.

One reason is that Amby was an elite marathoner in college, nearly breaking the American record. I was a clueless, erratic, and underperforming athlete until my ‘retirement’ at age 20. But I spent my 17-year hiatus coaching others, gaining priceless insights into the value of technique, one of the things about which I’d been clueless as an athlete.

I founded TI near the end of that hiatus. I’d begun to prioritize a, ‘vessel-shaping’ approach to technique and had begun transforming my own stroke, while acting as ‘guinea fish’ for what we taught to TI students.

Illness as Opportunity

My most valuable insights however have come in the past decade, a period when I’ve experienced significant health challenges. I’d been fortunate to enjoy great health through my mid-50s. Shortly after breaking national records at age 55 and 56, I was hit by polymyalgia rheumatica, an autoimmune syndrome characterized by fatigue and inflammation. That greatly accelerated my loss of speed.

I swam few pool races during those years, but never stopped training. While I couldn’t train as long or effortfully as I had a few years earlier, I never became complacent. Though my repeat times were much slower, I developed an unprecedented keenness of focus, trying to eke out every last bit of speed and endurance from my limited capacity.

I swam my first 1650 in nine years last March. My time of 23:10 was my slowest ever (and 3 minutes, 20 seconds slower than I’d swum at age 55). Yet in the blog 1390 Seconds of Unwavering Focus I described it as one of the best races of my life, with respect to focus and execution of a race plan. I’m hopeful of doing similarly next month.

In my teens I worked as hard as humanly possible, yet often had race results that were most disappointing in comparison to how I swam in training. In my 60s, I’ve exerted myself quite judiciously yet have consistently raced intelligently and effectively. That intrinsic quality–and the quality of the experience–not the objectively measurable, but extrinsic, quality of time, has become my primary measure, and is consistent with what I teach.

I took a break from writing this blog to visit the pool at midday. While swimming I reflected on the almost limitless opportunities that exist in swimming to improve a performance, completely apart from one’s metabolic capacity at the moment.

There are countless mini-skills that can improve or degrade one’s performance on a single 100-yard repeat. A 1650-yard performance is the product of countless reps on which you can solve small problems and imprint the solution–at least if you train in the neurally-oriented manner TI advocates.

Two examples: Breathing is a given in running and cycling. You barely have to think about it. In swimming, it’s probably the most challenging skill. It’s possible to make a huge improvement in one’s stroke efficiency by learning better breathing skill.

Turns are another example. One must reverse direction every 25y/m or every 15 to 18 strokes. The difference in efficacy of a turn well executed vs poorly executed is massive. There’s also a breathing or breath control component to every turn, as it involves an interruption of 4 to 5 seconds from one’s normal breathing pattern. Imagine if a runner or cyclist were required to hold one’s breath for a similar period every 20 seconds or so.

If you take aging, or some period of reduced ability as a prod to minimize the effect on performance by improving one’s skill set, you can significantly minimize the decline.

One is slowly robbed of metabolic capacity by the aging process. I have twice had the experience of losing metabolic capacity rapidly and dramatically. In my late 50s through an autoimmune disorder, and more recently by cancer and its treatment.

Both times I viewed the experience as an opportunity to raise my game on the problem-solving aspects of training. And though every race I swim will probably be my slowest ever by quite a bit, I’ll continue swimming in Masters meets as long as I can, because filling out a race registration form gives my training even more purpose.

Watch this space for further updates on my training and racing.