This is an excerpt from Mastering Running by Catharine Utzschneider.
The importance of focused practice over many years has been demonstrated again and again. Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, a professor at Florida State University and one of the world's leading theoretical and experimental researchers on expertise, has studied it in most fields, including mathematics, athletics, and music. He and his colleagues have found that 10 years or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice leads to excellence (Ericsson et al. 1993). Deliberate practice is practice aimed at reaching goals just beyond your present level of competence; it involves focusing on your weaknesses and specific needs, practicing your skills repeatedly, and continually adjusting them with feedback from a coach or teacher.
The limited research that exists on numbers of years to personal bests in masters running generally supports the rule of 10 years or 10,000 hours, showing that they are achieved within 7 to 10 years, regardless of when you start. Masters runner Priscilla Welch started running at age 34 and achieved her personal best in the marathon 8 years later, at age 42, running 2:26:51 (Rodgers and Welch 1991). Older legs can be fresher legs. It took the female masters runners in my doctoral dissertation an average of 7.5 years to reach their best times, whether they started running in their teens or after age 30 (Utzschneider 2002).
If you're a masters runner who is starting really late - not just after 30, but after 40 or 50 or even 60 - and if you have genetic ability as well, you can catch up to others after 10 years of deliberate practice. As Rodgers and Welch wrote in Masters Running and Racing, "a 50-year-old novice racer is promised the same span of progress as a 15-year-old," (1991, p. 4). Figure 3.1 from my research found that after 10 years, masters runners who started after 30 or even after 50 could be just as fast as those who started when young.
Late starting masters female runners can catch up to women who start running in their earlier years.
One reason it takes more than a few years to achieve one's best result is simple: it takes that long to figure out the mix of physical and mental training habits, including strength training, patience, and race strategy that work best for you, and that mix changes over time. Joe Navas, 43, started running at age 30. "It took me the better part of eight years to even begin to wrap my head around the idea of patience in all aspects of running," he told me in December of 2013. When he first started running, "training meant running faster every time out. How could one expect to get faster without running faster? I had no concept of time or pace, beyond what I was beginning to learn about how to not just plain blow up in a race, which still took a long time to wrap my head around. I was the guy in the Cape Cod Athletic Club who could be counted on to lead for the first mile and fade. Every time."
Personal bests for Joe came 8 to 10 years later. "I began to think that training more and racing less could have benefits. I approached every race with an idea about pace," he said. At 38, he ran 1:10:26 at the New Bedford Half Marathon. That year he also ran personal bests in the Lone Gull 10K (32:18) and in the Falmouth Road Race (36:63). In his ninth year of running, he ran a personal best marathon at the Boston Marathon (2:33:18) and in Fairhaven Father's Day 5K (15:29). Now, at 43, his perspective on running and racing is focused beyond time. Personal bests don't come forever. "Hubris is, essentially, the enemy," he said. "I run to reason, to examine, to enjoy what I am, not what I should, could, or would be."
Read more from Mastering Running by Cathy Utzschneider.