Fact: The way you perform on a run is unlike the way anyone else performs, and that’s especially true if you’re a different age or gender. So how do you really compare your performance to theirs? With age grading.
If the phrase ‘age grading’ makes you scratch your head, think of it like a golf handicap. It’s basically a method of scoring races that the oldest and the youngest runners “compete” in head to head, even though they may not be racing for the finish line next to one another. Here’s everything you need to know about doing the math, and how calculating your age-graded score can actually help you become a better runner.
What Exactly Is Age Grading?
Every few years, statisticians at World Masters Athletics review global race records to identify the best possible time an athlete can run at every distance from 5K to the marathon. Then, they use a formula to calculate an age factor for every age; this serves as the “best possible time” an athlete of that gender and age should be able to run.
On those statistic tables, you’ll find the factors for each age and distance, which, when multiplied by your time, give you an “equivalent” performance for an open runner or a percentage “age grade” that compares your time with the best possible for your age. Thankfully, you don’t actually need to use those tables; you can just use an online calculator, like this one.
How Does Age Grading Work?
In running, age-graded scoring is based on how fast you run (by correcting it to what your speed would have been at your prime age) and a percentage value of the world record for your gender. Performance standards listed on the USATF site give approximate comparative levels: 90 percent = world class; 80 percent = national class; 70 percent = regional class; and 60 percent = local class.
So here’s an example of how that works: Let’s say an 80-year-old man finished a half marathon in fortieth place and achieved an age-grade score of 91 percent—meaning he ran very close to the top time expected for an 80-year-old man. Meanwhile, a 30-year-old finished in fifth place but achieved an age grade score of 70 percent—meaning his time is further away from the top time of a 30-year-old male elite athlete. Despite the younger athlete having a better time, by age grading standards, the 80-year-old would be considered the better athlete for his age.
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How Can You Use Age Grading?
Chances are, you don’t need a calculator to tell you that Shalane Flanagan is faster than you. But how does your half marathon performance compare to your husband’s? What about your slightly older friend? “Age grading gives context to someone, both inside and outside the sport, who looks at anyone from a casual runner to an elite Masters runner and asks ‘just how fast is that?’” says Mary Rosado, a masters runner for the Central Park Track Club. “For example, it would allow a mother-daughter rivalry be put to bed on who’s actually fitter.”
You can also use age grading to compare your current performance to that of your younger self, putting your new race times in perspective (a 10K certainly isn’t going to feel the same at 50 as it did at 20, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t still fit). “Age grading provides a measuring stick for the athlete who has left off running for a few years but is getting back to it,” says Rosado. “How much of the fall off in performance is due to a lack of fitness, and how much to the normal aging process? And, to flip that, what is a realistic expectation of performance once full fitness is regained? You may never match the 40-minute 10K you ran back in the day, but you can aspire to achieve the same 10K age grade score for your new age.”
And age grading can help you set goals—like, say, running a “national class” 5K. You’d enter your age and the percentage (80) into the calculator, and the time that pops up would be your goal time. From there, you can calculate just how much time you’d need to shave off your 5K time to be considered a “national class” runner.
Really, it’s just about providing motivation. “Age grading provides athletes with an incentive to continue to train and push themselves, even when a podium finish is unlikely,” says Rosado.