Earlier this week my trainer and I were discussing the idea of which is faster: my maximum running speed now vs. my maximum running speed at the time in my life when I believe myself to have been my fastest?
My contention is that I was at my fastest probably some time while I was in high school. If I were to guess, I’d say I could run my fastest ever probably somewhere around sophomore and/or junior year as a 16- or 17-year-old kid.
I think the idea that you lose a step and that your physical abilities fade as you get older is a predominant factor in my line of thinking, especially considering I’m roughly double the age I was when I believe myself to be my fastest. However, my trainer’s contention is that I’m at my fastest now as a 33-year-old man.
This whole idea is conjecture and likely a fruitless debate, though I still tend to think I’ll never be able to run as fast as I could then.
First—although I was a naturally fast runner, and was always considered among the fastest kids in my class and my neighborhood—I was never timed running any distance as a high schooler. I didn’t run track, I didn’t run cross country, and I never participated in any organized sports where official sport-specific timed running (basepaths, 40-yard dash, three-quarter court sprint, etc.) were required as part of try-outs, practice, and/or training.
Second, the running I do now is a lot different than the running I did when I was 17. Back then, my running was limited to pick-up games of basketball and baseball in my neighborhood, as well as the occasional impromptu foot race. The running I do now is very structured training designed to improve my speed and endurance over the course of distances as long as 5 miles.
As a youngster, my running never included distances of any notable length. It was all about sprinting short distances. Even the basketball court in my neighborhood was significantly smaller than the smallest regulation court, increasing the need for me to move quickly. Nowadays the only time I ever reach a max sprint is during kickball season running to first base. And it usually takes me until I’m almost all the way to first base to achieve full speed.
My initial burst is definitely not the same as it was then, but my max speed?
My trainer’s belief is that now because I train regularly—and even more specifically: because I’m cross-training to improve my times in both the 1-mile and in the 5K—I’m almost certainly faster than I was half my lifetime ago.
I understand her point, but I’m somehow still not convinced that I’m actually any faster than I was back in the day. I agree that today I’m better conditioned (both in overall endurance and in muscle endurance) and I understand my body more, as well as what it takes to get me to perform better.
Training myself now is sort of like harvesting crops at the end of a season, as opposed to earlier in the season while harvesting conditions are ideal. Not that I’m incapable of improving with training—and I do believe I have been—but I feel like I’m past my peak ability to be trained. I wasted that portion of my life simply not training, which on one hand, didn’t cause any undue wear and tear on my body, but on the other hand, didn’t stretch the abilities of my legs and lungs to their maximum possible levels.
I believe if I’d made concerted efforts to build my endurance, strengthen my legs, and hone my speed while I was younger, my abilities would be even better now, especially if I would have still gone on to train like I do now. Even with having missed out on laying that base foundation of “peak harvesting” while younger, I do believe I could probably beat the younger version of myself in as short as a half mile race, and any distance longer than that.
At the same time, I know that I presently don’t do the kind of short burst running, lateral maneuvering, or as much all-out sprinting as I did as a high schooler. The 17-year-old me would beat easily the now me in a race as long as 200 meters.
A 400 meter race between now me and high school me might be the best competitive middle ground. Current me would struggle to match the raw speed of younger me, but younger me would struggle to maintain endurance near the end, assuming he’s running his max from the jump and for as long as he can.
Of course, that’s all speculation. No one—not myself, my trainer, or anyone else—will ever be able to know if I’m faster now as an old man than I was as a young whippersnapper.
If only I had a time machine.