No One Can Keep Up with Hans Smeets
This 75-year-old runner might be the world’s fittest man at his age, so fit that researchers turned him into a case study
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There’s no doubt that Hans Smeets stands atop the world of 75-year-old distance running.
In recent years, he’s captured 15 world championships, including two gold medals (800 meters, 1500 meters) in last summer’s World Masters Association Championships in Tampere, Finland. Last fall he added an age-group world record in the mile (5:41.20). And most recently, in March 2023, Smeets won two more gold medals in the World Indoor Championships in Torun, Poland.
When the Dutch athlete slipped into a physiology lab at Maastricht University last year, he established more new records. His maximal aerobic capacity (“VO2 max”) of 50.5 ml/kg/min is the highest ever measured in a 75-year old. Since VO2 max is widely regarded as the ultimate test of cardiac fitness, Smeets could be considered the fittest-ever 75-year-old.
In fact, you could say that he’s 75 going on 25. According to a Mayo Clinic analysis of the U.S. “National Fitness Registry” for age and VO2 max, Smeets checks in with a score roughly the same as an average male in his mid-20s.
This data comes from research just published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. The paper is titled—catch a deep breath—“Physiological, Spatiotemporal, Anthropometric, Training and Performance Characteristics of a 75-year-old Multiple World Record Holder Middle Distance Runner.” The paper’s first author, Bas van Hooren, is himself a Dutch national champion in the 10,000 meters. He’s also 45 years younger than Smeets, and interested in learning how he and others can extend their top-level running careers.
“I hoped to gain more insight into physiologic aspects that contribute to exceptional performance,” van Hooren says. “And to learn more about Hans’s training routine, so we could use this information to optimize performance in other masters athletes.”
Evolution of an Age-Group Champion
We often think of the Netherlands as flat—the highest point in the country reaches barely above 1,000 feet—but the area in the south around Gulpen, near the Belgian border, is actually quite hilly. Smeets was raised and still lives there, and believes the hills have contributed to his athletic success.
He dabbled in running as a teen, training little and without much ambition. After quitting running at 18, however, he didn’t return to it for more than three decades. Smeets started back up at 50 when he was working as an IT administrator at a school in Gulpen. Several colleagues had a regular running routine, so he joined in with them. “I was just running at work with friends,” Smeets says. “But it went so well that I started training seriously again.”
Six years later, at 56, he was covering close to 100 miles a week, which enabled him to set his lifetime best for 5000 meters—17:11. In the several years prior, he had notched his best half-marathon and marathon times, too, of 1:17:34 and 2:49:29. “I liked the training very much,” he notes. “And also found it motivating that my performances were quite good.”
Which they were. Quite good, in fact. But not world-beating.
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Two Major Changes
In the following decade, Smeets made two major updates to his training that catapulted him to the top of age-group running against his peers.
First, at 60, he began to focus on middle-distance track races, particularly the 800 meters and 1500 meters. He switched from roads to track by doing speed work with a local runner. “I found that the fast sessions went very well for me,” he says. But how well?
The next year, he ranked first in the world at both 800 meters and 1500 meters. The successes kept coming for the next several years. Smeets dominated his events at virtually every big track championship. It was getting to the point where there was little left for him to chase. But he felt one final, persistent itch. While he had a big collection of gold medals, he had never actually set a world record for his age group.
This goal prompted his second training update: At 66 years old, “that was when I decided to lose weight,” he says. “I wanted to see if it would help me set a world record.” Smeets dropped 15 pounds. He didn’t follow any particular diet, choosing instead to be more mindful around portion sizes and nighttime snacking. “I’ve always had a good diet, with a lot of fruits and vegetables, and I bake my own sourdough bread with different grains,” he reports.
These two interventions had a dramatic effect. The next year he set a world record for the indoor 1500 meters. “My times were much faster at all other distances as well.” Being mindful of his body composition has contributed to his high VO2 max.
When building up to his racing season, Smeets covers 42 to 48 miles per week with the longest run of one hour and 45 minutes. He includes tempo workouts once or twice a week but describes most of his runs as “leisurely.” Indeed, the area around his home is so hilly that he invariably “walks up at least two of the slopes on every endurance run.”
Once he launches into his summer track racing, Smeets cuts his weekly mileage in half, and he eliminates fast training. His frequent races provide plenty of speed work. He also makes sure he’s logging enough time in bed, nine hours each night.
Van Hooren, the researcher, admits that he expected much of what he observed in Smeets’s treadmill testing. After all, a guy couldn’t be that fast without exceptional physiology.
Still, Van Hooren was struck by several aspects of Smeets’s training and lab results. For example, Smeets has never kept any sort of detailed training log, and doesn’t rely on any modern day digital devices. He seems to train in a totally intuitive manner. “This shows us that an athlete can reach exceptional results without all the fancy technology,” notes van Hooren.
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Impressive Lab Results
Van Hooren measured Smeets’s stride rate at several different speeds, with a range that spanned from 9:40 per mile to 5:40 per mile. Some experts suggest that runners should stay close to 180 strides/minute at all speeds. Smeets fell well short at 9:40 pace when he used 171 strides per minute, but increased his stride frequency to 187 at 5:40 per mile. “This result highlights that stride rate is very individually based, and also dependent on speed, leg length, and mass,” says van Hooren.
Lastly and perhaps most importantly is the big question: How can a guy run so fast when he trains relatively slowly?
First off, Smeets clearly has natural leg speed. In an all-out short sprint test, he hit a top speed equivalent to 3:24 per mile pace (for just five meters). Nonetheless, he doesn’t train to achieve that speed. He appears to train mostly at moderate—even slow—paces, which does have its benefits. Smeets hasn’t lost any time to injuries in the last several years, and rarely missed more than a week to injury time in his previous decades of training.
“We know higher speed training produces more damage, which requires more recovery time,” observes van Hooren. “By doing higher volumes of easy training, masters athletes might be able to gain positive adaptations with less damage and need for recovery.”
You might think that Smeets, having entered a new age group, would want to target more records at longer distances. He doesn’t seem greedy in that way. Also, he hasn’t raced the half marathon or full marathon for more than a decade, and isn’t one to overstate his potential at those distances.
Yet the question is intriguing. If Smeets has the highest VO2 max for his age, he has the potential for fast racing at longer distances. Of course, those races will also require a high running economy, and good ability to deal with hydration and fueling issues.
“It’s hard for me to answer questions about other distances,” Smeets says. “If I had to take a guess, I think I could run the half marathon in 1:35, and the marathon in 3:30.” Those would be world-class times for sure, but not close to world-record performances. At 75, Ed Whitlock ran 3:04:54.
What are the secrets behind Smeets’s success? “If I had to pick two words to explain Hans’s success, they would be consistency and high volume,” Van Hooren says. “He trains a lot and has done so regularly over many years. This builds up huge adaptations, thus contributing to great performance.”
Amby Burfoot won the 1968 Boston Marathon, and has been writing about running and fitness since 1978. His most recent book is Run Forever: Your Complete Guide to Healthy, Lifetime Running.