Age Ain't Nothing But a Number
Strength training is crucial to maintaining muscle mass to allow you to keep running as you age.
Add in additional recovery days to give your body the rest that it requires.
Adjust your goals and expectations to continue to receive the mental and physical health benefits of running as you age.
A recent article, The Physiology and Biomechanics of the Master Runner, caught my attention not because its author, Richard Willy, is one of my favorites but because it labels a master runner as anyone over the age of 35. My initial thought was “whoa, am I getting old?” closely followed by a sense of joy as I contemplated the potential decrease in the competition that arrives with an increase in categories. I then remembered that I am a trail runner and these categories do not exist in my local trail races.
Moving past the absurdly young age of a master runner, the article caused me to reflect on running as we get older. Working as a physical therapist, I often hear comments including “I had to give up running ten years ago” or “I used to love running but I’m just too old now.” These statements are not only a bit depressing, but they are also in direct conflict with my experiences as a runner.
When I look out at the start of an ultra, I see a myriad of heads of silver toeing the line and witness a proportional amount crossing at the finish. I have numerous friends, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends who have run well into their 60s, 70s, and 80s and have no signs of stopping. Not solely based on my experience or my personal desire to be able to do these crazy races as the decades continue, but due to an overwhelming amount of research that I have sifted through, it is clear that you certainly can run as the wrinkles develop and the memory declines, you just have to be smart about how you do it.
***For this article, older adults = older than 55 - please don’t shoot the messenger.
Yup, just as the youngins should be strength training, so should the silver haired folk. Wait, let’s back up, youngins should be strength training. I understand that most long distance runners hate strength training (I am one of them), however, it is a means to an end. Strength training, especially heavy lifting and plyometrics, will improve your running economy, your endurance, and will reduce your likelihood of injury.
While resistance training is important in the young, it is crucial in the older adult population. As we age, we naturally lose muscle mass. This process, known as sarcopenia, mostly affects our type II muscle fibers. These are our fast twitch fibers that provide us with the ability to lift heavy and move quickly. Losing these muscle fibers results in loss of strength (dynapenia) of 10-15% per decade from age 30(ish) to 70. Even more frightening is the 25-40% decline in strength per decade after age 70. This loss of strength leaves our joints increasingly vulnerable to the stress of running as we age.
Our current research demonstrates that running on its own is not enough to alter this path as running, fantastic as it is, is not designed to make us stronger. Fortunately, we can reduce the slope of sarcopenia and dynapenia through resistance training. Study after study demonstrates that if performed at a frequency and intensity similar to younger adults, resistance training is effective in improving the strength of older adults. It is, in fact, now recommended by the ACSM and can be performed concurrently with a regular running routine. I have to say it: please consult a health care provider to develop a safe and effective resistance training program that is tailored towards your needs as a runner.
Recovery is a necessary component of any running program but is especially important for older adults. As a young whipper snapper, you may have been able to thrive off of a running regime of 6 days per week with a 5 hour sleep schedule and a severe caffeine addiction. Now as an older adult, you likely will perform better and experience less injury if you adjust your running routine to a 3-4x/week schedule. The extra rest days allow for proper recovery to occur.
Inadequate recovery following exertion can easily lead to progressive overreaching in older adults. Progressive overreaching is when an eventual decline in performance occurs while maintaining or increasing training volume and intensity. Overreaching can lead to burnout and an increased risk for injury. As an older adult, your body will require more time to repair and if you do not give it the rest that it requires, overall performance will certainly diminish and injury rate will likely increase.
Let’s take muscle recovery as an example. While older adults may not actually experience more muscle damage from exercise than younger individuals (yes, exercise involves small microdamage to our muscles), research demonstrates that older adults take longer to recover from the muscle damage. A really interesting study took a look at a small group of younger triathletes with an average age of 27 and matched them with master triathletes with an average age of 53. A week after all baseline testing was performed, the study had participants perform 30 minutes of downhill running in the morning to induce muscle damage (downhill running is a great way to burn up the quadriceps) and 10 hours later, perform a 20 km cycling time trial. While the muscle damage was similar between the two groups, the master triathletes experienced significantly decreased muscle repair and significantly worse cycling performance.
These athletes were then asked to perform the same 20 km cycling time trial 24 hours and 48 hours after their run. The master athletes continued to have decreased muscle repair over the next 48 hours, however, the difference in cycling performance disappeared. The master athletes and younger athletes were equally slower than their baseline performance 24 and 48 hours after the downhill run. This means that the performance of the master athletes at 24 and 48 hours did not reflect the continued lack of tissue repair which indicates that the ability to perform does not always align with recovery. Therefore, don’t just listen to your body, proactively plan more rest into your training to successfully adapt your running to your age.
Adjust goals and expectations
There’s no way around it: your running will change as you age. It’s important to recognize the reasons why you run and structure your training and mindset to ensure that you continue to receive the mental and physical benefits.
If that desire to compete and improve your performance is important to you, there is a solution. Websites including runbundle can calculate your performance with an age-grading percentage. You simply plug in your sex, your age, your race distance, and your race result to determine your age-graded time. For instance, a 65-year-old female who runs a 5 hour marathon has an age-graded time of 3:34:23. This means that this 65-year-old’s 5 hour marathon is equivalent to her running a 3:34:23 in her prime. If her fastest time in her prime was a 3:35:00, then she has technically improved her performance. As your times inevitably slow down, rather than attempt to fight it with overtraining, you can use age-graded times to continue to chase your PRs while you train safely and effectively.
If you are a consistent daily runner because it allows you time to yourself and improves your mental health, recognize that you can still receive those benefits as you adjust your training schedule to every other day. There are a myriad of other techniques including yoga, meditation, and mindfulness that you can incorporate into your rest days so that you can still maintain a healthy mental state without relying on your daily run.
If you are running purely for the health benefits, keep on doing so! The research has demonstrated that running as an older adult will “protect against disability and early mortality” by decreasing the risk of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, osteoarthritis, respiratory diseases, and cancer. Just remember that in order to obtain these health benefits, you need to be able to sustain your running schedule without injury or overtraining. To achieve this goal, you will need to ensure that you have plenty of recovery time and that you strength train adequately.
If you have any questions about how to continue to run as you age, feel free to reach out to me here.