Running gracefully into older age
By Jason Jones, PhD.
With contributions by Ryan Kerrigan, BSc. & Eric Carter, PhD.
So, you’re getting a little bit older, the knees are a little creakier, and you have a little less pep in your step. Does this mean you have to hang up your trail shoes and switch to shuffleboard? Heck no! In fact, evidence indicates that (a) it’s possible to run gracefully, efficiently, and enjoyably as we age and (b) that it’s never too late to start your running career. In this article, we discuss some of the anatomical and physiological realities of the aging process and how you can adjust your physical and mental approaches to running to reflect these realities and maintain your enjoyment of lacing ‘em up and heading out the door.
Common sense and an abundance of scientific research tell us that staying active as you age has a range of mental and physical health benefits. Understanding what is happening to our bodies in areas relevant to health and fitness is an important part of executing your plan of life-long running or exercise. First, here’s the bad news, the seemingly endless list of things that aging inflicts on our bodies:
- decreased maximal heart rate;
- decreased cardiac output;
- fewer blood capillaries;
- smaller and fewer mitochondria in the muscles;
- decreased maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max);
- decreased insulin production;
- decreased growth hormone production;
- decreased muscle mass;
- decreased bone density;
- loss of elastin (i.e., loss of elasticity in our movement);
- increased body fat;
- decreased muscle strength and endurance;
- and changes to nerve functioning (increased reaction time).
Therefore, to accommodate these changes and still maintain a high level of fitness, we need to approach training and actually train differently as we age. Thankfully, it’s not all bad news. Older runners tend to be mentally tough (i.e., we know what’s it’s like to suffer and survive), and evidence suggests that ‘running economy’ doesn’t decrease much as we age. In other words, if we can give the body and brain what they need, they will use it wisely.
If you search for “running as a senior” or similar phase into your search engine of choice, you’ll find an array of websites that offer advice and training programs. Almost all of these websites and references organize their tips in the same five categories and all rely on the same conventional wisdom. Let’s take a look at these conventional wisdoms and, where possible, evaluate the scientific or logical support for each.
Conventional Wisdom #1: Psychology
The psychological aspects of trying to run gracefully into older age are probably the simplest to understand and hardest to overcome of the five concepts we’re discussing. Simply put, you have to acknowledge that you aren’t 20 any more, or 30, or 40, or 50. You can’t let your past performance define your current goals and targets. Rather than trying to run as fast or as far as your 30-year-old self, embrace being young and fast in your new age bracket. It’s ok (in fact, it’s critical) for the “why” we run to change as we age.
Conventional Wisdom #2: Diet
Well-documented, age-related changes in bone health, circulatory health, and nutrient uptake all change how you need to prepare the body for endurance activities. For example, here are a few consistent biochemical issues that arise as we age: calcium deficiency (bone health, nerve function), iron deficiency (oxygen-uptake efficiency), and, particularly for the vegetarians or vegans in the crowd, low vitamin B12 (healthy blood production and nerve function). Given that the most effective plans require data, work with your doctor to update and evaluate your blood work so you are aware of potential problem areas and can plan your diet and weight management strategy accordingly. A less appreciated aspect of aging is that many of us will experience a decrease in our thirst reflex, which can lead to dehydration and its attendant health and performance effects. Develop a system to track your water intake throughout the day; slow and steady intake is better than sporadic and high intake.
Conventional Wisdom #3: Preparation
The primary recommendation associated with preparation is to shift from a focus on power production to a focus on protection and safety. Given the expectation of decreased muscle mass and bone density and increase reaction times with age, we need to take active steps to prevent incidents that could lead to serious injury (i.e., we really don’t want to fall). Your non-running sessions need to increasingly incorporate balance exercises, mobility/flexibility exercise, and targeted strength work (e.g., micro-stabilizing muscles in your lower leg; core stability). In addition, if you haven’t incorporated cross-training into your weekly routine, now is the time to start incorporating non-running activities that counter the age-related weaknesses. Mix-up your strength or gym sessions by using balance balls, bosu balls, or wobble-boards. Yoga and Pilates are great options for core strength, mobility and flexibility. Racquet sports are a great option for maintaining hand-eye coordination and reaction time.
Conventional Wisdom #4: Training Runs
Within the catch-all category of training runs (e.g., actual running time on the road, track or trail) there are three general ideas that are consistently shared or espoused. These ideas aren’t so much based on scientific research as they are logical ideas based on what we know about the aging process. One, as you age, you should take more time to warm-up and cool-down. Two, running form becomes an increasingly active aspect of running longevity; the quirks in your running stride that you could get away with when you were younger will more easily turn into chronic issues now. If you’ve never worked with a running coach on your running form, now’s your chance. Three, every run needs to count. The importance and fitness value of laying down long aerobic sessions decreases as we age. Older runners will get more bang for their training buck by focusing on 3-4 shorter high-intensity interval training sessions per week, augmented by targeted cross-training time.
Conventional Wisdom #5: Recovery
The consensus appears to be that you need more recovery time as you age. On the surface, this appears to be a logical claim based on how we age. However, the scientific support for this notion is mixed. Some studies have detected age-related differences in muscle damage (and, therefore potential recovery time) resulting from exercise, and others have not. The appearance of age-related differences to the toll exercise takes on our bodies, and hence the required recovery period, is likely dependent on the type of exercise or exertion (e.g., you might expect to see more age differences in recovery times in ultra trail runners than in road cyclists). As with all choices you make about your training decisions or not-to-train decisions, it’s important to listen to your body. If your body is telling you it needs a mobility and flexibility day more than it needs a hill-repeat workout, pay attention.
After our review, we found that all of the conventional wisdoms have at least some support in either the scientific literature or as sound logical extensions from what we know about human aging physiology. In the end, here are our general takeaways:
Be honest and kind with yourself as you set new goals.
Pay attention to what your body is telling you. We’re not talking about the “Stay in bed; you don’t need to train in the rain today” voices. We’re talking about the “Ooof. I could use light day today after changing up my strength workout” voices.
Treat the aging process and how it affects your running as an opportunity, not a burden. It’s an excuse to try new things, to revitalize your training program, and to be your best current self.
If you have questions about any of these ideas, please reach out to us. We’d be more than happy to provide additional information, tweak your training plan, and continue to support your running goals.
Beck, O.N., S. Kipp, J.M. Roby, A.M. Grabowski, R. Kram, and J.D. Ortega. 2016. Older runners retain youthful running economy despite biomechanical differences. Med Sci Sports Exerc 48(4): 697-704. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000000820.
McKinley, M.J., T. Bowala, G.E. Egan, M.J. Farrell, P. Fox, M.L. Mathai, P.A. Phillips, R. Shade, and D.A. Denton. 2007. Age-related changes in thirst and associated neural activity in human subjects. Appetite 49(1): 313. doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2007.03.136.
Easthope, C.S., C. Hausswirth, J. Louis, R. Lepers, F. Vercruyssen, and J. Brisswalter J. 2010. Effects of a trail running competition on muscular performance and efficiency in well-trained young and master athletes. Eur J Appl Physiol 110(6):1107-16. doi: 10.1007/s00421-010-1597-1.
Brisswalter, J., and K. Nosaka. 2013. Neuromuscular factors associated with decline in long-distance running performance in master athletes. Sports Med 43(1): 51-63. doi: 10.1007/s40279-012-0006-9.
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