Most of us dread the changes that come with age. Runners are no less susceptible to that worry, as we stress over slower race times and our ability to recover from challenging workouts. At some point, you’ll no longer be able to beat the PRs you set in your 20s and 30s. Changes are inevitable as the years go by.
But runners also have a lot to feel good about as we get older since we are typically healthier than our non-running peers.
As an athlete, however, you don’t have to passively watch your running routine decline. By making updates to your training, you can continue to run well and stay healthy in your masters years and beyond.
Running is often touted as a lifelong sport, and it should be! The fitness and health that running conveys allows for a more graceful aging process. As an older runner, focusing on longevity over weekly mileage or time-based PRs allows you to stay healthy and continue running consistently.
Running longevity has both physical and mental components. Physically, consistent running and training means staying free from injury and using techniques that allow you to recover from hard workouts and long runs as efficiently as possible.
Mentally, you’ll run your best if you feel good about your training and believe your workouts are targeted and productive.
REALITIES OF THE AGING PROCESS
The reality of aging is that a slight performance decline begins even in your 30s. On average, that decline is reported to be less than 1% per year. While we don’t know all the exact physiologic components that contribute to the decline, we do know muscle mass and your maximum oxygen uptake level (VO2 max) decrease with age.
In addition, your recovery process slows due to decreased production of hormones like HGH (human growth hormone) and testosterone.
Aging also changes us physiologically in other ways, including the following:
- Decreased maximal heart rate
- Fewer blood capillaries
- Smaller and fewer muscle mitochondria
- Increased body fat
While these changes are inevitable, there’s no reason you can’t make adaptations to your training routine to maintain your fitness and strength and slow the decline.
STRENGTH TRAINING TO COMBAT THE DECLINE
By the age of 70, the average person will have lost 30–40% of their muscle mass. That’s a startling statistic!
But the flipside of this is much better news. According to a 2014 study on aging and exercise in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, most of this decline is the result of a more sedentary lifestyle, rather than a primary result of the aging process. That means you can play an active role in slowing this decline, rather than remaining a passive bystander.
To understand the benefits of strength training as you age, it helps to know a little bit about the process of muscle building and breakdown. Running by nature is catabolic — this means it breaks down muscle. In your younger years this typically isn’t a significant issue, since your body’s repair process is at maximum efficiency. As you get older, however, the repair process slows.
Unlike running, weightlifting triggers the release of high levels of anabolic hormones that build muscle. This includes hormones such as testosterone and HGH that decline as you age. Lifting weights regularly complements your running by helping you stay strong and expedite the muscle-repair process.
While heavier lifting produces a greater surge of hormones, it’s important not to overdo it if you’re new to strength training. Start with a bodyweight strength routine to help maintain muscle mass, coordination and range of motion.
But make this part of a progression! As you become comfortable with this type of routine, it’s time to get to the gym to add weightlifting to your regimen.
AGING GRACEFULLY AS A RUNNER
While strength training is an essential tool as you get older, you can also make the aging process more graceful by staying on top of the following:
- Quality over quantity: You may not be able to run the same amount of mileage or days per week as you age, so focus on getting the most out of each run. Whether it’s a long run, speed workout or recovery session, every run should have a purpose.
- Race-specific stress: The hard workouts in your training should reflect the type of race you’re training for. While this makes sense at any age, it’s even more important to keep your workouts as race specific as possible as you get older. Eliminate extraneous hard sessions that don’t convey a specific benefit.
- Avoid too much downtime: Maintaining fitness year-round means you never have to “come back” from an extended break. Since you’re most prone to injury during the rebuilding process, avoid starting from zero whenever possible. Instead, make regularly planned rest days and recovery weeks part of your routine.
- Address issues as they arise: Since recovery can be a lengthier process as you age, stay on top of minor aches and pains and address them before they become a bigger issue. An extra rest day or foam rolling and mobility session can do wonders to prevent a minor issue from getting worse.
Aging brings inevitable changes to your running. By taking an active role in maintaining your strength and training sensibly, you can make running a happy, successful and lifelong endeavor.