Running is often considered a young person’s game, but the fact is runners are getting older. According to a report from RunRepeat and the International Association of Athletics Federations, the average age of runners climbed from 35.2 in 1986 to 39.3 in 2018. And the average age of participants across all major race distances — 5K, 10K, half-marathon and marathon — has increased as well.
So, there’s a place at the starting line or on the neighborhood jogging path for runners of all ages. However, running performance and even mechanics change as we get older. Here’s what you need to know.
BODIES NATURALLY SLOW DOWN WITH AGE
According to an American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) report called “Exercise and the Older Adult,” VO2 max decreases approximately 5–15% per decade starting at 25–30 years of age. As your maximal cardiac output declines, your maximal heart rate decreases about 6–10 beats per minute per decade.
The same report shows muscle mass and strength also begin to diminish as we age, with a roughly 10% reduction by age 50. As you get older, the number steepens to about 15% per decade through your 60s and 70s, and then by about 30% thereafter.
All told, aging accounts for a roughly 7% slow down per decade during your 40s, 50s and 60s, and then a more rapid slowdown as you enter your 70s, according to data from World’s Master’s Athletics.
RUNNING MECHANICS CHANGE, TOO
According to a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, older runners take shorter strides than younger runners, relying less on the muscles around their ankles. In the study, Wake Forest University researchers evaluated runners between 23–59 years of age, finding that the older runners’ decreased stride length was correlated with decreased speed and weaker push off from the ankle and calf muscles. This kept their feet closer to the ground and resulted in a speed decrease of roughly 20% with each passing decade.
It’s worth noting that while the study found significant mechanical reductions at the ankle, it did not find similar changes at the knee and hip. This may signify that the lower-leg muscles around the ankle, calf and Achilles tendon deteriorate more quickly with age than other muscle tissues in the body.
HOW TO SLOW THE DECLINE
Just because aging is inevitable doesn’t mean you can’t still do everything in your power to stay fit and healthy. It’s been proven time and again that being active at any age is associated with better health and performance than that of your sedentary peers. And you can even increase your cardiovascular output and muscle strength, regardless of how many birthdays you’ve had.
Per the ACSM, older adults who participate in regular aerobic training can achieve the same 10–30% increase in VO2 max as young adults. Strength training can result in slowing muscle loss, and depending on one’s activity level, it can also result in significant increases in strength and modest increases in muscle size.
INSPIRATION TO KEEP MOVING
Despite all the science pointing to a steady decline in athletic performance as we age, there are still plenty of people proving age is just a number. In February 2020, a 62-year-old man broke the Guinness World Record for planks by holding the position for an astounding 8 hours, 15 minutes and 15 seconds.
A 40-year-old has recorded a sub-4-minute mile, and people in their 70s have run sub-3-hour marathons. Many senior-age cyclists continue to log heavy miles and participate in endurance events around the world.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Even if you slow down over the years, the important thing is to keep moving. And who knows, maybe you’ll surprise yourself with a Guinness World Record of your own.