Masters Runners: Body Changes and Injury Prevention Strategies

SeniorRunnerThe question most often asked in regard to the older runner: Is it safe?

The answer is yes! Running can actually help to decrease some of the physiological declines that occur with age.

Who is considered to be an older or masters runner? Typically, masters runners are over the age of 40. Shocked? Me, too!

While it’s true that getting older is not for the faint of heart, it’s also true that if you do nothing, the following age related declines in physical functioning will occur regardless.

Masters Runners: Body Changes and Injury Prevention Strategies

Implementing exercise while adjusting your diet can help to slow down age related declines so that you can age gracefully. And, yes, running can be part of that process!

Age Related Declines in Physical Functioning:

  • Decreased growth hormone production.
  • Decreased insulin production.
  • Decreased maximal heart rate.
  • Decreased muscle mass (mostly the fast twitch Type II fibers).
  • Decreased stroke volume and cardiac output.
  • Decreased VO2 max (the maximal amount of oxygen you can uptake and utilize).
  • Fewer blood capillaries.
  • Loss of elastin in muscles.
  • Less mitochondrion in the cells.
  • Slower nerve function.
  • Previous associated orthopaedic injuries. (Although this isn’t specifically related to the aging process, it’s likely to be true if you have experienced some sort of injury or illness.)
  • Other medical conditions or disease associated changes may affect how you function as you age.

Wow, that really sounds like bad news! However, there are some silver linings to being a masters runner.

The good news is that running economy doesn’t tend to change much during the aging process (assuming that an orthopaedic injury hasn’t affected your running). Running economy consists of many physiological and biomechanical factors that contribute to running performance. It’s measured to quantify energy utilization while running at an aerobic intensity.

Another more non-scientific silver lining is that masters runners tend to be more mentally tough and have more common sense. This means that the masters runner understands when to ignore and push through negative mental self talk as well as when to listen to his/her body and adjust training plans accordingly. Because of this, many masters runners are competing in ultra-distance races.

Possessing the wisdom to adjust your running or training plan to prevent injury is important. As a masters runner, you can draw upon your life experience combined with mental toughness to experience amazing success!

How to Positively Affect Age Related Declines:

  • Keep Running! Endurance training has a positive effect on your body’s ability to regulate hormone and insulin levels. Cardiovascular training is a critical part of a maintenance program for diabetes. Diabetes prevention is important in order to avoid conditions such as cardiovascular disease and dementia. Running, a weight bearing activity, along with a proper diet is an excellent method to reduce the risk of osteoporosis. Endurance training stimulates the body’s ability to grow more capillaries. This is true in skeletal muscle cells as well as cardiac tissue. Endurance exercise also stimulates mitochondrial growth. Mitochondria are known as the power plant for your cells and are responsible for much of the energy production in cells.

  • Strength Train. Strength training (focusing particularly on large muscle groups with appropriately heavy loads) has been proven to improve growth hormone levels and has a positive effect on insulin levels. This weight bearing activity (along with a proper diet) is an excellent method to reduce the risk of osteoporosis. Strength training is also the best method to slow the age related decline in fast twitch (Type II) fibers. The stronger you are, the more resistant to injury you are.
     
    For example, adequate lower leg strength is critical for any downhill running in order to prevent injury. Your training plan should include lower extremity strengthening to help maintain running speed and to insure adequate muscle strength to support the joints of the body. Strengthening of the upper body also supports running form and speed as having adequate strength to maintain posture and proper arm swing is very helpful (particularly, when running uphill). Strengthening of the core area (the abdominals and back extensors) helps to manage and/or prevent low back pain.
     
    Strength training has also been proven to help maintain the heart’s ability to effectively pump blood. It can improve tissue vascularization by stimulating the body’s ability to grow more capillaries. This is true in skeletal muscle cells as well as cardiac tissue.

  • Perform High Intensity Training (HIT). As you age, your VO2 max can decline. VO2 max is the maximal amount of oxygen you can uptake during exercise or activity. HIT has been proven to increase a person’s VO2 max, so incorporating all types of HIT is important. Perform your cardio in short bursts (ranging from 30-60 seconds at a time) followed by a one to two minute recovery. The 30-60 seconds should be at a high intensity, meaning your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) is high. You should be breathing heavy.
     
    HIT performed once or twice per week may also help to increase growth hormone levels. It also appears to be one of the best methods available to slow the progression of a decreased maximal heart rate. The heart is capable of growing stronger just like any other muscle. A strong heart ensures its ability to pump blood. Exercise also has the added benefit of decreasing cardiovascular disease, such as atherosclerosis (which negatively affects the heart’s ability to circulate blood).

  • Improve Tissue Mobility. As a person ages, the body tends to become stiffer as it loses elastin. This negatively affects your range of motion (ROM). It also makes the muscle and tendon fibers more likely to tear if overstretched. I recommend that everyone participate in a flexibility program. (The older you are, the more important this becomes.) Mobility and flexibility become more difficult if you aren’t purposefully working on it.
     
    Yoga is an excellent choice as well as utilizing the foam roller. Using a foam roller can help keep tissues pliable. Regular foam roll use may also be of benefit as it helps to improve arterial stiffness and can improve arterial and vascular function. The change in arterial and vascular function may in part explain why foam rolling (after training) seems to have a positive effect in reducing muscle soreness. Foam rolling may promote more blood flow to the area, which allows the body to eliminate waste more efficiently while providing the necessary nutrients to aid in recovery.

  • Improve Nerve Function by Staying Active and Cross Training. As a person ages, the nervous system can slow and the muscular system can also decline. Balance and mobility can suffer. The best way to combat this decline is to continue to move. Move in various ways and cross train. Participate in activities, like yoga and tai chi, to improve your balance and motor control. Strength training is also a form of cross training.

  • Maintain a Healthy Diet. A proper diet is also the key to improving hormone levels and insuring the body has the fuel needed to perform at a high level and remain healthy. As we age, it’s critical to maintain intake of adequate protein and fat levels while avoiding excess sugar. Maintaining a diet with adequate healthy fats is essential for proper brain and nervous system function.

  • Drink more Water. The human body is primarily made of water, which is critical for all body functions. Adequate water intake is critical to avoid dehydration, which can be a common problem for older adults. Water intake supports proper brain, muscle, and hormone function as well as lubrication of the joints and skin appearance. Skip the fancy drinks with ingredients that you can’t pronounce and drink more water! Your body will thank you. Water intake slowly throughout the day will have a better benefit than drinking large amounts of water more sporadically throughout the day.

  • Manage your Weight. Excessive body weight causes abnormal wear and tear on your body (particularly in the knees and feet). It also places additional strain on your cardiovascular system and increases your risk of diabetes. Thus, increasing your risk of stroke, heart disease, and dementia. As we age, our metabolism begins to slow. Maintain a diet rich in protein (particularly plant based protein as well as healthy fats such as olive oil or avocados) while avoiding processed foods and excessive carbohydrate intake. A strength training and high intensity training (HIT) program can help you to maintain a suitable weight by insuring your metabolism stays elevated and your hormone levels remain balanced.

Running can definitely be pursued as a lifelong passion or hobby. The key to running successfully as you age is to adapt with your body as you age. How you trained in your 20s will not be how you train in your 50s, 60s, and beyond. With proper training and a healthy lifestyle, running can be enjoyed throughout your entire life.

Injury Prevention Strategies for Masters Runners:

  • Focus on strength training. The stronger you are, the more resilient your body will be to injury.
  • Develop a recovery protocol, and stick to it. The older you are, the more important a thorough recovery program becomes. Your recovery should be as programmed as your actual running plan is. It should contain elements of daily tissue work and stretching. Utilize the foam roller and lacrosse ball. Find a good masseuse.
  • Cross train. Focus on balance and mobility.
  • Get your rest. Maintaining adequate amounts of sleep also plays a major role in growth hormone production.
  • Fuel well. The fuel you choose to run your body on is important. Choose a healthy diet full of real food while avoiding processed food and soda. Supplement as needed (particularly with a quality glucosamine supplement like Mt. Capra CapraFlex). Work toward limiting inflammation with your food and supplement choices.
  • Warm up longer, and take more time for a cool down. This is the most important strategy for you to implement. You will experience less aches, pains, and injury. Your reward will be improved performance.

The aging process will occur regardless of what we choose to do. The good news is that a healthy lifestyle, which includes strength training, endurance training (like running), flexibility training, and a healthy diet, allows us to age gracefully and participate in our choice of activities. As a masters runner, you can draw upon your life experience combined with mental toughness to experience amazing success! Happy running!

For additional information on common running injuries, prevention and rehabilitation strategies, please visit www.thePhysicalTherapyAdvisor.com.

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