The Aging Marathoner – How Getting Older Affects Your Running

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I envision myself running my whole life but I’d never really thought about how the “mechanics” of aging would affect my running.

Hopefully by digging into this topic now those of us who are younger can be mentally prepared and able to gracefully adjust to the natural slow-down that comes with age.

This should also be a help and encouragement to those runners who are noticing an age related slow-down in their running.

The Aging Marathoner

The first running boom began in the 1970s and happily there are now more runners than ever. Many people who first started running back in the 70’s are getting a bit older and notice that their bodies seem to be slowing down.

On the other hand, there are runners who are coming to the sport (or coming back to running after a long hiatus) who would also be considered older runners. It’s not unusual that people age 50+ have started running for the first time or are training for their first half or full marathon.

I have a dozen coaching clients who are age 50 and older. Many of these older runners wonder what they should realistically expect out of themselves and how they can train smart to maximize fitness while minimizing injury and allowing time for recovery.

Age is Just a Number

I truly believe that age is just a number. I was fortunate enough to be raised by healthy active parents. Now at age 62 my mom often has more energy than I do and will jump into a 5k race every once in a while. My dad will retiring from the police force in a few months but still actively lifts weights and hikes and is in better shape than many men half his age. Trevor’s dad stays active by running 1-2 marathons each year along with hiking, cycling, and kayaking.

But on the flip side we know some relatively young people who seem to have resigned themselves to sickness and old age. They constantly talk about their physical problems, aches and pains and preface everything with “I’m too old/sick/out of shape” to do that.

What you’re able to do at any given age does depend somewhat on your physical health. But it depends even more on your mindset. The thoughts and beliefs you have at any age are very powerful.

Henry Ford said,

“The man who thinks he can and the man who thinks he can’t are both right. Which one are you?”

So we’d like to encourage you not to surrender to old age and not let your body or mind become inactive.

Examples of older runners:

Some runners are able to have promising careers and set records until age 100 and beyond.

Ed Whitlock of Canada, was the first 70 year old to run a sub-3:00 marathon and at age 80 ran a 3:25 marathon (and 1:38 half marathon).

Earlier this year, 91 year old Harriet Thompson became the second oldest U.S. woman to complete a marathon (San Diego R&R 2014). She ran her first marathon at age 76 as a way to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. This year was her 15th marathon and she had just finished treatment for skin cancer.

British citizen Buster Martin was 101 when he ran the London Marathon in 2008. The former Army physical training instructor worked three days a week for a London plumbing firm and trained for the race in his spare time. He passed away in 2011 at the age of 104.

Statistics About Runners over 50

An online article in the Wall Street Journal says that runners over age 50 represent one of the fastest-growing age groups participating in the marathon. The number of marathon finishers age 50 and older nearly tripled to 92,200, or about 18% of the total in 2011, according to Running USA.

  • Jeff Galloway, a 1972 Olympian, coach, author and an advocate of running well into old age, says he believes the crucial question isn’t how fast an older runner crosses the finish line but how painlessly. Galloway is now 67-years-old and he and his wife still complete a marathon every month. In fact, during the 2013 Air Force Marathon he passed me doing his run/walk method. 🙂

According to most statistics master’s runners, specifically, those 60 and older, are the fastest-growing group in the sport. A recent study from the sports science department at the University of Burgundy in France, looked at the NYC Marathon from 1980 to 2009. They found that “the percent of finishers younger than 40 years significantly decreased, while the percent of master’s runners significantly increased for both males and females.”

The Aging Process

Physiological Changes
There are obviously some physiological changes that happen in the body as we age. Some of these include: decreased maximal heart rate, decreased stroke volume and cardiac output; fewer blood capillaries; smaller and fewer mitochondria in the muscles (which are responsible for energy production); decreased maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max); decreased insulin production; decreased growth hormone production; decreased muscle mass, increased body fat; decreased muscle strength and endurance; and changes to nerve functioning (increased reaction time).

Risk of Sudden Cardiac Death
Some people would argue that the higher risks of running marathons should not be ignored for the 50+ age group. Risk of sudden cardiac death is nearly twice as high for older marathoners than for those under 40. But the rate is still so low– 1 in 100,000 marathoners die during a race—that it doesn’t even warrant general warnings to older runners. [4] Even with these low odds it’s still important to make sure that you get regular physicals and have a clean bill of health before undertaking marathon training.

Running Economy
While oxygen uptake and heart rate decrease with age, running economy—a measure of how efficient you are—shows very little decrease.[6] Several studies of master’s runners have confirmed that running efficiency doesn’t change much with age. VO2max and peak sprint power (measured in a series of 5-second sprints) are often used for comparison. They both seem to decrease in similar ways and in a more pronounced manner than efficiency. [8]

The Case for Strength Training

The most noticeable differences as we age have to do with decreased maximum oxygen uptate, decreased ability to recover from training and decreased upper body strength and flexibility. There’s not a lot we can do about the decreased Vo2 max, but decreased upper body strength and flexibility is something that can be remedied by a gentle stretching routine and regular strength training program.

Strength Training and Muscle Health
Muscles store glycogen for use during training. If you lose muscle mass you also lose some of your glycogen reserves. This means it takes longer to replenish these stores after a hard effort. Hardening of the arteries can also occur which decreases blood flow to your tissues. Therefore it takes longer for stressed muscle fibers to receive the materials they need to rebuild.

Another thing that comes with age is that your cells and their mitochondria begin to accumulate oxidative damage as a by–product of normal metabolism and will operate less efficiently. Adding insult to injury, levels of testosterone and growth hormones that aid recovery also fall with age, says exercise physiologist Jonathan Dugas, Ph.D., coauthor of the blog Science of Sport.

But with all these seemingly negative things there is encouraging news for non-elite runners. As the average runner was tracked through the years the age related running decline was a little lower and began later. “Mean marathon and half–marathon times were nearly identical for the age groups from 20 to 49 years.” [9]

Strength Training and Efficiency
The link between strength training and efficiency in sports like cycling and running have been studied for over a decade. Now a study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology offers a new twist: the role of strength training becomes increasingly important as you get older.

  • Researchers in France studied nine masters cyclists (average age 51.5) and eight younger cyclists (average age 25.6) and measured their efficiency before and after a three-week strength training program focused on knee extensions. While the younger cyclists improved their cycling efficiency by 4.1%, the older group improved by 13.8%. Studies like this suggest that the muscle loss that accompanies aging could also play a key role in lost endurance.

Strength Training and Running Injuries
But with that good news comes an examination of running injuries, published in Current Sports Medicine Reports, which found that middle-aged and older runners are more likely to have problems with their Achilles tendon and hamstring and calf muscles than their younger counterparts.

A possible explanation for the high rate of such injuries, the authors speculate, is that the normal muscle wear and tear “that occurs with training seems to take greater time to repair with aging, and older runners continue running at a frequency similar to that of younger runners.”

To offset some of the higher injury rates, experts recommend concentrating on exercises that build upper-body strength as the older runners in the study had almost as much leg strength as younger runners but far less muscle mass, strength and power in their arms and shoulders. Doing low impact activities in addition to running can also help decrease the risk of injury.[5]

The good news is that long distance running will help maintain much of the proteins involved in energy production. If you’re noticing tired legs and slower times a strength training program can help reduce the loss of the contractile proteins.

The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that although you may have been haphazard about strength training in your younger years it’s vital that you maintain a regular program to keep and recruit as many muscle fibers as possible. [7]

Benefits of Being an Older Runner

Mental Discipline and Life Experience
Even though at times you may feel like your body is going to hell in a hand-basket, there are benefits of being older. These can include using smarter training techniques, learning to listen to your body, not letting the ego get as involved in training, and higher pain tolerance development.

Long distance running also requires patience and mental discipline that is built through years of life experience. So that’s why it’s never too late to start. Non-elite runners who come to the sport later in life often have several years of improved performances (some say an 8-10 year window).

Jack Daniels, an exercise physiologist and distance coach says, “The marathon has a bigger learning curve than other events.” [9] Older runners, with their greater levels of life experience, are often better at getting around this learning curve.

The Winning Attitude
Bill Donnelly, a runner in his late 60’s, says

“My wife and I have a motto we believe in more and more and try to practice as we get older, and that is: Keep moving! Whenever we see people our age or close to it who have a tough time getting around because of the shape they are in, we look at each other and repeat our mantra. It no longer matters to us that we cannot run as fast or as long as we once did, just as long as we keep exercising so that we will still be able to get around.” [1]

That sounds like the right attitude to have.

Suggestions for Staying Healthy

So if you’re an older runner who’s noticing a gradual slow-down in times or if you’re beginning long distance running here are some suggestions to make it the best possible experience.

  • Get a physical to make sure there aren’t any health issues causing the slow down. Things like low hemoglobin levels or a heart condition can contribute to not feeling good while running.
  • Balance your running days with low impact cross training like yoga, Pilates, weight training, swimming, cycling, elliptical, rowing, etc. That way you’re building overall body strength.
  • Take the number of rest days that your body needs. Even if you used to run 6 days per week as a younger person it may be beneficial to cut back to running every other day.
  • Go for quality instead of quantity. Make the running you do as specific as possible: hill work, interval training and other speed work, and long runs.
    Keep a running log to see if you notice trends in your training.
  • Consider working with a coach who understands your age, physical condition and goals.
  • Work on keeping your diet as “out of the box” as possible. Fresh food (particularly vegetables and fruit) are higher in antioxidants and are essential for optimal functioning at any age.
  • Reconsider your goals if you’re not enjoying running anymore. It’s okay to drop down to shorter distances or run for the experience instead of the time.
    Don’t compare yourself with younger people (or the younger version of yourself).
  • Investigate the run/walk method which can help prevent early muscle fatigue. Jeff Galloway, Olympian and running coach developed “The Galloway Method.”
  • Find races that have a longer cut-off time or offer an early start option.
    Check out ultras which will often have longer cut off times- things like 6 hour, 12 hour, etc events. You can still run your marathon within those time considerations.
  • Try race walking which can be easier on the joints. The book, “The Complete Guide to Marathon Walking” by Dave McGovern is a good place to get started.

Just keep moving!

It’s also important to remember that speed is a relative thing. There are younger runners who struggle to manage the time cut offs in races too. And in my opinion, once a marathoner always a marathoner. The thing that counts is to keep moving forward and making the most of what you have.

Helen Klein says, “I still walk five miles every morning and my goal is to be able to walk without a cane or walker until my 92nd birthday this November and keep walking until the end. I refuse to sit down.” [2]

Photo credit: Chris Waits; Flickr Creative Commons; https://www.flickr.com/photos/chriswaits

Also Mentioned in This Episode

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6 Responses to The Aging Marathoner – How Getting Older Affects Your Running

  1. Clive Thompson October 8, 2014 at 3:28 pm #

    here in the UK the first running boom was in the eighties. I tried for years to break 1 hr 30 mins for a half marathon and used full marathons (6 of them) as stamina runs for my half marathon attempts with a pb of 3hrs 35 min. Eventually in 86 I completed a measured half marathon in 1 Hr 29min 26sec. That was it, job done, I gave up running.
    25 years later I started running again to accompany my son who wanted to run a marathon. I completed another 4 marathons simply because 6+4=10 and I wanted to do 10. I now mainly do halves in the 60-64 category. You mention more runners coming into the older category- well, this year, in my local Cardiff Half Marathon, I took 9 minutes off last years time and dropped 46 places. That should tell you something.
    With regard to slowing down I have a philosophy having realised I could never better the best times in the eighties. I now have pre millennium bests and post millennium bests. Also, i think that in your 60s the main target is to finish in one piece.

    • Angie Spencer October 8, 2014 at 9:14 pm #

      Cliff- It’s great that you’ve resumed your running journey and been able to accomplish some new goals. I think you’ve got a great perspective and attitude. Awesome work! Keep moving forward.

  2. Stephen Moore November 10, 2015 at 1:45 pm #

    Awesome article. As a 56 yr old running 20-30 miles a week with a PR of 1:46:40 in the half I thought about getting a coach. I’m afraid younger runners can’t understand what it’s like being older. But you changed my mind. Excellent research and insight. Thank you.

    • Trevor Spencer November 12, 2015 at 12:03 am #

      Thanks for the comment Stephen! We have plenty of people your age in the Academy. Some of them are faster than me!

  3. Andrew Turner October 18, 2016 at 10:38 pm #

    Why do you say what you do when the most successful old runner in the world does long slow miles when preparing for a Marathon?

    • Angie Spencer October 19, 2016 at 6:35 am #

      Who would you consider “the most successful old runner in the world?” There are a number of very successful older marathoners like Canadian Ed Whitlock. Each person ages differently and there is certainly not a one-size fits all approach to training. The key is to listen to your body and train accordingly. Great things are still possible as we age!

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