When I was a child I ran for fun, because I could. As a teenager I was, like so many others, forced to run and it, unsurprisingly, was around about then that the magic of running disappeared from my life. Some things in life are inevitable and the alternatives to aging are either being dead, or not being a runner, so what can runners embracing the inevitable expect as they, day by day, year by year, get older?
I started C25k at the age of 57 in an attempt to stave off some of the seemingly inevitable declines in stamina and strength that advancing age presents to us. The response of my body was remarkable. By the time I was 60 I felt fitter and happier than ever in my life, but I had to accept that I had not actually reversed the aging process, only slowed it to a degree.
For those who have run continuously from an early age performance peaks in mid to late twenties, although the longer the duration of the individual’s chosen distance the later that peak can be pushed back, as the holders of the current men’s world records as of September 2020 clearly illustrate.
Usain Bolt ……………...100m…………...……...............age 23
Hicham El Guerrouj …..1500m…………………........age 24
Kenenisa Bekele………10000m……………...............age 23
Geoffrey Kamworor…...Half Marathon…………..age 27
Eliud Kipchoge ………..Marathon………………........age 34
Yiannis Kouros………...24 hour ultra………….........age 41
That ability to push back the bounds has a limit though and it is not surprising that at the age of 40 the classification for runners becomes Masters, formerly Veterans. Forty is one of those thresholds, after which you need to be kind to yourself and accept that you are not likely to hit performance targets that you managed with ease ten years before.
As we age we lose muscle mass from as early as our twenties and by our thirties our bone mass is also in decline. We first of all tend to lose fast twitch muscle, used for sprinting, followed by slow twitch muscle, used for endurance, which partially explains the table of records and ages above. This decline increases for women around the menopause and for most men after 65 and is linked to natural reductions in hormone levels of estrogen, testosterone, and growth hormone. Even elite athletes can lose about 20 percent of their muscle fibres between ages 40 and 70.
Our ability to transport oxygen also reduces for a whole host of complex reasons, such as diminishing maximum heart rate, reduction in capillaries and mitochondria and possibly clogged and inflexible arteries, due to lifestyle and diet.
Body development when training will be slower than in younger runners and recovery times are also longer the older we get.
To a non runner this all looks depressing and is just speeding us to our impending demise………..but of course we runners are optimistic and positive and we know that we can minimise the ravages of time by training carefully and there are some areas that we need to pay special attention to maximise our potential.
As we age we tend to be less active and many put on weight. When young people gain weight, about one-third of the weight gained is lean muscle. When older people, in particular older women, gain weight, it's usually fat. When older people lose weight—due to illness or a low-calorie diet—half of the weight lost is muscle.
Being a healthy weight is important. Body fat secretes hormones that have negative effects on muscle strength and contribute to increased inflammation, particularly after age 60. Inflammation can lead to heart disease and diabetes.
To maintain muscle mass as we age we need to keep those muscles active and provide our bodies with the nutrients required to build/rebuild the muscle. So maintaining regular exercise is crucial and there is a body of opinion that suggests that those in their sixties should be increasing their exercise levels. It is argued that increasing protein levels in our diets to as much as 25% of total dietary intake will help compensate for the hormone loss, for those in their sixties.
Resistance exercise (such as weightlifting, water aerobics and Pilates) as well as general fitness workout sessions will pay dividends, preserving muscle and strength.
When I was looking around for a simple, quick, no equipment workout to do on non run days I searched high and low but arrived on an Android app called Home Workout-No Equipment & Meal Planner by Simple Design Ltd. play.google.com/store/apps/...
iOs app here apps.apple.com/us/app/home-...
It has a whole range of different routines but I do the Classic 7 Minutes Workout with additional warmups, which takes under 12 minutes in total. Like C25k it is duration based, in that each discipline is only done for 30 seconds. So if you can only manage one push up in the first session, you will be delighted when you can move on. It seems like barely limbering up but it is incredible how much strength and control it will build if done frequently. It works on flexibility, balance, upper, lower and core body strength and is an ideal complement to running. It says no equipment but does require a chair and a wall or door.
As already stated, our ability to transport oxygen, vital to triggering activity in muscle, declines with age and consequently our V02 max will decrease. In simple terms this is the maximum amount of oxygen that our bodies can utilise and a man of 65+ with a VO2 max of 37 or above would be considered excellent, whereas that same figure would be considered below average for a male in the 18-25 age range. By increasing your VO2 max you can potentially increase your lifespan, whilst reducing your risk of stroke, heart disease, diabetes and some cancers and theoretically sleep better and have more stable moods.
Hefty claims, so how to achieve it? The simplest way is to make sure that sometimes you work hard at 90-95% of your maximum heart rate and one of the simplest ways to achieve that is by using interval or fartlek training. It is recommended that 80% of your running should be at an easy conversational pace, which roughly equates to 75% of your maximum heart rate and if you are a new runner still doing C25k this should be your aim for all of your running, while you build your strength and injury resistance. Once graduated though, if you want to maximise VO2 max, some intervals will help develop your oxygen utilisation, although it will naturally develop in a new runner even at an easy pace, but less rapidly.
It is often stated that older established runners can improve their times for shorter (5k) runs by doing more short training runs, whereas for younger runners there is reckoned to be a greater advantage doing longer training runs to develop overall stamina.
There is undeniably a decline in physical ability associated with aging but when in competition with a range of ages it is possible to compare the effort of the older runner with that of a younger runner by using age grading, as employed by the parkrun movement and others. Age grading takes the world record time of each age group and produces a percentage score based on your time. So an age grading score of 50% means that your time is half that of the world record for your age and gender. That score is theoretically directly comparable to the score attained by those in different age ranges. I believe it does favour the older runner simply because there are fewer highly competitive runners in the older age brackets, but it does give you a boost to see that you beat someone on grading, even if they left you in their dust!
One other aspect of aging that needs to be considered is recovery times, which tend to increase as the body does not repair itself as efficiently as you age. This needs to be considered in particular when looking at training plans, which may well be effective for younger runners, but may need to be adjusted for older runners, to avoid burnout and injury. Have extra rest days if necessary. Also take this into account when tapering training before an event ……..if you are older then give yourself more rest time prior to a competitive run.
Another consequence of being less active is that our balance often suffers, resulting in more falls as people age. Running is excellent at helping to preserve this and because of the impact, bone density too, especially running on uneven ground, but there are other simple ways to build balancing into our daily routines, which means it is addressed daily. I work on the basis that if I do something every day, then I will continue to be able to do it every day. When I put my socks on, or take them off, I do that standing on one leg, not sitting down. Tooth cleaning is a golden opportunity to either stand on one leg or as I do, single leg dips. Timed by my electric toothbrush, I do 3 x 30 seconds on my weaker left leg and the remaining 30 on my right. Clean teeth, strengthened legs and maintained balance all in two minutes.
WARMUP AND COOLDOWN
With reduced capillary density and generally creakier joints, the pre run warmup is of even more relevance to the older runner, to get everything working smoothly and flexibly before the hard work.......so don't be tempted to cut it short or injury risk will be increased, Cooldown is equally important and older runners apparently report lightheadedness or faints more frequently than average after running, especially if they just stop suddenly. This is to do with heart rate dropping quite rapidly while veins are still dilated, which can cause pooling of blood in the legs and a subsequent drop in blood pressure. So always maintain a good five minute cooldown walk followed by static stretches to improve muscle recovery.
To round up, we need to keep pushing ourselves, occasionally, watch our diets all the time, do strength and resistance training regularly but also accept gracefully that we are unlikely to perform to the level we did in the past, although it is often said a new runner keeps improving for the first seven years. I have been running for seven years, but having started at 57 the improvement only kept coming for the first three years or so, after which critical illness and injury stopped any progress on PBs, but the good level of fitness acquired through running has held me in good stead through all this and the joy and mental well being garnered through plodding along beautiful natural running routes keeps me at it………….who cares if I am slower than I used to be, I am still running and still smiling.
There are more FAQ posts giving general information here healthunlocked.com/couchto5...