This month’s question came from a 52 Year Old Man who asked me: “I’m wondering when I should start thinking about trading in my racing flats for something with a little more…velcro?”
Not so fast! Just because you are getting older doesn’t mean you have to give up running and join an aquaerobics class. However, if you want to get faster instead of slowly succumbing to the “old man shuffle”, you DO have to be smarter about your training as you age. I see patients at RunLab every day that blame their injuries on age instead of the real culprits:
- over or under-training
- lack of strength
- lack of mobility
- dietary insufficiency
- lack of appropriate sleep
- inadequate recovery from hard workouts [likely the biggest culprit of all]
The take home message up front is this: despite the fact that we can’t stop the aging process, there is a LOT that can be done to maintain and even increase performance over time, it just takes commitment to adapting training strategies to suit the specific needs of your current self, not your 20 year-old self.
[Doctor’s Note: I’ve had dozens of readers tell me they appreciate when I go more in-depth and technical because the audience of this website is more advanced. I’ve done so in this blog. Here’s your warning: what follows will take 4-6 minutes to read and digest.]
There are definitely some major changes that happen as we age which can contribute to massively deteriorating performances if left unchecked. Some of the major age-related issues that we experience are declining testosterone levels, increased risk of osteopenia and osteoporosis (less of a problem in runners than in cyclists and swimmers), increased tendency toward metabolic acidosis (which can contribute to bone and muscle loss), decrease in soft tissue elasticity and loss of muscle mass. Despite the fact that these changes may seem insurmountable, changing your training tactics as you age can have profound performance-improving consequences.
One of the biggest challenges for aging athletes is weight gain and changing body composition. Many people automatically chalk this up to a natural slowing of the metabolism. However, the reason the metabolism “slows” is due to a decrease in lean muscle mass. Since muscle burns calories more quickly than fat and “stokes” your metabolism, loss of muscle mass will cause a decrease in caloric need. When too many calories are consumed, it is stored as fat and contributes to change in overall body composition. In order to maintain a lean body composition, runners must not only run, but diligently work to build lean muscle mass in areas that will help their running performance. This has the added benefit of increasing metabolic demand and staving off weight gain as we age. Look around at your next triathlon and notice how lean most of the older competitors are. If you’ve ever done an Ironman and had that guy blow by you with a “67” on his giant, well-defined calf you know what I mean.
Skeletal muscle mass begins to deteriorate in the mid-20s. However, this is mostly Type II muscle, the fast-twitch muscles related to power and short bursts of speed in an anaerobic environment. Type I muscle fibers are maintained much longer, which is why you may notice that elite runners often increase their competitive distance as they age. The average age of peak marathon performance at the elite level (both men and women) is 28-30, and as the distance of the race goes up, so does the average peak performance age. The best Ironman distance triathletes are typically in their mid-30s (+/- 35), and the best ultra runners are in their late 30s and early 40s. The age range of peak performance in endurance sports is still trending upward. This is likely due to:
- an increase in life expectancy
- a rapidly growing number of masters-age competitors from which to draw data
- an increase in ease of information transfer regarding:
- best training practices
- nutrition recommendations
- a number of other factors that likely also include socioeconomics
What this means for the typical age-group athlete is that we have a long competitive lifespan and if training is done right we can continue to improve much longer than many other types of athletes.
So what can you do to sustain or even improve your performance as you age? An interesting piece of research came out of Washington University in St Louis several years ago that compared runners with an average age of 56 years with runners at an average age of 25. Both groups ran 41 miles per week and demonstrated the same 10K times of 41:30. How did the older runners keep their fitness levels so high? As it turned out, the answer lay in the older runner’s ability to maintain a higher velocity before hitting lactate threshold than the younger runners. Despite the fact that VO2 max (maximum oxygen consumption) deteriorates at approximately 1% a year after 40, if a runner trains the percentage of VO2 max at which she hits lactate threshold (this is not as scary as it sounds), performance gains can continually be made as we age. In fact, the muscle mitochondria that help improve running velocity at lactate threshold, as well as the aerobic enzymes that play an important role in this process, can increase similarly in response to training in a 60 year old as they can in a 30 year old. The best way to train this system is to incorporate power and max-speed sessions on a regular basis (it’s best to get a coach to help you with this, at least initially). Since one of the issues with aging is decreased recovery time, it can help to make your training “weeks” 10 day cycles instead of 7 day cycles. This will allow adequate recovery time following speed workouts in order to help decrease your risk of injury and also allow for your body to absorb the training load without the risk of over-training.
Performance losses have historically been attributed to loss in cardiac power, muscle mass, and strength. An interesting study by Nancy Hamilton at the University of Iowa looked at running form and aging. She looked at data from the veteran Olympics games and determined that the biggest issues linked to performance in older runners were related to stride length. Older runners often tend to “shuffle”. This can be a compensation mechanism for a loss of hip mobility and strength, and can potentially be a huge source of performance loss over time.
Everybody’s favorite: HILLS
There are several other ways to train strength and mobility in the hips but this is the most functional and effective. As you are running a steep incline, you are forced to get your leg up high enough in front of you to improve hip flexor strength. The back leg is forced to extend through full range of motion and push you up the hill, which builds strength on the back side of the body and forces the front of the hip to adapt to the increased mobility necessary to get the leg into a fully extended position.
Don’t ever resign yourself to being sedentary simply because of age. When you start thinking perhaps it is time to take up bingo and give up all of this exercise business consider this: one of my favorite clients is an extraordinary woman in her mid-60s who up and decided she wanted to learn
…wait for it…
Yep that’s right, she started Pole Vaulting at age 62….just sayin’.