Getting older is unfortunately a fact of life. But does our running ability need to deteriorate as we age?
In this article, we’re going to look at the reasons we run slower as we get older…
…and most importantly, what we can do to counteract that process so that you can run faster well into your fifties (and beyond).
It is well-documented that our physiology starts letting us down way before we’d like it to.
Many studies show peak performance ages to be between 20-35 years of age for most sports and the physiological decline eminent thereafter.
Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. Vol: 27:12 (2017)
Nonetheless, we have seen a shift in the age demographics in endurance events in the last few years. In South Africa for example, more than 40% of the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon field is over the age of 40 (Schwabe et al, 2018 1).
And a recent article in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found the median age of ultrarunners doing their first ultra-marathon to be 37 years old, however the median age at which ultramarathon runners finished their first ultramarathon is 42 years old. Other stats have shown that 50% of marathoners are over the age of 40 years old.2
Have I Reached My Peak When I Reach a Certain Age?
So, if the general entry and age of the runner are increasing, it begs the question – at what age are we most likely to reach our (own relative) peak performance?
Why do we slow down as we get older? Is it possible to delay the onset of aging by exercising more? Is training harder and/or more the answer? Let’s dive into some of the physiology around this.
“It has been shown that the ageing process starts as early as the third decade of life”
That is according to Dr. Paola Wood, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sport Science & Biokinetics at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, who is an expert on the topic of the Ageing athlete. (For me at the tender age of 35 this was quite something to hear)
Dr. Wood states that for the most part, the rate of decline for everyone is linear from 30 years old onwards, however, once you reach 60-70 this decline is much steeper/greater.
The differentiator comes in for those who were active from a young age, you will perhaps start this decline at a higher or better point but essentially the rate of decline is the same for everyone.
So, it is not that exercise will change/slow down the decline, but consistency in exercise will still allow for other more peripheral adaptations to occur.
For the sake of this article, we will only focus on the 4 really important components needed for endurance running:
1. Your Max Heart Rate gradually decreases (Cardiovascular)
As we get older, we start to see a decline in maximum heart rate. Most age-related HRmax formulas are sufficient for a general idea for the general population however there is a lot of variance with these formulas and they are not very dependable at an individual level.
It is important for you to figure out your HRmax with the use of a laboratory test or a maximum exhaustive field-based test.
But either way, we do know this to be true that an individual’s maximum heart rate does decline as we get older.
2. A Reduction in VO2peak (Cardiovascular)
As a result of the decline in max heart rate, we start to see a decline in peak VO2 in athletes as they get older.
The correlation between a high VO2max and performance has been well covered in the literature and so a high VO2max is generally related to excellent performances.
It could, therefore, be assumed that with the decline in VO2peak as you age, your running performance could also decline. (More on this a little later as to why this is not completely true)
3. A decrease in muscle mass and strength & power (Musculoskeletal)
Over time our muscle mass decreases and along with this, there is a more rapid loss of Type II (“fast fibers”).
So, what this means is that there is a slight change in the muscle mass we have from a more slow-twitch fiber, which essentially means less speed.
This is a result of training and very much of a “use it or lose it” mentality within physiology. It has also been shown that the rate of muscle atrophy (loss) accelerates after 55 years but the peak force production relative to the muscle size stays the same (Häkkinen K. et al, 1991 4).
Therefore, this suggests that as get older your amount of force produced will be relative to how much muscle mass you have and because we tend to lose muscle mass as we get older (especially after 55 years old) this force production will decrease.
Therefore, it is vital to perform some focused strength training so as to not allow for such large muscle mass loss to occur.
4. A decrease in tendon elasticity & increased stiffness (Musculoskeletal)
This decrease in tendon elasticity could place the older endurance runner at a higher risk for musculoskeletal injuries.
And so, the loading and prescription of a runner over the age of 50 is key to ensuring the longevity and health of the runner.
Injuries & the master’s runner
There are very few studies on injury prevalence among masters endurance runners currently.
But what we do know is that this group of runners is at a high risk of musculoskeletal injury, more specifically the incidence of overuse injuries is higher in masters athletes compared to younger athletes (Langer PR. 2015 5).
Therefore, training loads along with scientifically periodized training programs are key to ensuring less of these overuse injuries occur.
The need for increased strength work, including balance and “foot core” is vital to complement this training program to help prevent these injuries. Strength work is recommended at least twice a week.
Health Screenings of the Masters Runner
If we can step away from physiology and performance for a moment. Sadly, at most major endurance events of late, we tend to hear news stories about athletes who died during the event. This is happening worldwide and unfortunately, the number of these incidents is increasing. Most recent data shows that the average incidence of sudden death during endurance running events is 1 / 100 000 participants worldwide (Schwellnus, SAFER, BJSM, 20176).
Masters runners are obviously at higher risk for sudden cardiac arrest in these events and therefore it is highly recommended that a full health screening, including a 12 lead ECG, be done with your sports physician prior to competing at any of these events.
Many people think getting older means that you need to cut back on physical activity to avoid injuries… This is not true, leading an active lifestyle after the age of 50 keeps your muscles and bones strong, and your mind sharp, and can add years to your life. Read more about the pros and cons of running over 50 here.
Let’s Paint a More Positive Picture For The Masters Runner…
This is all painting a pretty negative picture of your physiology if you’re a master’s runner…
…So here’s the good news:
There is scientific literature, measured across 29 years of the New York Marathon, that shows the running times for men over the age of 64 and women over the age of 44 have not yet plateaued, therefore showing that these athletes have not yet reached their performance limits (Lepers et al, 2012 7) and that masters athletes are constantly performing at a higher level.
But how can this be with all the physiological decline described above? I’ll explain this using 3 different scientific conclusions, stay with me here as we go through the science stuff, the conclusion for you as a master’s athlete is worth it, I promise.
While it seems that aging causes everything in physiology to decline, one thing very clear in the literature is that the mitochondria (which are essentially the endurance powerhouses of the cells) are still very responsive to training (Casuso et al, 2020 8).
And so, if runners continue to train and increase levels of aerobic activity this will have a positive adaptation on the mitochondria of the cell. This is great news because it shows how adaptation is still possible, even with other physiological declines.
One study comparing athletes of different age groups ie. 35-44 / 45-54 / 56-76 (albeit in cycling and not running) showed a decline in VO2max and average power (watts) (Pfeiffer et al, 2008 9) as the age increased. However, the comparison of thresholds (as a % of VO2max), as well as the cycling economy, showed very little difference across the age groups.
Therefore suggesting that while there is a change at a central capacity, the ability to sustain efforts at a submaximal capacity remains the same as you get older.
Beginning to run at any age, even if you are in your 50s, 60s, or 70s is a great way to improve cardiovascular fitness and reap the many health benefits that come hand-in-hand with running.
How Start Running In Your 50’s, 60’s, 70’s & Beyond
Lastly, a study that matched younger & masters athletes according to their best times (i.e. both are able to run a 40 minute 10km or both are able to run a 90 min 21km) again showed that the master’s athletes had a decreased VO2max and HRmax when compared to their younger counterparts, which we’ve spoken about at length already.
However, and this is awesome, the masters athletes had increased capillary density, measured in many different ways. And higher densities of mitochondrial enzymes (Coggan et al, 1990; Stephen Seiler 2020 10).
So what does all this scientific jargon mean?
Essentially the masters athletes who are matched for time/performance with their younger counterparts are able to compensate for their lower VO2max and HRmax with improved peripheral/skeletal muscle adaptation.
The takeaway from these 3 studies is that continuous adaptation can occur even though most of the powerhouse physiology needed for endurance performance naturally declines due to aging.
This means relative performances can continue to improve as we age and each individual masters athlete can continue to reach their own performance limit.
Let’s take Ria van Wyk, for example, one of our Team CoachParry athletes (see Ria’s story here). Even though Ria started running late into her 50’s she has been smashing PR after PR (most recently an impressive 45 min 10km at the age of 59! – no I’m not jealous at all).
We as coaches here at Coach Parry believe it’s for the following reasons:
- Ria follows our Faster Beyond 50 Training Framework religiously! That includes the number of training days, the pace suggested for each session, and the recommended rest & recovery.
- Ria does ALL the strength training sessions that are included in the training framework. No matter how busy her lifestyle is she always makes the time to do the strength training sessions.
- Ria is consistently consistent with her training. She hardly misses a session (rest days also being a “session”) and as a result, has had some fantastic results over the last year or two!
The moral of the story? Be more like Ria!
And so, every 4 weeks when it’s a Time Trial week, my goal is to beat Ria who is 25 years my senior! The point here is that with consistent training (and the correct training) the master’s runner has every reason to believe that their best is yet to come!
What Does This All Mean For The Runner Over 50 Who Wants To Run Faster?
Let’s tie it all together…
While there is still a notable physiological decline as we get older, the body still shows great aptitude for adaptation if provided with the right stimulus. If the correct training intensities and volume of training are followed and complemented with good strength training at least twice a week you can actually run better as you get older.
There is a saying that children are not small adults and so we shouldn’t train them as such, the same should ring true for runners over 50. Of course, the basic training principles still apply but it is key to manipulate the volume and intensity of the program in order to run fast as you age.
The physiological declines in strength need to be overcome and it is recommended that at least 2 sessions of strength work be implemented into an athlete’s program. Careful consideration of strength, balance, foot intrinsic, and coordination is extremely beneficial to the aging runner.
Lastly, the masters runner is far from reaching their peak performance. With the correct loading and prescription, the best is yet to come…
If you’re interested in learning more about slowing down the impact of ageing on your running then join us for our free upcoming Faster Beyond 50 Masterclass. You can get all the details by clicking on the image below:
Join us for a free online presentation of the…
The Faster Beyond 50 Masterclass
…and discover how you can run well (and faster) as you get older, without training more or harder than you currently are, all while avoiding injury.
If it feels like you’re training harder than ever but not running the paces you’d like to be running or if you’re constantly tired, fatigued or running in some sort of pain, then this is specifically for you.
Save your seat in this training now…
- Karen Schwabe, Martin Schwellnus, Sonja Swanevelder, Esme Jordaan, Wayne Derman & Andrew Bosch (2018) Leisure athletes at risk of medical complications: outcomes of pre-participation screening among 15,778 endurance runners – SAFER VII, The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 46:4, 405-413 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00913847.2018.1505569
- Running USA: 2013 Annual Half-Marathon Report. http://www.runningusa.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=news.details&ArticleId=333&returnTo=annual-reports. Accessed May 5 2013
- American College of Sports Medicine, Durstine J.L., Moore G., Painter P., Roberts S. 4th ed. Human Kinetics; Champaign, IL: 2016. ACSM’s exercise management for persons with chronic diseases and disabilities. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01924788.2012.677794
- Häkkinen K, Häkkinen A. Muscle cross-sectional area, force production and relaxation characteristics in women at different ages. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1991;62(6):410‐414. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00626612
- Langer PR. Considerations in treating physically active older adults and aging athletes. Clin Podiatr Med Surg. 2015;32(2):253‐260. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0891842214001104?via%3Dihub
- Schwellnus M, Kipps C, Roberts WO, et al Medical encounters (including injury and illness) at mass community-based endurance sports events: an international consensus statement on definitions and methods of data recording and reporting. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2019;53:1048-1055. https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/53/17/1048
- Lepers R, Cattagni T. Do older athletes reach limits in their performance during marathon running?. Age (Dordr). 2012;34(3):773‐781. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3337940/
- Casuso RA, Huertas JR. The emerging role of skeletal muscle mitochondrial dynamics in exercise and ageing. Ageing Res Rev. 2020;58. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S156816371930460X?via%3Dihub
- Peiffer JJ, Abbiss CR, Chapman D, Laursen PB, Parker DL. Physiological characteristics of masters-level cyclists. J Strength Cond Res. 2008;22(5):1434‐1440. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18714246/?from_single_result=physiological+characteristics+of+masters+level+cyclists&expanded_search_query=physiological+characteristics+of+masters+level+cyclists
- Coggan AR, Spina RJ, Rogers MA, et al. Histochemical and enzymatic characteristics of skeletal muscle in master athletes. J Appl Physiol (1985). 1990;68(5):1896‐1901. https://journals.physiology.org/doi/abs/10.1152/jappl.19184.108.40.2066 Stephen Seiler, Does our endurance machinery slow down at different rates as we get older? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bzphy5EN8lg Accessed 17 March 2020.