The Impact Of Age On Running (And What To Do About It)

The Impact Of Age On Running (And What To Do About It)

 The-Impact-Of-Age-On-Running-And-What-To-Do-About-It

We're all getting older, right? Well, it's pretty well known that as we age, we slow down. That's a no brainer. Many of you may already be noticing that now you may have reached a phase and you're running where speed and recovery are harder to maintain than they were just a few years ago.

There is a significant impact of age on running. It is definitely harder to maintain speed when you're in your 40s than when you were in your teens, 20s, even 30s, if you're a runner back then. 

  • But what does that mean “slow down”, and what could we expect in terms of like how much? 
  • When does a "slowdown" happen? 
  • How can we delay or offset the effects of aging as long as we can?
  • Can we delay the effects of aging in terms of our running performance? 

Well, these are the things that I hoped explore today with you because, well, I've noticed drop off in my running speed over the past five years or so. Now, not all of its age-related, but I'm certain that age is certainly playing a part, at least for part of it, because, well, I am getting older. 

I’ve spent some time to see what the research has to say about it. I mean, even without the research, it's fairly well known that as we get older, we tend to recover slower. We slow down in general. At some point, our expectations are going to have to shift. But there are ways we can push back that oncoming “slowdown” a little bit more and get some more time out of our running through smarter training.

So before I get into the specifics of when and how much we slow down and why. Let me preface all this, that for the vast majority of us, we can still improve our running depending on the situation and how willing we are to do the things necessary, even if we're an older runner. Because while there is a certain point where the returns start diminishing, I personally know several people who are running faster now in their 50s and 60s than they did in their 40s and 50s respectively.

New York Marathon's Results of People of Different Age

In fact, as I was prepping my notes, I got curious and I went out to the New York marathon's results from their website. And this is what I came up with: 

  • There was a 43-year-old man who ran it in 2 hours and 17 minutes.
  •  Another 46-year old man came in at sixty-ninth place with a 2:30.
  •  There were a lot of 40-year-olds in the top 100.
  • A 56-year-old had a 2: 48.
  • A 65-year-old who ran it in 3:16.
  • There was a 70-year-old who ran it in 3:25.
  • There were 70+ runners who ran it under five hours.
  • An 80-year-old man who ran it in 5:31. 

Not all of them were super-fast but pretty damn good for someone in their 80s. I'll take that any day of the week when I'm that age. And there is even an 85-year old who finished the race. So I am guessing that many of these runners were faster when they're younger. 

There's no way to know actually when they started running or how much speed they've lost as they aged. But you have to admit that these times are pretty incredible. So my point here isn't necessary to emphasize speed or even that speed is important. It's just if you can take on a marathon at that age, which is incredibly challenging on a good day, and all these runners have done this with great times.

It's not like they slowed down so much that their times were horrible. These times were great times, which gets me to the next thing I want to preface before I get into the specifics of what happens as we age. And that is this idea of fitness age versus actual age, and they're two different things.

If-you-are-old-mentally-you-are-old-physically.-Automatically.

Fitness Age vs. Actual Age

So let me explain:

  • Our actual age is actually that our actual age. 
  • Our fitness age is how long we've been fit. So a former 24-year-old couch potato may have only been running three months, they have a fitness age of three months. While a 50-year-old runner may have been running for three years, and may be in the incredible shape.

That 24-year-old, while kudos for them for getting started, may not be as fit as that 50-year-old who's been running for a little bit longer. So, we all are in various stages of our fitness age. It just depends on when we get started and how long we've been maintaining it.

Fitness-age

Regardless of your age, if you're 55 years old and you decide to start running after years of inactivity, even though you're 55, you're going to actually improve for the next several years just by becoming more fit. And that will continue up until a point, until you start to see diminishing returns, which, by the way, should be incredibly motivating for all of you, regardless of age. If you're 30, 40, 50, 60, whatever, it's not too late to join in and start running.

But as you do get older, you're most likely going to have to adjust your training. A 50-year-old can't train like a 20-year-old, even a 30-year-old, for that matter. So how you train can be similar, but you're going to need to account for your age to some degree. If you don't, bad things can happen in terms of overtraining, in many cases injury. 

If you balance things correctly and do the right things, you can make significant progress. But over time, the longer in the game, those improvements start to take longer. And those improvements start to slow down with everything else, assuming everything else stays equal in terms of how well you train. And unfortunately, most training plans don't take that into account. They're just well, they're just generic and they're written with zero personalization. So, a 30-year-old who is following a training plan might be to follow that training plan fine, whereas a 50-year-old is probably going to have to make adjustments. But who knows, it depends on the fitness of that 50-year-old.

Now that we set up all that in terms of fitness age versus actual age, let's look at the impact of getting older on our running.

The Impacts of Getting Older on Our Running

How-does-age-impacts-various-types-of-runners

Well, based on the research I did and much of this research came from a presentation of a study made at Furman University, here is what we have:

  • Sprinters slow faster than endurance runners. 
  • Endurance runners being basically anyone who runs more than sixteen hundred meters, manage to maintain their aerobic capacity with the age. 

A lot of professional endurance runners actually come from that pool of short and middle distance track runners as they start to retire from sprinting and track and move towards the endurance world. Now, endurance runners, that would be all of us, start to slow from mid to late 30s.

So that sucks for this community because most of you are either approaching that age in the next couple of years or you're already past that 30s, mid 30s area. That sucks for us, but that's reality. So we need to know that starting in our mid-thirties, things just start to slow down and the rate of decline starts off slowly but then starts to decline faster as you age. So while it's not exactly a linear decline, research indicates that most runners who remain highly fit can expect to lose about a half to one percent per year in their overall speed from age 35 to 60. 

And then once you hit 60, that rate of decrease tends to increase at a faster rate and continues to decrease faster and faster until you can't run anymore. So if you want to get faster and think you have this unlimited runway of waiting for next year, well, bad news for you, because now's the time to take care of business.

Not someday, not next year. Each of us starts to see that decline, and then it becomes harder and harder to adjust to it. But as you heard earlier, it is possible to improve on what you're doing. And since most of us don't come close to our potential anyways, most of us have lots of room for improvement, even though we are continuing to get older. But every year we wait, it gets harder and the rate of decline increases faster.

What Impacts Performance of Older Runners? 

The Decline of Aerobic Capacity

 The-peak-aerobic-capacity-is-widely-recognized-to-decline-with-age

Well, one thing that happens when we age, is the decline of aerobic capacity. That just means that our ability to move and use oxygen becomes less efficient as we age. 

So what we do when we have an older runner, a runner over thirty-five, is making modifications to a training plan. And what we aim to do is to improve aerobic capacity to some level through prescribing smarter training and then use the improvement that comes from better training as a way to hold off that age-related decline over time.

With those under 35 to 40, we have a little more leeway when we build their training plans, even though aerobic capacity is still extremely important for them. We also tend to see larger jumps and things like PR with race times between runners I coach who are under, let's say 40.

In general, if runners of over and under 40 have similar fitness levels or experience, similar consistency, and the quality of training, the results will be different. My personal experience shows that the runners under 40 tend to get bigger jumps and PR times. For example. It's not uncommon to see at a marathon a runner under 40 with 20 minute PR. But in a runner over 40 who did all the other things equally, that PR may only be a few minutes, maybe 10. 

Now, keep in mind, this is just what I have seen in unofficial. Yes, there's no official study. It's just kind of highly subjective of what I've noticed with athletes that I've coached. But other things come into play like environmental conditions, fueling. So that's not to say that younger runners under 40 always get great PR. I've seen huge PR improvements in the older group, but usually, this is because they were training properly for the first time, or maybe they were healthier this time around than they were maybe the first time. So this isn't always an apples-to-apples comparison.

But generally speaking, across the board, across the clients that I have coached, those results are typical and we tend to see little bigger spikes and PR jumps in the younger runners versus the older runners.

The Higher Chance of Injury and Slower Recovery

 The-recovery-process-slows-down-as-you-get-older-which-impacts-your-running-performance

The next thing that impacts older runners is the higher chance of injury and the length of time injuries can take to heal. And I think this one's pretty straightforward. So with older adult runners, we have to account for this in a couple of ways:

  • In the way that we assign workouts and balance the right level intensity; 
  • And the rate at which we add intensity so as not to overwhelm our body.

Bodies of older adults take longer to recover after a training session. For this reason, the training plan should be adjusted according to the age and current capabilities of the runner.

So when working with those over 35, in some cases, we tend to be a little more conservative in how we progress the runner through a training program. On the other side, we can be a little more aggressive when working with our clients in their 20s or 30s. We don’t apply the same training plan to different age categories in order to help runners progress and prevent unwanted injuries.

The Decrease in Overall Training Volume and Intensity

It-is-important-to-add-additional-strength-training-to-an-overall-program-to-prevent-a-decrease-in-training-volume-and-intensity

One more thing that impacts the performance of older runners is the decrease in overall training volume. So because we need more time to recover, it goes without saying that we're just not running as much.

What you can do to offset the “slow down” and improve your endurance is to add additional strength training to an overall program. It doesn't address everything, but it can help replace some running by allowing your muscles to get stronger and become more resistant to fatigue and injuries. 

But still, if you look at the overall volume of running when you are in your 40s, you’ll notice a decrease in the miles you run per week. With longer recovery times and the fact that it gets much harder to push ourselves harder with vigorous exercise, our ability to train at higher intensities gets throttled back. We just can't push ourselves as hard. So as older runners, we should definitely be training occasionally at higher intensities, but we just can't handle the same frequency and duration as our younger runners.

A Negative Psychological Impact 

 Be-careful-not-to-fall-under-the-limiting-belief-mindset

Have you ever said “I'm getting old”? You get stiff sore, your back hurts a little and you just save yourself? It sucks. “Getting old” comments like this create a negative psychological impact on our brains that will do more harm than getting old itself. 

Feeling tired and sore in the morning or stiff all the time? Well, those are things that we can help with. Yeah, you might be getting old, but getting old naturally causes our muscles and joints to get stiff and sore. But guess what? This can be fixed by frequent mobility exercises and just movement.

Overall, your joints hurt. And if it's been a day or so since you ran, don't take the day off and wait for it to get better. Get your butt up and start moving. That doesn't mean running. That just means moving. Get the synovial fluid. That's the fluid in your joints that help reduce friction, get them moving, and working through your joints so that your joints can get lubricated again. When you begin your runs, don't just start running right away, do an easy warm-up first to get your joints and muscles loosened up. Just simply walking can help get your joints, muscle, and joints and muscles loosened up

As we get older, the connective tissue between our muscles and bones become more rigid and our joints get stiff. That is why it's extremely important to warm up and to slowly work ourselves into those workouts.

Joint pain and loss of mobility is something that's going to happen naturally. So we have to give it the attention that's needed. And the problem is, that if you go in and you're complaining to your doctor that, your knees and hips hurt, they're just going to automatically, in most cases, diagnose your symptoms as well. You're just getting old, probably with a little bit of arthritis in there. And that may be true, but maybe it isn't. Maybe it's just that you need to work on flexibility, mobility, and get some movement going. You have to take that up with your doctor.

However, don't just assume and don't let that thought “I’m too old” get in your head. Don't ever let that get in your brain. I mean, there was five or six 80-year-olds running the New York Marathon this year and a couple of 70-year-olds in there as well. So shut up. Age is relative. My goal is to run you guys into our 70s and 80s. That would be really, really cool. 

Anyways, what I want to point out is that mindset is everything, not just in this case, but in everything we do.

Problems with Body Composition and Weight Management

 It-is-harder-to-maintain-a-healthy-weight-as-you-age

Another factor that we have with getting older is the impact of our body composition. So as we get older, weight management becomes harder. Not always but as we age, most of us start putting on some weight. And it becomes harder to maintain our healthy weight even if we run because our poor diet in some cases catches up to us. We're often more stressed out and our metabolism is whacked.

For men, we'd start losing testosterone. And biochemically, whether we're male or female, our bodies just struggle to keep up for many of us. We slow down because we're simply overweight.

 

Bottomline

Ok, so I want to start wrapping up with some things that we can do about it. As we get older, we're just going to have to accept it. Well, there's nothing we can do about the getting older part, but we have to be careful not to fall under the limiting belief mindset. 

We have to be smart about our training and we have to realize that we can't always train the way we want to or like many of our younger runner counterparts. But that doesn't mean we have to sit back and let age get in the way. 

We can take steps necessary to push back these effects of aging by training smarter, focusing on runs that are going to help us improve our aerobic capacity, allow proper recovery. And if we do that, we can push back this oncoming age barrier.

So as I wrap up my last year in my 40s, I spent quite a bit of time struggling with my own limitations. I went through this period of, I guess, self-pity and stress. It's been a rough year for me on a lot of fronts. These feelings have led to kind of a lot of self-reflection, reflection that at least from the running side, helped me realize that while I may be past my personal prime, I'm still nowhere close to what my true potential, what I'm capable of. 

And if I'm willing to do the work, then I can get closer and closer to that potential, which will give me the results as if I was younger and not coming close to my potential.

So there is an opportunity for each of us, regardless of where we're at. Do we want to keep doing the right things and not allow that “slowdown” to come for several more years? It only works if we step up and grab the bull by the horns and do the work. 


If you're a runner who's over that 35-year mark, you have to approach your running differently than the younger runners in our community. If you need any help with modifying your training plan, we have experience training runners of all ages and could help you with this. Age is just a number, don't let it stop you from running!


Additional Running Resources

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Steve is the founder and head running coach of RunBuzz.com. Steve is host of the RunBuzz podcast and founder of PaceBuilders, a complete online training program for runners. Steve is a RRCA / USA Track and Field Certified Running Coach and resides in Lewis Center, Ohio.