Running tends to be challenging when we are young, and it gets even harder when coping with aging muscles and bones. Certainly, there are those that seem to defy aging and continue with impressive running performance over many years, but for most people, getting older makes it much more difficult to achieve the same running results of decades earlier.
No matter how fit you are, as you age, some inevitable physiological changes occur, such as decreasing muscle fiber number and size, limited proprioception (can cause balance issues), and less neuromuscular efficiency (greater reaction times). Additional physiological changes that come with age – in everyone, whether they are athletes or not, include:
- Lower V02 max due to decline in maximum heart rate
- Smaller and fewer mitochondria in muscles (which are responsible for energy production)
- Increase in body fat and decrease in muscle and lean body mass
- More rigid connective tissue limits flexibility
- Decreased growth hormone production
- Reduced strength and endurance
Although many runners like to think that they are invincible, some research indicates that runners who remain highly fit can expect a 0.5 to 1 percent decline in performance per year from age 35 to 60. After age 60, performance decrement tends to increase at a faster rate.
But it’s not all downhill – if it were, there wouldn’t be so many recreational and competitive masters runners – with some outstanding performances. While older runners may have to modify their training and adjust their expectations, they certainly continue running as long as they are able.
What follows are a collection of recommendations on maximizing your masters running from various experts who have already been in this category.
Although your body may force you to adjust your running through the years, your mind may be committed to a point in your 20s or 30s, when running seemed relatively easy and pushing yourself was the norm.
- Cut yourself some slack – Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t PR anymore or if you take an extra rest day; you’re simply wasting mental energy here. The changes your body is experiencing are real, and not even elite athletes in any sport can compete at the same levels past age 40 that they did when they were younger. Accept these changes, and strive to do your best – but not be superhuman.
- Focus on the entire experience – Stop being a slave to the running watch and enjoy the sheer rhythm, movement and endorphins of running. Enjoy the outdoors, take advantage of precious thinking time, listen to some music and embrace your vitality.
- Get social – If you’ve been a lifelong solitary runner, this may be a great time to join a running club, as greater social ties in older age can increase quality of life and tend to be associated with longer lifespan. And this is a great outlet to meet other masters’ runners who are dealing with the same issues.
- Find the positive – Rather than dwell on your increasing times or your aching legs, appreciate all the good that you are still doing for yourself in running. Treasure your health and fitness. Embody gratitude for a skill that you may take for granted, but that many people your age cannot do.
Of course, every masters runner is different, but the human body ages in the same way in everyone. Consider customizing the following tips to best manage your running performance beyond age 40:
- Continue high-intensity runs – Running hard indeed is more difficult when you are older, but it is essential to help maintain your V02 max. You can do this with interval training, alternating periods of slower speeds with faster bursts. You select each pace and the duration and number of intervals. More time for recovery is acceptable; the key is to regularly push yourself.
- Maintain some speedwork – While this only may be one day per week, and it may be slower than your glory days, it still can’t be neglected if you want to continue racing. Master runner and coach Pete Magill suggest doing 6-10 striders about 20 seconds long in which you build up from a 5K pace to an all-out sprint. Aim to be 80-90 percent of your maximum effort.
- Incorporate strength training – Because we lose muscle mass at around one percent per decade if we are active (two-three percent if we are inactive), strength training is a non-negotiable to run well and help minimize risk of injury. You can start with 3-5 sets of bodyweight exercises, such as squats, lunges, step-ups, single-leg deadlifts, clamshells, bridges and pushups. Then add resistance in the form of weight machines, dumbbells, barbells or elastic bands to increase intensity. Don’t just do legwork – exercise your upper body as well for overall strength. Aim for 2-4 strength workouts weekly.
- Challenge your core – The core, including the abs, lower back and hips, are involved in virtually every movement. Try core exercises or take Pilates or yoga to strengthen this foundational area, which will help you maintain proper running form when fatigued.
- Work on balance – Because we lose proprioceptive skills as we age (and tend to suffer more falls as a result), addressing balance is critical. Try one-leg exercises, yoga or barre exercises or use a balance board or BOSU Stability Trainer to maintain balance as you age. This goes hand-in-hand with core work.
- Opt for forgiving surfaces – Try to run on tracks, grass, trails, treadmills and in the pool versus unforgiving concrete to manage repetitive, stressful impact that causes fatigue and can lead to injury. The Zero Runner from Octane Fitness is another outstanding training option, as it replicates true running strides without any impact.
- Stay hydrated – It’s easy to become dehydrated when you are older because your level of thirst decreases and kidney function is reduced. Losing just one percent of your body weight during a run (via sweat) can reduce your performance by two percent. Make sure you drink water before, during and after training and races. Coffee, tea, caffeinated soda and alcohol are diuretics and effectively don’t count.
- Choose races carefully – Racing breaks down runners, and therefore requires recovery, and research shows that masters runners need more time to recover than younger individuals. Instead of one race per month, perhaps try one per season, depending on distance. Or pick one marathon per year. Cut back so you can recover and maintain longevity.
- Get rest – Running is hard, so give your body time to recover and recuperate. You will come back refreshed and less likely to be injured. Some masters elite athletes get 10-12 hours of sleep per night and nap during the day.
- Schedule smart – Insert rest/easy days between your quality workouts (speed, hills, long run). And listen to your body – don’t be a slave to your training regimen. If you have only one day off scheduled and your body needs more, then take two. Keep a long-term perspective; resting in the present can result in a longer running career. Some elite masters runners don’t limit themselves to a 7-day/week schedule, but instead use 9 days, with 3 workouts each separated by 2 days of rest.