There’s no doubt that some decline occurs as we age but, in the past, it was thought to be purely a genetic thing. To still be racing well beyond fifty, if not forty, was something only those who were blessed and lucky could do. This myth has lasted well into the 21st century and is only beginning to be broken down in recent years. Often it’s used as an excuse or rationalisation by runners who either don’t know how to train, can’t be bothered to train or simply fear not being up the front.
The reality is decline, as experienced in the past, was more often a circumstantial thing. The people who went running usually competed for clubs. They started when they were young, had a high level of commitment and/or natural talent and continued on for some years. As their lives took on family responsibilities, they often found themselves racing slower and beginning to turn to the longer distance events.
Even twenty years ago training knowledge was less sophisticated. Plans, advice and methods were simpler than today’s but also often consisted of runners exhorting each other to “run hard” and “train hard” if they wanted to be fast. That’s a surefire recipe to having creaky knees and injuries.
Players of other sports went through the same process and once reaching their forties, some genetic loss began to kick in and once-committed sportsmen (and women) would hang up their football boots or running vests for a quieter life. As I grew up men and women in their fifties and sixties rarely looked as fit and healthy as many do today. Some of it is better preening but, there is often, also a better focus on staying fit through alternative means like cycling or going to the gym. Playing something like golf may keep you active but it won’t keep you fit because of the Primary Rule.
Primary Rule – Use it or lose it
The primary rule for the Aged Runner to remember is if you stop using it, you lose it. This is fundamentally the issue that causes most people to age poorly, put on weight, lose strength and stiffen up. They stop exercising as regularly or intensely as they once did. A sport like golf does little to push the muscles to their limitations, most of the time is spent walking which is easily achieved without too much extra exertion. Walking miles every day isn’t going to help you when your body is already efficient at it.
The more muscle your body has, the higher the “running costs” of living. Your body burns more calories simply by needing to keep that muscle alive. An athlete burns more calories sat on the sofa watching TV than the habitual couch potato who hasn’t toned their muscles up.
Many of the aches and pains older people suffer from are because the few muscles they do have are straining to do the simple tasks. A regime of getting stronger quickly gets rid of many minor aches and pains.
Your ageing body tempts you to stop doing difficult things and if you stop doing them, you decline quicker. Then it becomes a downward spiral as your body tempts you to do even less. You either “use it or lose it”.
Distance runners suffer a loss of top end speed because they rarely practice sprints or fast finishes. This is true of both young and old runners but becomes more noticeable with ageing. To access the faster speeds requires a dedicated programme of strides, hill sprints and short intervals to recruit and build the muscle. The occasional session is not enough to build up, it takes weeks of building session on session to maximise the gains.
Running is an activity which is very good at propelling the body forwards. While this keeps the lower body toned, what it doesn’t do is very much for the upper body (e.g. chest / shoulders / arms) unless you are a sprinter. The core muscles are worked if you have good running form. But with running being a straight ahead activity there’s also potential loss of strength for lateral movements (e.g. the types of movements that tennis, badminton or football players use regularly to sidestep or go left and right). These are all areas which will fall prey to the “use it or lose it” rule.
If your only sport is running, it is advisable to take up circuit, weight training or cross train to keep these other muscles active.
Secondary Rule – Recovery takes longer
The second rule for the Aged Runner is to understand that recovery takes longer. When you are young and full of hormones, you can train hard at least three times per week and recover from it. Sometimes more.
In middle and older age, you have to be sure the body has recovered enough before taking on the next workout. You’ll know you’re not getting enough recovery if you start feeling tired or getting aches or tightness setting in. The consequence of slower recovery is older runners cannot do as many workouts in a three month training period as younger ones. So the older runners have less speed or endurance when it comes to race day.
Another consequence of slower recovery is that injuries take longer to repair. If forced to take a break it can mean the athlete is no longer “using it” so potentially they are “losing it”. Once healthy, the temptation becomes to cram in training to try and rebuild quickly which is more likely to prolong the injury cycle. With a spiralling level of fitness, it’s easy to believe it’s purely an age-dictated decline rather than one which is in large part caused by impatience and bad habits.
Some decline is inevitable but it will be very gradual if you maintain good training habits. We saw in the Ageing Sprinter, there are men like Steve Peters or Charles Allie who at seventy years old are capable of running times that runners half their age do not achieve. The basis of all running events is strength which produces high cadences and long stride length which combine to produce high speeds. The people who are fastest over the shortest distances tend to be the fastest over longer distances.
- Good training becomes about ensuring you do regular bouts of high intensity work like strides, hill sprints or short intervals to keep the fast-twitch muscle recruited. Having this muscle toned and active will also keep the fat off.
- Ageing requires you to be patient and listen to your body, to understand how long it takes to recover. It is better to do one or two key workouts each week from a well-rested state than to do them badly in an under-recovered state.
You can’t be in denial about ageing taking some toll but, equally, simply throwing up your hands and accepting a big decline as inevitable is a mistake. Other people will be all too quick to tell you it’s age and encourage you to accept it but hopefully you now know better. If you’re to continue being fit, healthy and fast into older age, you have to find a realistic, common sense position somewhere between these extremes.
For the runners who’ve been to the pinnacle of the sport, of course the only direction is down. But for many runners who never achieved their potential at a younger age there is no reason to discount the possibility of improving as they get older. Even if they don’t improve, any decline can be minimised to allow them to keep running well into their seventies and beyond.