The Ageing Runner – Part 5 The Facts

If you missed part 1 you can find it here, part 2 is here, part 3 is here, part 4 is here.

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”.

Fit, healthy and running strong at fifty

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.

Staying fast

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.

The Ageing Runner – Part 1

When I began parkrunning I was in my thirties. I’d never been a serious runner but my Saturday morning endeavours motivated me to get training and as I began my forties I started recording Personal Bests at all distances. As I approached forty-five I ran my first sub-40 10K. I was getting better with age.

Now as I move into the VM50-54 category at parkrun, I still believe there’s more to come. This is not to say that age doesn’t see a decline in your capabilities, only that I never fulfilled my potential when I was younger.

I’ve never believed the limitations of the human body are as pronounced as other people like to believe and in this five-part series of posts I’ll detail how fast older runners, both men and women, can be as they go up through the age categories and over different distances. I think you’ll be surprised to find out it’s much more than you can imagine.

There’s no doubt a fifty-something runner is not going to be capable of the times they could have achieved in their twenties, but there is a belief that this decline is rapid. It’s generally agreed athletes peak at around twenty-seven but it can be a couple of years either side. Becoming a world class athlete takes a decade of development and while the body finishes its growth by eighteen years old, there are still maturation processes going on within the brain and hormones that continue into the twenties.

Here’s a question to ponder for a moment …

If an athlete’s peak is twenty-seven and they begin to decline after this, at what age are they achieving the same standards as when they were seventeen? For example, if your parkrun PB at seventeen was twenty minutes and you continued training for the rest of your life hitting a lifetime best of fifteen minutes at twenty-seven; what is the age when you will last be able to record twenty minutes again?

I’ll give you the answer at the end of the article.

Ageing in sport is one of those myths that is slowly being deconstructed. In most professional sports, athletes are usually finished in their mid-30s with just the occasional highly skilled technician or specialist (think golfers, goalkeepers or quarterbacks) making it into their forties. I recall watching the Barcelona Olympics where Linford Christie became the oldest sprinter ever to win the Olympic Gold at the advanced age of 32!

32-year-old Linford Christie becomes Olympic Champion

In recent years we’ve seen athletes extending their careers into their late thirties despite professional sport now being played at a higher level than it was. In tennis we see Roger Federer and Serena Williams still near the top as they close in on forty; while sprinter Justin Gatlin won the World Championship in 2017 at age 35 and is still running sub-10 second 100 metres. Eliud Kipchoge just won his second Olympic marathon at 36.

As you’d expect these elite athletes are gradually losing their ability to compete at the top of their sports. I often meet runners who, having given up for twenty years or, never run when they were young, believe that because they’re older, the faster times are going to be beyond them. Now while well-trained elite runners are never going to be as fast as when they were younger, for those of us who start late, didn’t train or got poor coaching there’s every chance we can be faster and fitter than we’ve ever been before.

Within this series of articles I’m going to give you the facts and figures about what runners over the age of thirty-five are achieving. While you won’t necessarily be able to match them, what it should give you is a realistic view of how slow the decline is and how quick it’s possible to stay running well into what most people consider old age. I want you to come away from this series feeling inspired about what is possible. Whether you decide to get the best out of yourself is your choice, but age is not going to be an excuse if you don’t!

  • In part 2 I’ll examine the Masters sprinters (100m / 200m / 400m)
  • In part 3 It’s the turn of the middle-distance runners (800m / Mile / 3,000m)
  • In part 4 We’ll look at the long distances (5,000m / 10,000m / Marathon)
  • In part 5 I’ll give a brief overview of what’s happening as the body ages and what you can do to delay the effects

Answer to the quiz questionthe old age equivalent of being seventeen is sixty-five years old. That’s right. Your physical maturity peaks at age twenty-seven but the decline is so gradual that over thirty years later you’re still capable of doing what you could at seventeen years old. This, of course, requires you to stay healthy and training.