It’s never too late to become more active — as long as you do it safely. Whether you’re a new or experienced runner, your body’s response to training and recovery will change as you progress through your 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond.
While you may assume that aging will bring physical challenges, learning how to adapt your training can help you feel your best and get the most out of running as you get older.
Physical Limitations Caused by Age
Elite runners tend to hit their prime in their 20s and early 30s. In the last decade, we have seen a number of elites (both men and women) defy that trend and race competitively into their 40s. As we continue to learn more about the science of training and recovery, runners seem to be racing strong longer than ever before.
While we may envy the speed of the elites, studies suggest that amateur runners have a particular advantage when it comes to age. While elite runners may decline more significantly throughout their 30s, amateurs don’t tend to see a significant decline for another 15 – 20 years, well into their 50s.
However, there are inevitable physical changes that come with age. They include:
- Decreased maximal heart rate
- Decreased VO² Max (a common measure of aerobic endurance)
- Decreased growth hormone production
- Decreased muscle mass
- Increased body fat
- Decreased muscular strength
In addition to these, older runners tend to need more recovery time, and may be slower to heal from injury. But even though changes will occur, many can be mitigated by training adaptations. Because our jobs tend to get more sedentary as we get older, it becomes more important than ever to balance quality training with strength and mobility work.
Consistency and Quality Over Quantity
Runners tend to have a “sweet spot” when it comes to mileage. If you’ve been running regularly for the past several years, you probably know how many miles per week you can regularly sustain while balancing recovery and the rest of your personal and professional life. Improvements in running economy — your efficiency as a runner — tend to come from higher volume training. Running economy may take time to build, but it is also slow to decline as you age.
As you get older, you may find you’re not able to handle as much volume and intensity. Workouts such as track sessions, tempo efforts or long runs may require more recovery time. Quality over quantity needs to become your focus. But you may be pleasantly surprised by a boost in performance when you do make a minor reduction in miles!
Decreased running volume will only be beneficial if you maintain consistency with your training. Runners are more prone to injury when they take long breaks followed by ramping up volume and effort. As you age, your body takes longer to adapt and may not handle constant swings in your training schedule. While downtime is important (and necessary), find a schedule you can stick with consistently.
Justin Hess, a doctor of physical therapy at AdventHealth, is adamant about the value of consistency with exercise. He says, “Thankfully the phrase 'motion is lotion' rings true here. Movement and impact exercise help lubricate and bring nutrition to the hip/knee/ankle joints as they secrete something called synovial fluid.”
Strength Training for Whole Health
Loss of mobility and strength as you age can play a major role in increasing your injury risk. And once you get injured, you may heal more slowly than you would have ten years ago. Injury prevention is always your best option as an athlete, but that becomes increasingly important with age.
Running is catabolic, meaning it breaks down muscle. As a younger runner, your body was more efficient at rebuilding muscle after hard workouts. But as you age, a decrease in hormones slows down this process. By contrast, strength training helps produce a surge of anabolic hormones, which build up your muscles.
Dr. Hess agrees: “Resistance training, especially of the lower quarter, back and core, will help maintain your posture, strength and power that’s needed to run into the later years.”
Balancing the process of breaking down and building back up becomes more essential as you get older. This is why strength training no longer should be viewed as cross-training, but rather an essential component of maintaining the structural health that allows you to keep running strong.
While you may be running less volume, try to become increasingly consistent with your strength training routine. Bodyweight exercises are a great place to start, but maintain a progression of difficulty to continually challenge yourself and prevent your routine (and your gains in strength) from becoming stagnant.
Getting Started as an Older Runner
If you’re looking to start running later in life, that’s wonderful news! Just because you weren’t an avid runner since high school doesn’t mean you can’t find joy and success in the sport as an older runner. Always get clearance from a doctor and take your time to ease into the sport.
Starting a running program takes time. Your progress may vary with your fitness and previous exercise history. A run/walk program balanced with strength training will help you maximize your progress while minimizing your injury risk. A coach or individualized training plan may be helpful to keep you from pushing too hard, too soon.
While aging brings changes that impact your running, making small but consistent adaptations to your training will allow you to enjoy the sport for decades. Listen to your body, work to remain strong, and emphasize quality runs and recovery to continue to perform well.
For personalized guidance on how to recover from a running injury or prevent one, reach out to the compassionate experts at AdventHealth Sports Med and Rehab.