Running Well in the Golden Years

Whether you are an elite runner or weekend warrior, ageing is not just a number and we all one day wake up realizing that it is a lot harder to get out of bed the morning after a hard workout, late nights and long runs do not mix well, our six pack has started to build a cooler box and the times we ran in our 20's and 30's are now just beautiful memories.

All however is not gloom and doom! By taking good care of our bodies and training smart for our age, you can enjoy many fruitful years of running well into your 60s, 70s and even 80s. 

First, lets have a look at what changes to expect:

  • 1. Lower maximum heart rate
  • 2. Reduced oxygen delivery to the muscles
  • 3. Reduced muscle mitochondria
  • 4. Decreased muscle mass
  • 5. Increased body fat
  • 6. Decreased muscular strength
  • 7. Decreased mobility
  • 8. Lower levels of testosterone
  • 9. Decreased growth hormone production

These changes will have the biggest impact on your ability to run fast over shorter distances such as a 5km Time Trial since the rate at which oxygen is guzzled by the muscles is much higher and more force needs to be produced by the muscles to maintain that gazelle like stride. Over longer distances where energy needs to be produced at a lower rate, you will notice less of a relative decline in performance. The challenge with longer distances is that the reduced muscle strength and mobility, put you at higher risk of injury due to the repetitive nature of long distance running.

The hormonal changes which take place will have a big impact on your rate of recovery from workouts which means that you will find that you take much longer to recover from training. Especially hard or long workouts.

With all of that said, there is a lot that you can do to continue running happy:

1. Celebrate the "Runners' Life"

Having the right mindset is the best place to start. 

Be honest with where your body is at and regularly celebrate the simple joy of running and the fact that you can. The slow down years when you are not chasing PB's anymore are a great time to, maximize the social side of running, have a little adventure exploring new interesting and crazy routes, running for charity or just taking up weird and interesting challenges that have nothing to do with race times.

2. Follow an extra healthy lifestyle

In your 20s you probably ran PBs the morning after an all night party fueled by beer and chips after an exam week in which you averaged less than 6 hours sleep a night. Not so anymore. 

Good nutrition, plenty of sleep, lot's of relaxation and regular body maintenance (massage, mobility work etc.) are extra important for older athletes. Fortunately by this stage your friends most likely go to bed early too!

3. Start your runs slower

The start of a run can feel like riding a bike with a flat tire. It does take a little longer for the heart to get enough oxygen pumping to your legs to start feeling smooth. Start out as slow as you need to to feel nice and before you know it you will be picking up the pace and having a great run.


4. Maintain your long runs

The weekend LSD remains a cornerstone workout forever. In fact many of the gains of the long run are the exact opposite to the "losses" of ageing. Read more here.


5. Have more really really easy days

With it taking much longer to recover from hard workouts, it is important that you allow more easy running days between these sessions and that you make sure you are going really really easy. Where you might at some stage have been able to cope with 2 or even 3 hard sessions in a week, you will find that you are now only able to handle 1 session every 7 to 10 days. Listen to your body and remember less is often more.

Also keep in mind that just as your fast pace has got slower, your easy pace is also now slower. That is why it is best to do easy days on effort not pace to ensure you are going easy enough and to keep the ego in check.

6. Still include some faster training

While you will be able to cope with fewer hard workouts, it is still good to challenge your comfort zone every once in a while (I suggest once every 7-10 days), this will ensure your fitness is continually being challenged and will certainly slow down the slow down. What is important is that you don't try to repeat your college track workouts, but that you challenge yourself relative to where you are currently at.

7. Allow more time to prepare for long events

Your fitness will progress more slowly as you are unable to load the body as much as before and recovery is slower. Therefore if planning a challenging event such as a marathon or ultra, allow a longer build up than you usually would to give a slower progression and reduce the stress and risk of injury on the body.

8. Don't ignore signs of injury or illness

Runners are stubborn creatures to start with and tend to get "hardier", which is actually a nice word for "more stubborn", the older they get. This is exactly the time when you need to be paying more attention to your body's signals as your margin between niggle or cold and full blown injury or pneumonia is much narrower.

9. Include more variety 

With the decline in muscle strength and mobility, you will benefit greatly from introducing aerobic activities that are not as repetitive on the muscles and joints as road running. A great addition is weekly trail running and hiking. Other activities such as cycling, paddling, swimming, will also help keep the heart and lungs working while working the body in different patterns.

10. Do weight training 

This point is last, but should actually be first as it is that important. 

A largely unknown benefit of lifting weights is that lifting, especially heavy lifting, triggers a release of testosterone and growth hormone. Two hormones that are very important in the recovery process for muscle repair and growth. And two hormones that decrease with aging. Lifting weights also stimulates an increase in mitochondria (the muscle's energy factories), another counter-aging benefit that will help your running.

Now is even more beneficial than your younger years to hit the gym! 

I hope this has been helpful.

Onwards and upwards to 100!

Coach Kathleen