You’re body and mind change as you age, and these changes will affect your running and exercise routines, and not necessarily for the worse.
The good news is that some changes you can combat or prevent – like loss of muscle mass – and others you can easily adapt to or even embrace. You don’t have to stop running.
So what’s different with an older runner, other than perhaps some gray hair?
Natural strength. Natural strength decreases with age. If you’re 50, it’s been decreasing for a number of years. Muscular strength peaks at around 30.
VO2 max / aerobic capacity. Another change occurs in the ability to process oxygen. This is known as VO2 max or aerobic capacity, and it decreases by about one percent per decade. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s noticeable particularly when doing speed workouts or running shorter races.
Flexibility. One of the more noticeable changes for many runners is decrease in stride length, which happens as runners lose flexibility in their hips. Shorter stride length naturally leads to running at a slower pace.
Balance. The loss of muscle mass – along with loss of bone mass and the dulling of senses involved in balance like proprioception (the sense of body placement and how it moves through space) – lead to decreased balance as people age.
Recovery time. While it may seem obvious that recovery time increases with age, the physiological causes are not fully understood. According to a 2008 article in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, one of the most plausible explanations is that aging muscles are more susceptible to exercise-induced muscle damage and have slower adaptation and repair rates after exercise.
Wisdom. Older people are, generally, wise enough to know that they need to take care of their bodies. Older runners tend to want to stay running and active, and are especially eager to use experience and knowledge to stay healthy and motivated. They’re willing to address inevitable physical changes head on.
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What to do about it
Natural strength? Fix it. Strength-training is beneficial for runners of any age, but those benefits are even more significant for older runners: regular strength training can help you avoid the natural decline of muscle mass. Improved muscle strength means that your muscles absorb more of the impact while running, which eases the stress on your joints.
VO2 max / aerobic capacity? Run longer. The decrease in VO2 max has less of an impact when running longer and slower, so many older runners more or less adapt to or work around the decrease and gravitate toward longer events. Fortunately, as we get older we also get better at pacing ourselves. Maybe it’s time to start thinking about the half marathon or that full marathon?
If you want to fight the decline, there are a couple things you can do. First is lose weight. Lower weight means higher VO2 max. Higher weight means lower VO2 max. Simple. Second is high-intensity training, which was shown by Trappe, Costill, and associates to be the best way to preserve aerobic capacity as we age.
Flexibility? Fix it. Everyone’s muscles and tendons lose elasticity with time, but you can maintain or even improve flexibility if you work on it. Regular stretching or doing yoga, especially after runs, can help you become more flexible. You also should make sure you do a proper warm-up before running, especially if you’re racing or doing a hard workout. Start with a 5 to 10 minute walk or easy jog, followed by some dynamic stretching like arm circles, heel raises, or lunges.
Balance? Fix it. The more we sit, the more balance skills erode. But balance can be shored up. Balance training starts with strengthening all the muscles in the body: weight training. Specific balance training almost always involves targeting core muscles – the ones surrounding the trunk and the back, such abdominals, obliques, and latissimus dorsi. Consider equipment such as Bosu Balance Trainers, stability balls, and wobble boards. Or, do some basic yoga balance moves such as tree pose, eagle pose, or king dancer pose.
A less obvious balance fix is mixing it up: cross training. Take a class, play a sport, or walk, run, or cycle outside. Runners, because they’re moving only in the forward direction, may have big quads but may also have under-developed gluteus medius muscles (on the sides of the hips) and adductor and abductors (inner and outer thigh muscles), which are crucial for balance. The remedy? Force the body to travel in more planes of movement.
Recovery time? Cross train. Listen to your body and don’t force runs if you’re not feeling recovered. Days off from running don’t have to be complete rest days. You can do cross-training activities such as cycling, swimming, yoga, or any other activity that you enjoy. For many, the combination of running, cycling, weight training, stretching, etc. results in an overall better fitness level. And this doesn’t just apply to senior athletes.
Wisdom? Embrace it. If you love running, be wise and address the changes in your older body. By staying as fit and healthy as possible, you’ll keep running for many years.
Also, be smart and proactive in your approach to injuries and don’t ignore the warning signs of injury. You may find that you need to take new injury-prevention steps, such as regular massages, using a foam roller, and more rest days. What else can you do? To help avoid running impact and potential injury while getting a full running workout, take a look at the Octane Zero Runner. Technology may also keep you healthier and running longer!