Running as we Age
I’m afraid to say that we do slow down as we get older. If you’ve ever watched a top level sport like football you might be with familiar with the fact that the top end speed of the players can start to drop from as early as the mid 20s, definitely by their 30s. This is flat out top speed though, remember elite level sprinters retire much earlier than those competing at marathon distance!
Why do we slow down as we age?
Your VO2 max declines by about 10% every decade after age 30, which will mean your body is not able to use oxygen as effectively. Your heart is unable to pump blood as efficiently, so maximal heart rate also declines every year, again, contributing to that lower VO2 max. And a lower VO2 max means less oxygen gets to your muscles. BUT, despite that, your efficiency of your muscles to use the oxygen that does go there continues to be maintained into your 60s and 70s. If you maintain some intensity in your training, you can minimise that efficiency loss.
This means if you were training and racing at your physiological limits (i.e. elite) yes you will get slower. But for the rest of us mere mortals training changes can usually make up for much of the change in performance with the right training and working on other areas of out fitness.
We also have longer healing times as we age, but science isn’t sure why, you may notice that in terms of the time it takes for cuts and grazes to heal. This impacts post session recovery time as similar processes kick in to rebuild us stronger after training.
After the age of 30 you start to lose around 3-5% of your muscle mass per decade. This reduces the maximum power your muscles can produce which in turn impacts speed. Into your 80s and above this is also a cause of many of the trips and falls that contribute to hospital admissions. The good news is there are things you can do to slow, stop or reverse this loss!
Planning your Training
It’s important to plan your training regardless of age but, like many things, we can’t get away with skipping this as well as we get older! We need to think about the specific sessions that we need to do to build towards our goals, and be conscientious to be running in the right training zones for each run so we maximise the benefit of each run.
It’s important to plan gradual changes to our running “loading”. Running is a repetitive, high impact, sport and changes to frequency (runs per week), intensity (speed) and duration (distance) of your runs need to be made gradually. A good tip is to only change one of those three aspects as a time! Changing this loading too fast is still the biggest cause of running injuries and you need to be more careful to get the balance right as you age. The much quoted 10% rule is a good rule of thumb when it comes to increasing overall distance each week. Think about ramping up or making changes to your training more slowly that you would have done a decade ago!
Recovery weeks are important, once every 3-4 weeks drop distances, intensity and usually frequency of runs back a bit to allow your body to adapt and recovery. Rest days become more important as we get older too, if you are ticking all the fitness boxes you need to from 3-4 runs a week you don’t need a 4th or 5th, use that day for other useful training that will benefit your running - like strength work! Think about the purpose of your runs, especially recovery runs and whether you’d actually get more benefit from cross training, a walk, cycle or swim instead
It’s more about what works for you than a one size fits all approach for all runners as well as older runners, you as an individual and knowing what works and doesn’t is still more important as well as your training history and where you are with your running now. In fact I’d say that information about you, your life, your sport and training history, your injury history etc are more important to me as a coach that your chronological age when it comes to me planning peoples training.
How to stop getting slower? Specific speed work!
The best way to slow, stop, or reverse the drop in speed? Speedwork! Some key tips;
Do one intense session a week and make it count! Exactly what to do in this sessions varies hugely based on your training history and current goals, you need it to be really specific to your goals.
Warm up thoroughly and take plenty of time over it. Take a minimum of 10, or perhaps 15 minutes or longer, to warm up. Include drills and activation exercises to really get your body up to temperature to get the best quality from the speed session and lower injury risk. For more details on warming up take a look here; https://www.ontherunhealthandfitness.co.uk/post/why-the-warm-up
Extend the recovery between efforts, make sure you are fully recovered, recovery doesn’t have to be time bound. Make the recoveries slower and longer, waiting for the point where you have you breath back and can talk in full sentences again before the next rep.
Build up intensity more gradually over sessions each week. As I mentioned in an earlier section, progress the level of intensity/challenge in speed work sessions more slowly than you would have done 1-2 decades ago.
The muscle mass loss I mentioned at the start of this post, that reduces power and speed; how do you stop, slow or reverse that? Strength training! Strength training reduces injury risk by up to 50% and improves speed and power.
This is important for all runners, but even more important as we age as there is a significant muscle loss year on year as we get older even if you can’t see it.
Getting a tailored programme is ideal, but building up (with good form/technique) to a weight/resistance where you can just about do 8-12 reps for 3 sets. Also focus on core strength too, especially for women! I have lots of different example strength programmes on this blog and my YouTube Channel, one example is here; https://www.ontherunhealthandfitness.co.uk/post/strength-training-for-runners
Balance, agility and coordination
When I coach groups I often notice that when doing cool down stretches that older runners have more of a challenge with balance. We as get into our 80s and beyond that reducing balance is a factor in falls and hospital admissions too. Balance, agility and coordination are linked to the muscle mass loss I talked about in the previous section, but it’s also a whole area that you can work on separately too.
Again this helps runners of all ages, running is standing on one leg at speed after all! It becomes even more important as we age.
A working on drills before a run and exercises during the day that can improve balance is really useful. Find ideas on how to practice these skills here
Goal setting and dealing with setbacks
It’s even more important to think about setting appropriate goals as we age. Plan carefully from where you are towards your goals; allow time and contingency as things won’t always go to plan in your training. Factor in recovery weeks and allow more time to build towards goals that you would have before. This also means that any setbacks can be absorbed into the training plans contingency and you can roll with the punches that life throws at you without being blown off track.
Think about setting layered goals; for example if your goal is a 2 hour half marathon they might be;
Get to the start line of the half marathon feeling fit and injury free
Complete the half marathon having enjoyed it
Complete the half marathon in 2 hours 10 minutes; if training has had a couple of blips and/or things don’t all go to plan on race day/there is bad weather etc
Complete the half marathon in 2 hours 5 minutes; if a couple of things don’t quite go to plan
Complete the half marathon in 2 hours; if training had gone well and the stars align on the day!
It’s also useful to think about process goals; things to tick off to get you to your goal that aren’t time/distance based. E.g. 2 strength sessions a week, 1 speed work session a week etc.
In terms of set backs, life stuff, illness and injury, you can minimise the impact on your training and your goals by having contingency build into your plan as I discussed above. You have a buffer if things don’t all go to plan - and what does all go to plan when your plan is 3 or more months long!
The other aspect is how to reduce the likelihood of these things happening? With life hiccups there isn’t much you can do. But strength training and good training planning will reduce injury risk, and good nutrition and hand hygiene will reduce the risk of illness for example!
For injuries get straight to a physio to get a diagnosis and a treatment plan. Ask if you can keep running, and what the guidelines are around speed, frequency and distance. Most injuries don’t mean you have to stop running completely. Either way also ask what other cargo exercise you can do that’s injury safe; walking, swimming, cyclings for example. Everyone’s body will bounce back much more quickly if you can keep active somehow.
Get a plan from the physio in terms of exercises to help recovery, and keep going them to stop it from happening again even after you’ve recovered! Talk to them about your strength training programme and how to make the most out of that too.