What every runner has always anticipated with fear is the day when they can no longer strap on their shoes and do their regular run. For some, it happens at the age of 30, while others age doesn’t seem ever to slow them down. So, what is the secret to continuing to run for a lifetime? There is a mixed science about how age affects a runner. Some of it is antidotal, and some of it is real.
What science tells us is that after the age of 40, runners begin to slow down fairly predictably. For each year aged, a runner will decrease their speed by only about 0.2%, which translates into only about one second per mile every year. Pretty good news for all those runners who have been warned that their knees are going to give out, their hips will be no good, or that all their hard running is bound to take its tool.
Even more good news for women, it appears that men slow down more than their counterparts and make up about ten of the fifteen percent difference that can be seen between the ages of 40 and 60. Men appear to decline at a much quicker rate than women as they age from 40 to 60. Perhaps that is because they tend to push themselves a bit harder over time.
There is also a difference between trained versus untrained runners. When comparing runners who participated in registered events and those who did more recreational running, trained runners faired better than the recreational ones as much as 16 percent in maintaining their pace speed. That is likely due to more training and better biomechanics over their running lifespan.
It appears that the biggest predictor of slowing down as you age is what you do both on the road and off. As your body ages, you tend to lose flexibility, lean muscle mass, and your body doesn’t have the same ability to take in oxygen as it did when you were younger. Older runners also don’t seem to exhibit the same power when they run, which can affect your ability to propel or push off from the pavement. So, although your gait appears not to change much, all the other factors tend to slow you down.
So, what about people who don't want to slow down and also want to speed up?
If you are someone who isn’t ready for the slow lane just yet and want to compete as you always did by not slowing down, but increasing your speed, there are ways to make sure that you can stay ahead of the crowd. The best way to stay out on the track is by conditioning when off.
Since brute power begins to decline and may be responsible for some of the slowdown, training using plyometrics is an excellent way to build up your power. Using short bursts of energy will help you to increase the power you have when hitting the trail or the pavement. Plyometrics is a set of exercises that targeted increase your ability to exert large amounts of energy instantly.
Also, anaerobic training is critical. Since muscle loss is a natural part of getting older, fighting against it by doing weight training will help you stay on track. Functional training, weight lifting and other forms of core stabilization, will help you to speed up your running.
Since runners need to have a lot of flexibility in their upper and lower body, exercises that elongate the muscles are excellent to stay ahead of the pack. Make sure to incorporate yoga or pilates into your routine to keep your hips and gait open and to help with your mobility and counteract the effects of aging.
Also, one of the best things you can do is regular stretching both before and after you run. When you stretch before you strap on those shoes, make sure that you warm up. Don’t ever try to stretch cold muscles. Not only will you not get the same benefit, but you could run the risk of injuring yourself. Jog around for a bit, do some stair stepping or just get your heart rate up before you attempt to stretch out those muscles pre-run.
After a short or long run, although it can sometimes feel arduous, take the time to stretch your muscles again. That will prevent any shortening that can sometimes come with overworked muscles. Short muscles are tight, and that makes them weak. If you don’t continue to keep your muscles elongated and flexible, it will definitely decrease your running time, and it can also lead to injury or more wear and tear on your muscles, which will make your running more unnatural and stop you from speeding it up.
Lastly, don’t forget about what you eat. As you get older, you probably will need fewer calories than you did before. If you intend to run, don’t skimp on the necessary protein that will keep you out on the trails. You have to have enough protein for your muscles to grow, regenerate and repair. Without muscle growth your muscles won’t be capable of repairing, they will weaken, and you definitely won’t be able to speed up your race-pace.
Don’t listen to the naysayers. You can be out hitting the road races until your last days if that is what you choose to do. Sure, it gets a little harder as you get older to have the ambition and drive, it also will take more thought than simply putting on your shoes and heading out the door.
If you want to stay at your current pace, stay injury free and debunk all those people in your life who have told you you can’t run forever, then make sure to train both on the trails and off. Mix in some yoga, pilates, and stretching and make sure to eat a well-balanced diet that includes enough protein for good muscle recovery and repair.
It is possible not only to stop the decrease in your running pace-time but to speed it up if you are mindful and care enough to do the things necessary to keep you in shape for the long term. Running well into old age is not only possible, but if you do the right things it is probable that you will be able to keep up with the younger cohorts with ease.