How to Combat the Effects of Aging as an Older Runner

It’s no surprise that running gets harder as you get older. Recovery is slower, VO² max is lower, and injury risks are more numerous. How can the older runner keep running strong – and healthy?

Older Runner

Running is something I intend to do for the rest of my life. But very soon I’ll need to address the limitations of my aging body.

I’m not 22 anymore. I can’t run a 1:13 half marathon off 6 hours of sleep, recover with 5 dirty Martinis, and still rock an 18 miler the next day for a long run.

The indiscretions of youth were fun… but they won’t work when I’m 52!

Running is also becoming a much more popular sport for older athletes. In fact, a study of the New York City Marathon from 1980 – 2009 found that:

“The percent of finishers younger than 40 years significantly decreased, while the percent of masters runners significantly increased for both males and females.”

As more and more people find running, it’s increasingly clear that many of them are older athletes.

My goal is to run as successfully as possible for as long as possible. This means quite a few things:

  • Stay healthy (this should be a top goal for any 40+ runner)
  • Maintain competence at skills (full range of motion, coordination, measures of strength, etc.)
  • Feel good on most runs (free of pain, aches, niggles, etc.)
  • Maintain a healthy body composition and preserve muscle mass (I want to look good. There, I said it!)

In effect, my running goals will transform into longevity goals as I get older (for more on longevity, I highly recommend Blue Zones for showing you the keys to living a longer, healthier life).

But running gets a lot harder for older athletes. How can we mitigate the effects of aging so we can keep running well into our golden years?

It starts with understanding why Master’s athletes start slowing down.

Why is running harder for Master’s runners?

older runners

Well, what isn’t hard about running when you get older? Most aspects of physical performance decline with age – it’s simply the reality of the aging process.

Specifically, you can expect:

  • Decreased maximal heart rate
  • Fewer blood capillaries
  • Smaller and fewer muscle mitochondria
  • Decreased VO² Max
  • Lower levels of testosterone
  • Decreased growth hormone production
  • Decreased muscle mass
  • Increased body fat
  • Decreased muscular strength

These factors result in slower recovery and race times. The hormonal effects of aging are particularly pronounced; with lower levels of anabolic hormones like  human growth hormone, testosterone, and IGF-1.

The hormones that supercharged your teenage and young adult years are greatly diminished, leading to lower muscle mass, reduced sexual drive, and poor recovery from workouts.

Combined with other age-related physical declines, runners can expect an annual performance decrease of about .7% – with more notable plunges around age 40 and 60.

By age 70, the average person will have lost 30-40% of their muscle mass by age 70.

Interestingly, a 2014 review article on aging and exercise published in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons concluded that:

Decades of research support the fact that much age-related deterioration is the result of the effects of sedentary lifestyles and the development of medical conditions rather than of aging itself.

This is fantastic news because it means that when it comes to the aging process, we are not passive bystanders.

We can mitigate the decline of being an older runner to prolong our running careers, our health, and even our lives.

How to Train Older Runners to Feel Young Again

There is a simple training strategy that will inject more youth into anybody’s running: strength training.

Just consider its myriad benefits and how they impact the older runner:

  • Lifting weights triggers higher levels of testosterone and growth hormone (anabolic hormones that build muscle – and “big lifts” are better at producing more testosterone)
  • Successful running for seniors depends on maintaining muscle strength and proper range of motion
  • Lifting creates denser mitochondria, the “energy factories” of the cells, which decline as you get older

The hormonal component to this story is worth some further explanation.

See, running is catabolic – it breaks down muscle. This normally isn’t a problem because the recovery process rebuilds that muscle very effectively.

But that recovery process slows down as you get older. There are fewer hormones to get it done efficiently (and running doesn’t produce as large a surge of anabolic hormones as other types of exercise like strength training).

Not only does the hormone testosterone reduce the impact of catabolic hormones, it makes other hormones (like IGF-1) more anabolic as well.

After a hard weightlifting session, your body is swimming in muscle-building hormones. That simply doesn’t happen after a hard run! Coach Jay Johnson agrees, noting:

When you do strength work you get a hormonal stimulus that is different than you get running. Specifically, you up-regulate testosterone and human growth hormone, both anabolic hormones.

Anabolic simply means “building up.” Running is a catabolic, “breaking down,” activity.

When you view running the through the anabolic/catabolic lens, it makes sense that you would want to do some strength training to complement your running.

The lesson? If we want to run well into old age – injury-free and with some semblance of ease – we’ve got to lift weights.

Lifting Helps Non-Runners Too!

In addition to how lifting will benefit running, it’s also critical for older runners aged 65+ to promote healthy, long lives. Stronger seniors who have maintained more muscle strength are at a lower risk of falling – a significant cause of age-related trauma.

Doctors are noticing as well. Timothy Quinn, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Hampshire notes:

Older runners should try very hard to get to the gym to lift weights a few times a week.

This focus on strength training throughout the aging process will help runners (and non-runners alike) maintain their strength, flexibility, fitness, and resilience to injury.

How to Start Weightlifting (even if you’re a Master’s Runner)

A post shared by Jason Fitzgerald (@jasonfitz1) on

I want to keep experiencing runs like this into old age!

Most forms of strength training are beneficial – no matter if you’re a master’s runner, senior, or a 14 year old just getting started!

But certain types of strength work have more benefits than others.

If you’re not yet comfortable with strength exercises, start with bodyweight strength training. It will improve your general strength, range of motion, coordination, and begin to counter the effects of muscle loss due to aging.

But if you’ve been doing bodyweight strength routines – like the Gauntlet or Tomahawk Workouts – regularly, it’s time to take the next step.

Because without progression, there’s no progress.

Now, it’s time to start weightlifting! Putting up heavier weight in the gym in a more structured “weight lifting” environment is how to get the powerful, full benefits of lifting:

  • Neuromuscular coordination and enhanced running economy
  • Power and the ability to recruit a higher number of muscle fibers
  • Improved mitochondria development and testosterone production
  • Stronger hypertrophy stimulus – preserving precious muscle mass

These are significant adaptations to lifting weights that won’t happen with bodyweight exercises. The stimulus simply isn’t strong enough.

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  • The exact progression of exercises, sets, and reps that’s ideal for runners
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Comments

  1. Hey Jason, great article as usual! One area of struggle for me with regard to strength training is knowing when to schedule my strength workouts. For example, right now I’m running 5 days per week with Mondays and Fridays off, and Wednesdays usually consist of a pretty light recovery run. If I wanted to lift weights 3 times per week does M/W/F make sense, even though I’d then be working out 7 days per week?

  2. Kathleen Fitzpatrick says:

    Finally, an article about fitness and running appropriate for older people. I started running in 1972 as a bored college student. I have never been fast, but I am dedicated. I have run Falmouth, part of the NYC marathon, many smaller races and competed in triathlons (sprint and shorter). I regularly ran 8 – 10 miles a day. Now, I lift twice a week, run 1.5 – 2 miles once a week, do intervals frequently, swim, walk and hike.
    I get very frustrated trying to find information on maintaining fitness as an older athlete. This article hit the spot for me. I am 67 and am looking for more articles like this.

  3. Christine goulet says:

    I have been taking vitamins ,being I have scoliosis and degenerative disc disease so it helps a lot.

  4. Tracy Penner says:

    I’m in my early fourties. I first learned the importance of joint rotations in between a warm-up and the workout when I started martial arts classes. I now always do them before a run. The odd time that i forget, even with a warmup, my run seems less smooth and I notice little aches/pangs.
    This is a much-appreciated article – thank-you!

  5. charles imboden says:

    Jason. Great article on aging. I to need to work more on strength training. However having just finished competing in the Tennessee Senior olympics i did reasonably well. First in the five k, second in the 1500m and 800m, and third in the 400. All in a span of four days. I’ll be 77 in August.

  6. Good Afternoon Jason,

    I am 60 years old and I do not consider myself in my “golden years” although I guess that is a combination of denial and life outlook. Regardless, I have only been running seriously for the past 2 1/2 years. Took it up late in life but I was never a couch potato, always played some type of sport or pick up game throughout my life.
    Here are some of the things that I have found that allow me to continue to run competitively and safely. None of these are new to anyone and are important at any age.
    1). Sleep. I know it is obvious but it is imperative to allow your body to recover after training and work outs. And it can not be just occasional “make up sleep”. It needs to be consistent sleep. 7 hours a night at least.
    2). Core conditioning. I know everyone says this but it is absolutely necessary. Thighs, hips, buttocks, pelvis and stomach workout at least once a week is critical. It has helped me keep the injuries to a minimum.
    3). Eating healthy. You have to eliminate the fried foods, excess sugar, empty calories etc. As my dad once told me and it is true…everything in moderation.
    4). You will find as you get older low back pain, foot and heal pain and knee pain are “the” killers to your running enjoyment. By age 60 the vertebral discs in your back have lost most of their water therefore they have shrunk and are easily moved out of place and can press on the spinal nerves causing severe pain. Therefore you have to make sure your spinal muscles, ligaments and tendons are built up the best they can be to keep everything in your spinal column in place. Such an important part of your core work out routine if you want to run into your 80’s. Also your menisci and collateral ligaments start to fray in your patella regions and when your body starts giving you stabbing pains to the front or sides of your knees you have to heed the warning, you can’t run through that pain.
    5). Realism. Know your limits. For example I have always wanted to be the first man over 40 that was able to run a 14 minute 5K. Not likely going to happen but a sub 20 minute is still in the cards for me. Have realistic goals.
    6). You will find that gaps in training that you could get away with in your 30’s and 40’s will hurt you badly in your 50’s and 60’s. Consistent workouts, varied routines, will keep it fun and as gap free as possible.
    7). Psychologically or mentally tough. If you think it was easy to convince yourself at 25 that it is ok to let up a little it is 100 fold easier to convince yourself when you start to get older. You should hear the excuses this brain of mine comes up with. But if you stay focused and strong you can get through the most arduous days.
    8). Find a partner that enjoys running as much as you do. I have been fortunate in that aspect. I believe that makes a world of difference.
    9). Run different and exciting locales. Nothing beats the energy you feel in a big city race, or the shear beauty of running in Cancun. Mix them up, it has to be fun.

    Walt

  7. Hi Jason, I get the benefits of lower body and core strength exercises, but why do you recommend upper body exercises like bench press – how does that specifically help runners? Asking because I had an upper body stroke, which has made it twice as hard for me to do these types of exercises compared to an able bodied person, so I’m wondering if I should still be incorporating them into my routine. Cheers.

    • Well yours is more of a medical consideration so I would ask your doctor if you’re cleared for this type of exercise. But in general, you want to be strong everywhere. Anybody’s who’s run a marathon will know that fatigue hits your ENTIRE body, not just your legs. We want comprehensive, holistic, well-rounded strength.

  8. Barbara Evans says:

    Hi Jason,
    Thanks for another informative article. I’m a new runner aged 52 years so this is a real help to see something focused for my age group. Would you be able to answer a question for me? I am currently training to get fit enough to apply to join the Air Force Reserves. At my age, this is some ask! But though the running part of my training is going well, I would also need to be able to do at least 17 sit ups in a minute and at the moment I can’t do any! I find them too hard to do. I’ve gone online to try and find tips on learning how to do sit ups, but there are lots of warnings about how they damage your back over time. So my question is, are there any ways to learn how to do sit ups safely? Thanks for any advice.

    • Just use good form and you’ll be fine! I think the hype on sit-ups being bad for you is overblown – provided your form isn’t falling apart. Get strong and focus on core work and you’ll be able to do 17 sit ups in a minute, no problem!

  9. Malcolm Campbell says:

    Hi Jason, i’m 69 and at the moment can’t run for 2 weeks due to an upper thigh tear. What could I do to keep the aerobic intensity going in the meanwhile?

    • Any aerobic cross-training should do the trick; just make sure that it doesn’t cause any pain and you’re cleared by your doctor! Cycling, pool running, elliptical, etc. are great options.

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