Running is an excellent sport for people as they get older. As we shall see, it provides significant benefits which can offset the effects of ageing. Some people take up running so that they can keep fit and trim when they no longer feel able to participate in contact sports such as football and rugby. (More than half the runners in the New York City Marathon are over forty.)
The effects of ageing
From the 30s onwards, a number of physical changes take place in the average person’s body. Aerobic capacity decreases, muscle mass reduces, muscle elasticity reduces, lung elasticity declines, bone density reduces, the metabolism slows, body fat increases and the immune system becomes weaker.
These changes will have an adverse impact on running performance. The fall in aerobic capacity, reduced stride length, reduced leg strength, and reduced ability to store energy all contribute to deterioration in performance. In general, it is thought that running speeds over any distance deteriorate by about 1% a year from a peak at some point in the 30s; and we appear to lose aerobic capacity at about 9-10% a decade.
However, older runners can continue to perform extraordinary athletic feats. Canadian athlete Ed Whitlock ran a marathon in 2:54:48 at the age of 73. Carlos Lopes set the world marathon record at the age of 38. Hal Higdon, marathon runner and writer, at the age of 52 ran a 10km in 31:08 and a marathon in 2:29:27.
“Age brings problems; it also brings solutions. For every disadvantage there is an advantage. For every measurable loss there is an immeasurable gain.”
“Personal Best” 1989
The benefits of running for older people
The health benefits of running are broadly the same for older people as for everybody else. They include reductions in the risks of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer; reduced depression and anxiety; weight control; improved bones, muscles and joints; improved mobility and coordination, and a psychological sense of well-being. What is especially important for older people is that the risk of developing these conditions grows as you get older, so the benefits of running are increased. It is especially important for older people that running can improve muscle strength, coordination and bone density, all reducing the risk of falling and fracturing bones, and so increasing the prospects for living independently.[i]
One of the reasons for the running boom in the last twenty years has been the growing use of age categories and prizes in many running events, which has enabled older runners to compete in races and have the opportunity to compare themselves with others in their age groups.
Another way to adjust athletes’ performances with age has come with the introduction of age-grading tables. These were developed by the World Association of Veteran Athletes, the world governing body for track and field, long distance running and race walking for veteran athletes. The tables were first published in 1989.
You can calculate your own age-grading on the Running For Fitness website and you can also calculate the times you would need to achieve for a particular age-graded threshold.
The tables work by recording the world record performance for each age (interpolated where necessary) at each distance, for men and women. For example, the world record for a 53 year old woman running a 10km is 35:41. So if a 53 year old woman finishes a 10km in 47:35, she has an age-graded performance of 75% (which is 35:41 divided by 47:35).
The use of age-grading tables has allowed older runners to compete on more even terms with younger generations. In many running clubs today, the age-graded champion earns as much, if not more, recognition as the outright (non-age adjusted) winner of the event.
Age grading can be used to compare performances across different ages and sexes; track your own performance over time; identify your best events; set goals for current and future years; and identify your best ever performance. It can also be used as a predictor of how you might perform in races, based on your age-graded performance in a race of a different distance.
How to start running as an older person
There is no such thing as someone who is too old to start running. Running helps to slow down the effects of ageing, improves the health, fitness and mobility of older people, and improves psychological health.
Anyone over the age of fifty should get a check-up by a doctor before they begin any programme of physical exercise (see Chapter 2 for other indications of when it is necessary to get an all-clear from a doctor). In older people, the doctor will be particularly checking for heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, to ensure that you can run safely.
Apart from getting a check‑up from a doctor, the advice for a new older runner is basically the same as for everyone else, and set out in detail in Chapter 2. The main priorities are to build up slowly, and set yourself demanding but achievable goals.
Tips for older runners
The decline in performance with age is not preordained. For example, the rate of decline of aerobic capacity can be halved to about 5% a decade, or even less, with the right training.
Here are some ways to manage the effects of ageing:
- cut back the mileage, but increase your training quality (there is nothing to stop you from continuing to do fast speed work on the track – this is how Hal Higdon continued his remarkable performances);
- take more rest days between sessions, and avoid overtraining;
- increase the variety of your aerobic training, for example by aqua-running, cycling, swimming, and skiing;
- warm up carefully before running, and stretch afterwards, to protect muscles which are less elastic and more prone to injury than they were when you were younger;
- increase your weight training, to compensate for the decline in muscle mass which you would otherwise experience.
[i] Report of the US Surgeon General Physical Activity and Health, 1996