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Training & advice

Keep on running

As we get older our bodies change. If we run and keep physically fit our bodies change. Can one counteract the other? If we run can we slow down the aging process and as we are getting older will the aging process slow down our running?

What happens as we get older?

1) Motor neurons die, more so from age 60 onward. This causes connections between muscle fibres to weaken, and that leads to loss and shrinking of muscle fibres and so we become more frail.

2) From our late 30s, maximal oxygen consumption, or VO2 max, decreases at a rate of around 10% per decade, or about 1% per year, in most people. VO2 max is dependent on heart rate, which decreases by about 5 to 10 beats per minute per decade. This means that you can't send as much oxygen to your working muscles and so you can't run as fast.

3) Large elastic arteries including the aorta (which shuttles blood from the heart) and the carotid artery (which feeds blood to the brain) get stiffer. As a result, blood pressure rises and the heart has to work harder. As well as this, signals that normally open the arteries and increase blood flow or narrow the arteries to reduce blood flow stop operating as effectively in an older person who has not kept themselves fit. As a result, the artery remains in a relatively narrow state and, if it gets this stage, an older person could find exercising restrictive because they are unable to increase blood flow appropriately to meet the demands of the increased energy metabolism of the exercising muscles. This can also be a factor in cardiovascular disease.

4) Wear and tear builds up on the joints. Connective tissue becomes less elastic, and lubricating fluids decline, making us more injury-prone.

How can running slow these processes down?

1) Unfortunately the motor neurons are going to die no matter how fit we are but by being fit we can slow the process down. Some muscle fibres are lost more quickly than others. More fast twitch fibres will be lost in comparison to slow twitch fibres because we call on these slow twitch fibres more often as we go about our daily lives. That's good for us because we need our slow twitch fibres for running long distances. The fast twitch are used for more power based events such as sprinting, jumping and throwing.

2) Your VO2 max is going to decrease but not as much as your sedentary counterparts! It will undoubtedly affect your ability to sustain the paces that you previously have (unless you are new to running!) but you will still be able to run long distances albeit, at a slower pace.

3) Running will partially, but not completely, prevent the arteries from getting stiffer. There is good news about the signals that open and narrow the arteries: They will not be affected in a person who is fit and active.

4) Research in this area is limited but studies suggest that regular and a long term exercise habit keep the joints in tact.

So, the key to a longer and healthier life is to keep on running but understand that your training and, particularly your recovery, will need to change as you get older. Top tips for older runners are:

Cut back on your mileage but compensate by increasing the quality of your training sessions - quality over quantity.

Take more recovery days and more recovery time between efforts. Include some cross training on the days when you need more time to recover from your running sessions.

Include strength training. Fight off that deterioration in muscle fibres!

Include flexibility sessions or yoga to keep your muscles supple and to keep a good range of movement.

Make sure you always warm up before a session and cool down afterwards, then perform some static stretches to realign the muscle fibres.

“Age brings problems; it also brings solutions. For every disadvantage there is an advantage. For every measurable loss there is an immeasurable gain.” George Sheehan “Personal Best” 1989.