Over the recent years researchers have uncovered some interesting facts about older runners.
We know that the three major elements in your body for performance are your heart, lungs and muscles.
However researchers have found that “maximal heart rates and sub maximal heart rates (rate required to maintain a particular pace) were ‘well maintained’ when compared to that at age 26”. On top of that, the heart’s ability to handle endurance did not change.
Guess what? VO2max didn’t decrease from age 26-48 years of age. And one study showed no change from ages 52 to 62. As a capper, they found that runners retained efficiency (oxygen cost at a particular pace) for those decades as well. So, heart and lungs are not working harder to maintain pace as we age.
How about weight? We all know you tend to gain weight as you age. In these studies they found these runners maintained their weight. Though, if you do put on some pounds, there is a direct correlation to a decrease in VO2max as well as a decrement in performance.
Another interesting finding is that muscle cells did not shrink (as previously believed) they in fact had a 25% increase in their Type I endurance cells. That actually indicates an improved ability to handle endurance as you age.
So wait a minute, then what is the cause of slower times in so many older runners? Right now, there appears to be no single identifiable reason. There are still other areas to explore, such as muscle enzymes and the like.
But, there are a couple important observations to make about aging runners. Runners in their 40s & 50s change priorities. Generally and most often, their life and family goals take higher priority than running during these years. Running takes a back seat. Perhaps because of this change in focus or for other reasons it has been shown that the quality and quantity of running decreases.
In past studies they found that older runners who maintained high quality running in their routines, maintained their speed longer. These runners did not “predictably” slow down. And remember to not buy into the myth of speed work causing injuries. This is simply not supported by any research; as long as you go about it appropriately. On the other hand, more miles and increased frequency of training are directly linked to injuries.
The message to all of us as we age is that if you want to remain competitive or at least maintain your current paces in competition, then you absolutely must continue to include (or begin to include) quality running – speed work – in your routines.
SPEED… it’s not just for youth you know!