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The runner's body: how does it change with age?

Your body will change over time. Here's how to make the most of every decade.
 by Andrew McKay March 18, 2021

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Let's call it the Ed Whitlock effect: today's runners, some of whom are inspired by the ageless Canadian prodigy who continued to set records until age 80, strive to be faster at an age. more advanced. It is not the inspiration that is lacking. If Whitlock isn't to your liking, how about Olga Kotelko from West Vancouver? Kotelko didn't start athletics until the age of 77. Over the next 18 years, she set 34 world records, 15 of which after turning 95 (shortly before her death, in 2014). When researchers at McGill University examined her at the age of 91, Kotelko's muscle fibers were less damaged than those of most people aged 65.

Alas, this is not an uplifting story of how one can overcome the greatest challenges with genetics, a little common sense and willpower. The reality is that for everyone except exceptional cases like Whitlock and Kotelko, our bodies will undergo a normal aging process, which will impact our running and training as we age.

The day will come when you will realize that your fastest days are behind you. That's not a bad thing: running should always be a pleasure to move and train. And you can always run longer, set new age group goals, or look for running partners who run for the same reasons you do. The secret is knowing what your body is capable of and what you can still do.

Running at 20.

As an athlete in his twenties, life is good. Your bone mass is near peak and your metabolism is high. As protagonist Quenton Cassidy puts it in John L. Parker, Jr.'s novel Once a Runner (1978), "If the boiler is hot enough, anything can burn."

Equally important are the ligaments and muscles that hold you together. If adults reach their maximum size between the ages of 18 and 20, muscle development continues for a year or more. Untrained women usually reach their peak strength by the age of 20, while men reach it before age 30. As muscles grow, the central nervous system also reaches its peak, so the ligaments, tendons, and tissues that enable peak performance are working at full capacity. In other words, genetically you are starting your XNUMXs in your prime, and while you may offset some of the effects of aging, there are physical feats from this magical decade that you will never be able to replicate.

Malindi Elmore is a good example. At 24, Elmore represented Canada in the 1m at the Olympics. In 500, she set the Canadian record in the women's marathon, and she could well return to the Olympics 2020 years later. But she knows her fastest days were in her twenties.

“Mechanically, I can't run as fast as I used to,” Elmore said. "My body, at 40, doesn't adapt as quickly as at 25, when I could really hammer a 400m pretty quickly."

Running at 30.

How to say that nicely? In your XNUMXs, things start to get ... more difficult. First of all, you stop gaining mass. Then your metabolism begins to slow down as well. It's subtle - two to three percent every ten years - but it's enough to start adding fat to your body.

In your 3s, you also start to lose muscle mass (8-30% per decade after 20). The beautiful physical specimen in your XNUMXs is now getting a little weaker and a little heavier year after year.

This is around when you really should start weight training. Chris Napier, assistant professor in the Department of Physiotherapy at the University of British Columbia and author of Science of Running: Analyze Your Technique, Prevent Injury, Revolutionize Your Training, says "I don't think a lot of people know - or don't want to not know - that they should spend more time in the gym as they get older, ”says Napier.

Napier points out that even if you do strength training exercises, you are probably doing them poorly. Many runner-specific strength training routines focus on high reps and repetitive workouts, while you should aim to do lower reps with heavier weights. “If you do three sets of 15 to 20 reps, the resistance will be too low, and running gives you a lot of that high-frequency, low-load activity anyway,” he adds.

Instead, Napier recommends a strategy to low frequency and high load to provide a different stimulus to your muscles and tendons. The Ideal workout should involve three or four sets of six to eight repetitions; by the eighth repetition you should not be able to do more.

Running at 40.

In our forties, we continue to lose lean tissue and accumulate fat, especially around the abdomen. You may also notice that you start to shrink. After your 1s, it is common to lose +/- XNUMXcm in size every ten years, due to changes in the bones, muscles and joints.

The biggest midlife adjustment comes from your heart. In men, the risk of heart disease begins to increase in their 2s. Functionally, your maximum heart rate begins to drop, your cardiac output drops, and your VO40 max begins to drop. So it is no coincidence that competitions in which the largest number of people over 2 participate and which record the most absolute records involve less extreme effort and more endurance. According to Napier, VO5 max doesn't matter as much in a half marathon as it is in a XNUMXk, for example. “This is probably the reason why master level runners do better over long distances,” he adds. "We generally don't see the same trends over the middle distances that require reaching and maintaining maximum heart rate."

One important change you can make in your XNUMXs to compensate for the deterioration and loss of fitness is to hire a coach.. While coaches are generally viewed as tools for elite runners, the physiological impact of prescribed training cannot be underestimated. “One thing that happens when you are self-coached is that you tend to avoid hard exercises, so you tend to gravitate towards workouts that you feel are easy and that have an impact on areas that you don't. don't necessarily need to work, ”Napier says. "As you get older you may be moving away from those VO2 max workouts, whereas if you are being coached your coach will make sure you incorporate that content."

Perhaps the last area of ​​significant change in midlife concerns the most important part of the body: legs. While younger runners may experience more form-related injuries to the knees and iliotibial syndrome, master-level runners are more likely to injure their Achilles tendons and calves. Simply put, with age, the training load can exceed your body's ability to handle that load, and when this happens, the Achilles tendon becomes very vulnerable. "The calves and Achilles complex are really the most important area to develop as you get older", Napier says, "because we're starting to lose muscle mass there, and that really has to do with a lot of the mechanical changes we're seeing."

So if you haven't started your jumps and calf climbs yet, it's time to get moving.

Running at 50.

According to 2019 State of Running report published by RunRepeat , the fiftieth is the decade in which participation in races begins to drop. Physiologically, this is not a surprise, as more significant health challenges are starting to emerge.

The risk of heart disease in women begins to mount in their XNUMXs, and menopause brings a host of other issues that can impact athletic performance, although many studies - and many women - have found that running can help relieve symptoms such as hot flashes, depression, and trouble sleeping.

All runners begin to lose bone density at this age, which leads to an increased risk of injury, and the vertebrae begin to lose their mineral content, which makes the central structure of the body more delicate. The spine may become more curved, which increases the risk of bone spurs. And as if all that weren't enough, the arch of the foot begins to drop, making you even smaller and impacting your gait.

But none of this ends your career. It is not even certain that this limits performance. It may not even have anything to do with how many miles you have covered in your legs in previous decades. The best trained runner can break down for no other reason than luck. "In terms of longevity, maybe it's more about who wins the genetic lottery," says Napier. "Being able to run successfully into old age probably depends a lot on how well your body is able to handle the aging process."

Running at 60.

The good news is that almost anything that is likely to impact your life as a runner will happen in your XNUMXs.

This is also the bad news.

Women will start to lose weight, which is more likely to come from muscle than fat, so the lighter load is offset by increased strain on the muscles.

General elements of aging, such as changes in posture and balance, can increase the risk of injury. Women may still struggle with the effects of menopause, and their risk of osteoporosis increases, thanks to further loss of bone density.

That's why, when the athletes she coaches enter the second (or third) phase of their athletic careers, Ms. Elmore puts more emphasis on recovery. "The big thing that I have changed for master level runners compared to younger athletes is definitely to build more recovery time between sessions.", she says. “We're moving away from the idea that you have to do two or three track sessions and one long run in a seven day cycle. It's not going to work when we need more recovery time, our levels of recovery. human growth hormone are lower and we need time for healing and repair. "

Running at 70.

If you've turned 70 and still run, congratulations - the perils are largely behind you. Men are starting to catch up with women when it comes to bone density loss, and all runners can expect to update their vital stats more frequently as height loss begins to accelerate from age 70 onwards. . But if something were to end your running career, it probably would have happened already.

And yet, like Whitlock, more and more runners are succeeding to age 70 and over. If you look at the results of the 2018 Boston Marathon (the year of the rainstorm, no less), 203 runners aged 70 or older finished.

The old adage that a runner has a certain number of kilometers in his legs has been proven wrong.

“I know it's a cliché, but age is really just a number,” Napier says. “Runners continue to push their bodies the way they can. And based on the sensations, I think we're starting to see that we can perform much later than previously thought.”

Inspired and translated from the article was published in the March / April 2021 issue of Canadian Running.

Andrew McKay is a proud member of the Beaches Runners Club, the Lower East Siders and the Ajax Wannabes.


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