Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Running Fast While Getting Older

I got an e-mail over the weekend from a reader who was a world class runner in his youth and getting ready for an upcoming half marathon.


“Michael: I seem to have hit that mid-60s point where things deflect a little on the difficulty/slower-speed curve. Trying to stay positive…..”


That having been said, I was thinking about doing a post on the lack of discussion in the election about the real problems confronting health care in the United States.  Most of the yapping seems to be about how various insurance programs might be organized and misses the fundamental point that if things don’t change the combination of inactivity, obesity and aging is generating a tidal wave of chronic diseases that will bankrupt anything that is being discussed.    However, the aging and speed curve issue raised by the reader above is more fun and there are some pretty simple ways to address it.


First, what is meant by the “slower-speed curve”?  If you plot records vs. age for almost any distance running event you get a graph like the one below.   I did this one 20 years ago for a scientific review on aging and endurance performance and it plots age vs the US record for 10K road race time.   The times have changed since then but the trends are pretty similar.  (If any enterprising student who might be reading this wants to update the curves let me know and we can set up a guest post on the topic.)



You can see that times are best for competitors from their early 20s until the middle or later 30s.   After the late 30s, things decline at a rate of about 6% per decade and the rate of decline increases somewhere in the 60s for men.   The data for women is similar but a little harder to interpret because we have not seen the full effects of Title IX and increased participation by women on the age group records.   While this data is for record performances by many different runners, many individuals report similar personal experiences and note, as the reader did, that something happens in their 60s.


Second, what happens in your 60s?  There are several possibilities.  From a biological perspective, things like peak heart rate decline as we age, but the rate of decline does not accelerate in your 60s.  That having been said, something called sarcopenia (age related muscle loss) probably starts to accelerate in the 60s.   If you look at people who tend to maintain their performance over time, there is evidence in men that those who decline the least keep their lean muscle mass and training intensity up.   In women it appears to have more to do with training volume (milage) and hormone replacement therapy.   However, I want to point out again that less is known about female master athletes, and there is some evidence that in terms of training intensity, what applies to men applies to women as well.   Here is a link to an article on Kathy Martin who is rewriting the record books for older women.  Note that she does a lot of high intensity training and my understanding is that she has added milage only recently with her move up to the marathon.

The other issue here is that injuries and other health issues catch up with people as they get older and perhaps it is just harder for most folks to train as consistently and consistently hard for these reasons.


Third, can you beat the speed curve?  My personal opinion based on a combination of observations, discussions with others, and a tiny bit of research driven evidence is that training quality is the key.   I would advocate that in your 50s and 60s you might cut your milage back and do most of what we used to call “over-distance” training on the bike or in the pool.  This will let you focus your running on higher quality efforts and provide a lot of bang for the buck with minimal orthopedic risk.   An interesting anecdote is that in the early 1990s the legendary Fred Wilt, a world record holder in the 1940s, told me that when he was in his 50s he came close to breaking 10 minutes for 2-mile.   His training consisted of jogging a few minutes mile to a track near his home and doing two miles of alternating fast and slow 200m runs very hard and then jogging home.  He did this about 4-5 days per week.

Consistent with what Fred Wilt was doing in his 50s, he documented in several books the training used by athletes who ran some pretty incredible times prior to the “modern” ideas about training emerged after World War II.  Much of it seemed to consist of things like 4-5 miles of hard running followed by some all out sprints 4-5 days per week.   I personally try to do something like this 2-3 times per week, and sometimes do the sprints on the bike trainer to keep the risk of injury to a minimum.   The other thing I like to do is 20-30 minutes of hard steady riding on a trainer followed by 20 minutes of 1-minute on/off of fast-slow running.   The advantage of using a treadmill and bike trainer to do this type of training is that it may be a bit easier to push yourself.  I am 54 and following this plan as I prepare for a 5 mile Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving.


Fourth, why will this work?  In an earlier post on distance running and the Olympics this summer I covered the concept of VO2 max and its role in setting the upper limit for endurance performance.  The type of intense training discussed above and very hard efforts of 3-5 minutes are the keys to keeping your VO2 max as high as possible while you age.   I also think that biking vs over distance running is a good way to keep your muscle mass up.   I am always impressed at how the best master athlete cyclists and swimmers seem to have maintained their muscle mass in comparison to distance runners who sometimes look a little wasted.


Summary:  The ideas above represent my best guesses about how to maintain a high level of performance especially in your later 50s and 60s.  They are designed to limit the risk of injury.  There is scientific evidence for most of these ideas and there are real world examples showing that these ideas work.   We all eventually lose the battle with aging; the key is to lose it slowly by walking, running, biking, or swimming fast.


One Response to “Running Fast While Getting Older”

  1. February 21st, 2013 at 5:35 am

    Bernard Lagat vs. Aging | Human Limits: Michael J. Joyner, M.D. says:

    […] burn out.   All of this is consistent with information I shared in a previous post on running fast while getting older.  So the only question is how much longer can these fast times last?   The short answer is who […]

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