Just like wine, runners have a peak where potential meets preparation. The peak varies and can even be stretched out over years or decades, but, at some point, the merlot and the runner inevitably begin to decline.
A 2004 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that we slow down 1 to 1.4 percent per year over the age of 40, and subsequent research has corroborated the finding. At that rate, an eight-minute mile becomes a nine-minute mile in just over a decade. This is caused by a number of physiological factors, primarily decreased VO2max, reduced strength, increased body fat and slower recovery.
That sobering thought may best be handled with a non-metaphorical glass of wine. Still, with a few simple adjustments, you can stay healthy and keep running well into your golden years—and maybe even improve with age.
Gunhild Swanson became a trail-running celebrity in June when, at age 70, she finished the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run six seconds under the 30-hour cutoff. She attributes her racing longevity to the durability she’s forged on the trails around her home of Spokane, Washington. “Run trails when possible because they’re easier on the body,” she says.
Research backs up Swanson’s experience. Aging runners are at increased risk of stress fractures, osteo-arthritis and soft-tissue injuries, all of which can be caused or aggravated by repetitive pounding. A 2001 study in Exercise Sports Science Review and a 2011 review in Clinical Biomechanics indicate that, while the hardness of the surface does not itself increase the risk of injury, consistently running with the same motion on the same surface—hard or soft—can.
In addition to increasing injury risk, repetitive motion can exhaust specific muscles more quickly—which is why you may have complete body failure at mile 20 of a road marathon, but just be getting started at mile 20 of a trail 50K. As Swanson puts it, “Using different muscles makes for less fatigue and makes you stronger.”
Head for the Uphills
Mark Tatum, the 2015 U.S. Mountain Running Champion for the 55-59 age group, says that unlocking the power of the uphill has him setting lifetime PRs when most people are thinking about the AARP. “Hills are speedwork in disguise,” says Tatum, 56, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, echoing the (so to speak) age-old adage. “[Hill workouts] not only make you faster, but you get an extra advantage when racing because most older runners aren’t doing enough speedwork.”
Hill intervals provide a complete aerobic and muscular workout while limiting injury risk due to decreased impact. They can also stave off physical decline by raising your aerobic threshold, lactate threshold and VO2max, depending on the type of hill.
Tatum’s three key workouts are short “speed hills” (6 to 12 intervals of 15 to 30 seconds every week); medium “power hills” (6 to 10 intervals of one to three minutes every other week); and long “endurance hills” (one interval of 10 minutes to one hour every other week).
Everyone, regardless of age, can sometimes feel like they’re wearing Forrest Gump leg braces at the beginning of a run. At 30 years old, those braces might come flying off in two minutes. At 40, it might be five. At 50, 60 and 70, it might sometimes feel more appropriate to time the process with a calendar.
Luckily, there’s a way to jettison the heavy leg gear—starting slow and progressing. (Because older runners have higher rates of injuries, the slower start can also help in diagnosing potential issues.)
My father Michael Roche, a national-class 63-year-old trail runner, runs the first mile of each run at four minutes per mile slower than his 5K race pace before picking up the effort. And if you don’t loosen up, even at a slow pace? “Then don’t force it,” he says. “Live to run another day.”
Research in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research has found that people over 50 who identify running as their main source of exercise can lose five percent of their leg strength per year. Fortunately, those same researchers commented that strength and resistance training can limit bone-density loss and actually improve muscle strength.
Every masters runner I spoke to agreed, emphasizing the importance of strength and flexibility in their routine. Lorraine Young, a 2014 masters trail-running national champion, mixes Pilates, yoga and core work, five days a week. What exercises are best to prioritize? Young says a 10-minute circuit of planks, lunges, leg swings and push-ups can get you stronger than ever. Finish up with light stretching.
Think Effort, Not Pace
Dave Dunham, a mountain-running legend who has made 10 national teams, has shifted his focus to perceived effort and the amount of time he spends on his feet, now that he has turned 50. As aging runners slow down naturally, he explains, the same distance takes more time; obsessing on pace opens them up to more injuries (and blows to their self esteem).
“I’m racing 5K about three minutes slower than I did at my fastest, but the effort seems the same,” Dunham says. “It can be tough on your ego and your joints if you focus only on pace.” Lorraine Young takes it a step further: “Not many runners who focus on pace are still running when they’re 60.”
Fortunately, one of the great things about trail running is that no one really cares about times (well, not as much as road runners, anyway). It’s all about maximizing the adventures, and the adventures can keep getting better with age. To Swanson, the key is to “accept [aging] with grace and to adjust goals to reflect what’s reasonably possible. It’s the little things that make a training run satisfying and memorable, and just might turn a drudge run into an adventure.”
David Roche runs for Nike Trail Elite along with his wife Megan and their Nike Trail Puppy, Addie. This article originally appeared in our January 2016 issue.