Almost everyone will attest that aging isn’t an easy process, and we all want our bodies and minds to stay as young, spry, and fit as possible. However, though many things in life are rather unpredictable, aging is an inevitable process that happens to all of us.
With advanced age comes a host of physical and mental changes that affect how our body feels and functions, whether performing everyday tasks of daily living or when we try to push ourselves during exercise. But do runners slow down as they age?
Although most people can intuitively deduce that age will cause a decline in running performance, the specific mechanisms of action and what to expect in terms of how much age will affect your running speed and performance is often unclear to us, even as we are staring down our later years.
In this article, we will discuss how age affects your running speed and performance and tips to stay as fast and fit as possible as a senior runner.
We will cover:
- Do Runners Slow Down As They Age?
- Why Does Running Speed and Performance Decline With Age?
- 6 Tips to Reduce Age-Related Performance Decline In Running
Let’s get started!
Do Runners Slow Down As They Age?
A large survey study on 194,560 participants in a 15km road race who were tracked from 1995 to 2007 found that running performance declined after the age of 40 or so, with an increase in finish time by 0.20% per year, picking up more rapidly after the age of 65.
Interestingly, the age-associated decline in running performance was 5.9% greater for men than for women and 4.5% higher for trained runners compared with untrained runners.
Another study that looked at race results of 200 age-group leaders in the 5k, 10k, half marathon, and marathon found that there was no decrease in running performance before the age of 35. Between the entire five-year period between the ages of 35 and 40, running speed and performance only decreased by a total of 1% on average.
Then, between the ages of 40 and 70, running performance seems to decrease yearly at a rate of about 1% per year. Between the ages of 70 and 90, running times seem to decline by about 1.5% per year and then nearly 2 to 3% per year between the ages of 90 and 95.
Although this sounds like a lot, the researcher noted that even by the age of 90, runners are just a little more than twice as slow as their peak performances in their prime running years.
Why Does Running Speed and Performance Decline With Age?
Scientific evidence, as well as thousands of race results, demonstrate that running speed and performance decline with age.
But why do runners slow down as they age? What physiological mechanisms underlie running performance decrements that accompany aging?
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, there are several key physiological functions that normally support endurance aerobic exercise, such as running, that decline with age.
These functions include:
- A decrease in maximum heart rate
- A decrease in the elasticity and dilation capabilities of blood vessels
- A decrease in the strength of cardiac muscle fibers
- A loss of muscular strength, particularly in fast-twitch muscle fibers
- A decrease in bone density
- An increase in body fat percentage
- A decrease in aerobic capacity
- Poorer lactate clearance.
Ultimately, the decline in running performance that accompanies aging is mainly attributable to a decrease in aerobic capacity (VO2 max) and muscle mass (sarcopenia).
Studies suggest that endurance capacity decreases about 10% per decade after age 30 due to the age-related decrease in VO2 max. VO2 max ultimately encapsulates how well you are able to take in, deliver, and utilize oxygen in your body during physical activity.
Researchers point to a decrease in mitochondria, the organelles inside your muscle fibers that produce energy during aerobic exercise, as well as sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass) as the primary culprits for worsening VO2 max with age.
According to research, in absolute terms, the age-related declines in VO2max appear to be approximately 0.40, 0.39, and 0.46 ml/kg/min per year for sedentary, active, and highly-trained males, respectively, and 0.35, 0.44, 0.62 ml/kg/min per year for sedentary, active, and highly-trained female, respectively.
Although the absolute decreases in VO2 max are higher for trained subjects, because their VO2 max is much higher, the relative decrease is less.
Other research suggests that the decline in VO2 accelerates from 3% to 6% per 10 years from the 20s and 30s to the 70s, 20% every 10 years past the age of 70, with a larger decrease seen in men.
Additionally, maximum heart rate decreased by 4-6% with each decade after the age of 20, but rates of reductions accelerated only minimally with advanced age.
In the book Lore of Running, author and exercise physiologist Dr. Tim Noakes, MD, reports in addition to a decline in aerobic capacity, sprint speed and power production also decrease with age.
This is primarily due to the loss of lean muscle mass, which is most precipitous in fast-twitch muscle fibers (which are responsible for fast, explosive, and powerful contractions).
According to Dr. Noakes, older adults who continue to perform high-intensity interval workouts and strength training are usually able to preserve this muscle mass until the age of 50 or so.
However, between the ages of 50 and 70 years old, there is typically a loss of about 15% of lean muscle mass (sarcopenia) per decade. This rate of sarcopenia increases further after the age of 70.
In addition to losing actual muscle mass, another contributing factor to the loss of strength and running speed is due to degradation of the nervous system’s control of the remaining muscle fibers.
Muscle fibers contract via motor units, which can deteriorate or reorganize as we age.
As they do so, they become less efficient, which means that they cannot contract as rapidly or forcefully. Sprinting, or running fast, requires powerful, explosive, and rapid muscle contractions. Therefore, running speed declines with age as the function of the motor units deteriorates.
Finally, there may be biomechanical forces at play as well. Our running gait can also change as we age.
One study found that one of the primary reasons why running speed seems to decline with age is due to a decrease in stride length, not stride rate (cadence).
Additionally, peak power, ankle and calf muscle activation, and ground reaction forces were lower in older athletes. This means that older runners do not push off the ground as forcefully, which decreases forward propulsion and running speed.
In fact, with each additional decade of life, the stride length of runners in the study, as well as their running speed, decreased by about 20%.
6 Tips to Reduce Age-Related Performance Decline In Running
If it was possible to completely prevent the effects of aging on running performance, you could package the strategy and make millions of dollars. With that said, here are some tips to help reduce the effect of aging on your running speed and performance:
Here are a few tips to decrease the impact of aging on your running performance:
#1: Incorporate Strength Training
Strength training 2-3 times per week with total-body workouts can help attenuate the losses in muscle mass and strength and can keep your tendons healthier as well.
#2: Run Hills
Hill sprints essentially function as speed training and strength training rolled into one, so they can work double-duty towards preserving fast twitch muscle fibers and maximal running speed.
Focus on short, explosive hill sprints lasting no more than 30 seconds. Attack each repeat as fast as possible, taking a full recovery on the way down. Adding hill workouts to your training plan once a week can be a highly effective way to stay fast and sharp as an aging runner.
#3: Do Running Form Drills
Running drills, such as high knees sprinting, A skips, and cariocas, can not only help improve your running form but also help keep your neuromuscular system firing on all cylinders.
#4: Don’t Neglect Your Diet
To attenuate the loss of muscle mass, and prevent excessive fat gain, make sure that you are following a nutritious diet. This means getting enough protein and reducing your caloric intake as your BMR decreases.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that athletes consume at least 1.2–2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
#5: Stay Positive
Although aging can certainly take a physical and mental toll on your body and mind, stay positive and committed to being a lifelong runner. Even if your times do slow down, there is so much to be gained by enjoying running your entire life.
Strength training is one of the best preventative strategies you can take to stay fit, strong, and healthy as you get older. To start up your strength training routine today, take a look at our article geared specifically toward people over 55 who would like to start pumping some iron: