Is it possible to outrun your younger self? According to new findings, it may not be as high a mountain to climb as previously thought.
It goes without saying that as we get older, we slow down; but according to recent research published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the right training could help counteract the PB-sapping consequences of weakening muscles and difference in stride length as we age.
Led by Dr Paul DeVita, a Professor of Kinesiology at East Carolina University in Greenville N.C. and the President of the American Society of Biomechanics, the study of 110 experienced, recreational runners between the ages of 23 and 59 revealed that their stride length and preferred speed decreased by approximately 20 per cent with every decade. Furthermore, it showed that the power generated from the muscles in the lower legs (particularly around the ankle and calf) of runners reaching their 40s was noticeably lower too - contributing to the aforementioned decrease in stride length and acceleration.
With exercises designed to strengthen the calf and ankle flexor muscles highlighted by Dr DeVita as a key way to help reduce injury and offset the negative side-effects of age on running performance, the study has interesting implications for how we exercise as we get older. Can we train to run like our younger self? We asked the experts...
Does running have an age limit?
In a nutshell, no. However, with age comes new considerations - it comes down to choosing the right exercises to better equip our bodies to deal with them.
Proving it’s never too late to achieve our running goals, 86-year-old Canadian athlete Ed Whitlock made headlines recently for his inspirational marathon triumphs (he currently holds the world record for the 80-and-over age group at an incredible 3:15:54). But is it possible for runners whose track record may be far from spotless to give their younger self a run for their money too?
According to personal trainer and Get The Gloss Expert Dan Roberts , yes. “Most definitely,” he says. “Most of us were not world class runners when we were younger - so if we train scientifically and consistently now, we can be better at 50 than we were at 25 - I've seen this happen with my older clients.”
What declines with age?
Becoming aware now of what physical limitations may be on the horizon could prove pivotal in terms of devising a fitness programme now that we’ll be able to reap the rewards from later on. “Some studies have shown lower leg strength to appear to lower with age,” says Dan. “Flexibility tends to reduce too - this can account for shorter stride lengths.” These aren’t the only factors to bear in mind though. “We need to be careful of how quickly we jump to conclusions,” cautions Dan. “As we age, we usually exercise less as we focus on career and family more than sports. This is a bigger factor (in my experience) than the physiological effects of time passing - such as slower metabolism, longer recovery times and knees or joints wearing out.”
How high should we set our expectations?
When it comes to our expectations, it seems being too realistic could be the factor holding us back. “I think the problem is that people are too ‘realistic!’” says Dan. “And it starves the soul of inspiration. Realistic is a dangerous word. That 80 year old who ran a marathon in 3h15 isn't realistic! Anything is possible if you want it bad enough.
“The wonderful thing about fitness and living a healthy lifestyle is that the psychological benefits and physiological adaptations happen pretty much immediately every time you train. Yes, if you're 80, taking up CrossFit isn't really a good idea... but using an extreme example doesn't undermine my point. I'm talking to those reading in their 40s and 50s who have resigned themselves to a fate of being unfit, and I promise you, it's never too late to enjoy the benefits of getting fit. Ironically, for example, strength training is really far more beneficial for women during and post menopause than it is in their 20s (for weight management and bone health).”
What changes should we make to our training regime?
“I would train a bit more and include more strength and more mobility work,” advises Dan. “With lowering testosterone levels, muscle is harder to lay down, so doing more strength training - squats, presses and rows will help your muscles stay strong. As an added bonus, your bone mineral density will increase. Another area I would work on is co-ordination and balance - these areas of fitness are rarely tested and they diminish with lack of attention.”
With the study emphasising the importance of strengthening our calf and ankle flexor muscles specifically in order to aid stride length and overall speed, targeted exercises could help in reducing the risk of injury and improving overall performance as we age. Dan recommends the following: “Try doing calf raises 3 times a week - slow on the eccentric phase (lowering) and also jumps. Jumping is wonderful for bones, calf and ankle strength and it's a key athletic movement that helps all activities - from walking stairs to running to playing with your kids (or grandkids).” The right nutrition plays an important role too. “A positive, consistent nutrition strategy goes hand in hand with regular exercise,” he adds.
Ultimately, what works?
With studies providing useful food for thought in terms of modifying our fitness and nutrition regimes as we get older, be wary of the latest fads and diet trends which quite frequently can be more trouble than they’re worth. “Be careful of science,” says Dan. “Studies come out all the time about what to do and what to eat. There are many arguments over the little details of optimum nutritional and optimal athletic performance - but all strength coaches, nutritionists and doctors agree on the basics. You will live longer and have a higher quality of life if you live more and eat better: even small changes in your daily habits can have a dramatic effect over time. Don't set limits. Listen to your body and find exercises that you find fun.”