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Running Into Old Age

All of sudden we begin to notice that we're slowing down...

One of the inevitable changes that aging confers upon us is a slowing down of our physical speed and stamina. That we run, walk, bike, ski, and swim more slowly as we age is noted by all of us, but especially those who are/were professional or amateur competitive athletes. The most telling sign is the age related criterion for entering races. A web site posted now for the 2019 Boston Marathon lists the time limit required to complete an earlier marathon in order to be allowed to run in this historic Boston race. The aspiring Boston runner has to meet very a strict time requirement that is dependent on gender and age. Women are given 30 more minutes to complete a qualifying marathon than males in all age groups, and age itself increases the qualifying time. For example, men aged 18-34 have to run the 26.2 miles in 3hrs, 05 minutes, but a Baby Boomer age 65-69 has 4hrs, 10 minutes to run the same distance.

It is hard to find studies that support the precise division of runners into specific age categories. Is there something different about a 35 year old runner to put him/her in an older age category and allotted five more minutes to complete the course, than this same runner one year earlier? Is it fair to put a forty year old and a fifty year old in the same age group? Wouldn’t the younger runner be at a considerable advantage over the older one?

One vignette as example? The husband of my friend spoke that he couldn’t wait until he turned 70, so he would be competing with 80 year olds in a race to climb to the top of the Empire State Building. The difference between 70 and 80 was enough to give him a significant competitive edge.

Yet at some point, age imposes a halt to many of these athletic endeavors; swimming may continue but skiing, bike riding, and running races stop because it becomes too physically difficult, or a justified fear of breaking something removes the joy of the sport. The reasons for the decrease in speed and stamina are well known. The muscle mass of an eighty year old may be 30-50% less than that of a 30 year old, and muscular strength also declines by 12-14% after the age of fifty. Thereby the runner whose muscular power has decreased with age thus needs more time to run up Heartbreak Hill.

The maximum amount of oxygen we used during intense exercise also significantly affects our physical activity as we age. This measurement called v02 max declines each decade of life, thus making us functionally slower. At age 70 we still may be able to sprint across the street if the light changes and traffic is heading toward us, but it will take longer to ‘catch our breath’ afterwards, than when we were age 18. The decrease in our ability to bring oxygen into our lungs, into our bloodstream, and finally, into our muscles to fuel their work is due to the decrease in our heart rate with aging. The heart beats more slowly, and thus the blood carrying the oxygen needed by the muscles is delivered more slowly.

Does this mean that as the half century mark is approached, the running shoes and tennis racket should be put away, and the walker and cane brought out of the closet? Should we all give into the natural decline in our strength, speed, and stamina and be content to cheer the runners or swimmers or hikers, rather than participating ourselves? Of course not. Not only are there countless studies over the past thirty years demonstrating the positive effects of exercise on slowing down age related decline in physical activity, but in some cases, consistent exercise has reversed the cardiovascular effects of a sedentary life style.

An article in the magazine Trail Runner by David Roche holds out hope for the considerably over 30 runner. He cites some of the many studies over the past 20 years showing that serious continuous training can slow the decline in muscle loss, strength, and oxygen consumption. A study published in l987 by Pollock and his colleagues followed men who had been competitive athletes for ten years to see how aging affected their athletic status. The men ranged in age from 50-82 at the follow-up testing. Those who had maintained their competitive training had a very slight decline in their oxygen consumption and muscular strength compared to those who dropped their intense training. The latter showed the typical age related decline.

How do we apply the results of these study data to our lives as non-competitive athletes, and indeed non-starters in any physical activity?

Avoiding the issue is not the answer. Being physically unfit at any age is detrimental to our wellbeing, but until we get older, say over 50, we can still plod up stairs if the escalator in a store is broken, and we can still walk up and down the ramps of a parking garage looking for our car. But all too soon, a sedentary lifestyle combined with the age associated decline in delivering oxygen to our muscles, can slow us down enough so that even walking a few blocks may leave us winded and our legs aching. A sidewalk bench becomes a necessity as a place to rest, and many activities such as strolling through a large flea market or museum seem too arduous.

Even though the majority of us are not particularly interested in training for races or other competitive events as we age, (or ever) in his article Roche offers training tips for those aged 30-100 that work for those who want to outpace a turtle in their later years. He writes that walking and strength training to attempt to slow down muscle loss is essential, but neither of these activities should leave you winded or aching. If your muscles hurt, it is because lactic acid, the by-product of not having enough oxygen delivered to the muscles, starts to build up. If this happens, the activity should be halted. He says “the key is not to go too hard...” The goal has to be one that does not leave you panting, dizzy, nauseous and ready to give up exercise forever. Recovery or rest days are also important. A long exercise interval on one day should be followed by an easier one on the next.

The reward for all of this is unlikely to be climbing the Empire State building in a race, or kayaking over a water fall. It is the joy of having one’s body continually responsive to the need to move; whether it is running around a yard with a puppy, or playing tennis with a partner of 40 years. We cannot out run old age, but we can live actively throughout it.


"Age-related Decrease in Physical Activity and Functional Fitness Among Elderly Men & Women." Milanović, Z, Pantelic S, Trajkovic N et al Clin Interv Aging 2014;9:979 LINK HERE:

"Reversing the Cardiac Effects of Sedentary Aging in Middle Age - A Randomized Controlled Trial: Implications For Heart Failure Prevention." Howden E , Sarma , Lawley J, Opondo M et al J Circulation 2018 17:1549 LINK HERE:

"Effect of Age and Training on Aerobic Capacity and Body Composition of Master Athletes." Pollock M, Foster C, Knapp D, et al LINK HERE: