How Aging Impacts Training Methodologies for Distance RunnersAugust 21, 2016
This is a research paper I wrote for the PPE-175: Principles of Physical Education and Athletics class offered at Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY in August 2016. I wrote it with the intention of sharing it with the running community.
Training plans are commonplace for endurance events such as half-marathons and full-marathons. There are countless books and articles with the “perfect plan”. However, there seems to be less focus on how these plans can be appropriately adapted for those that are no longer in their 20’s. This paper reviews best practices from current research to govern training methodologies for master’s runners.
This research paper started as a result of a trend I noticed as a runner, and now as a running coach. With every book that I read about running, about training plans for preparing someone to run their first 5k all the way through an ultra-marathon event (defined as a run longer than 26.2 miles), there was a plethora of information for what to do regarding nutrition, rest and recovery. Seemingly every topic was covered.
Except every topic was not covered. There was a gap. What about older runners? Specifically, those over the age of 35 – frequently referred to as masters runners. How would these training programs differ for those folks? Would the same amount of rest be required between difficult workouts for a 20-year-old and a 50-year-old?
Some of these questions, such as the amount of rest required between workouts, would seem commonsensical. Unfortunately, common sense is not a replacement for peer-reviewed research articles. That’s where this research paper comes in: as a brief overview of what the current science says about training as we age.
The masters running population is increasing. “Over the three decades 1980–1989, 1990–1999, and 2000–2009, male masters athletes represented 36%, 45%, and 53% of total male finishers, respectively, while female masters athletes represented 24%, 34%, and 40% of total female finishers, respectively. (Lepers & Cattagni, 2012)” This makes the seeming gap in current literature more significant as time progresses.
What are the limits of human performance as we age?
While physical limitations are a topic that most would rather veer away from then address head on, it is an important one. Possibly the best way to take on this topic is to begin by discussing what is possible, rather than what is not. An example is that the winning time in the 1896 Olympic Marathon was 2:58:50, and the current age group record for 73-year-olds is 2:54:50 (Tanaka & Seals, 2008). Another example is a man who ran his first marathon at the age of 48 (the Boston Marathon, which was a much smaller affair back in 1969), and his last at the age of 91. In all, he completed 627 marathons (Addison, Steinbrenner, Goldberg, & Katzel, L, 2015).
Admittedly, this gentleman was looking to complete as many races as possible instead of performing to the best of his ability in a select number of races per year. As a result, some of the data is skewed, but one statistic is not: “… there was a direct relationship between VO2max (a term representing maximal oxygen consumption) and marathon times, which accounted for 87% of the variance in his marathon times. (Addison, Steinbrenner, Goldberg, & Katzel, L, 2015)” This finding is significant because VO2max is a likely component of a person’s ability to compete in a running event, and “a progressive reduction in VO2max appears to be the primary mechanism associated with declines in endurance performance with age. (Tanaka & Seals, 2008)”
Now for the reality check. In general, the fastest marathon times for men were achieved at the age of 27, while the fastest marathon times for women were achieved at the age of 29 (Lara, Salinero, & Del Coso, 2014). Does this mean that after these ages one is no longer able to improve? Certainly not. Take our avid marathoner that we discussed earlier. He ran his first marathon at the age of 48 and completed his fastest race at the age of 51 (Addison, Steinbrenner, Goldberg, & Katzel, L, 2015). Certainly if this gentleman were to have started running earlier in his life he would have achieved a better time, right? Not necessarily. This is a good example of where common sense and what the research tells us diverge.
The same study that declares a person reaches their peak performance in their late 20’s also states that “runners of 18 years of age presented a similar running performance to runners of 55–60 years of age for both male and female participants. (Lara, Salinero, & Del Coso, 2014)” So what is one to do with this seemingly conflicting data, and is it conflicting at all? The answer comes down to the reality of research studies: the results are often seemingly contradictory. Similar to how one day we read that coffee is good for us and the next day we read that coffee causes cancer, the results of studies must be taken with a grain of salt. That also means it is important to make sure that up-to-date research is used as we continue to try to understand the limitations of the human body.
Reducing the effects of aging on athletic performance
While I have yet to come across a study for how to halt the aging process, there is some information available for how to exact some element of control over it. Interestingly, a study performed on the ability levels of older musicians may serve as a guide to athletes as well. Specifically, “it was the amount of training invested during the later phase of the older experts’ careers, most pivotally from 50 to 60 years of age, which moderated the normal aging decline and preserved their skilled performance. (Krampe & Ericsson, 1996)” Does this mean that a person who continues to train at a high level through middle age can stop the clock on the biological aging process? Not necessarily, but it shows that there is hope.
It seems that the best way to perform at a high-level when it comes to a distance running event is to focus on that event. “To achieve the greatest returns on their training, athletes must decide on a primary running event and train for it specifically (e.g., 10 km) following a repertoire of training activities which differs from the repertoire required for success in an adjacent discipline (e.g., 1500 m). (Young, Weir, Starkes, & Medic, N, 2008)” This is representative of the principle of specificity that is important for a coach to preach to their athletes; that if a person wants to get perform to the best of their ability in a specific event, they must focus on training for that specific event.
But what happens if you have been running for 10, 20, 30, or more years? Is it possible to run too much? I haven’t found a study on the answer to that question yet. However, continuing on with the discussion from the musicians in their fifties, “...habits of rigorous physical activity sustained for well over a decade were associated with less deteriorative change in physical performance measures (for sprinting and middle-distance running), when compared to normal age-related trends. (Young, Weir, Starkes, & Medic, N, 2008)”
The key terms in that citation were “for sprinting and middle-distance running,” not for long distance running. This may come as a disappointment, but a counterpoint from another article states that, “older runners (from 30 to 54 years) obtain the best race times in 100-km competitions. (Knechtle, Rust, Rosemann, & Lepers, 2012)” But how can one stay healthy with all of that training for 100-km races so they can show the young folks who is better? Some best practices are outlined in the next section.
Injury Prevention and Recovery
So what is a person to do if they are a masters runner? How can they keep healthy? Part of the answer is found in looking at the most frequently occurring injuries of older athletes. “Injuries common to the masters athlete include rotator cuff injuries, Achilles tendinopathies, and meniscal tears in the knee. Although variable in duration depending on the multiplicity and severity of the injury, 60% of masters athletes abstain from activity for at least 1 week after a sports-related injury, with one third remaining out for more than 1 month. (Tayrose, Beutel, Cardone, & Sherman, 2015)” So looking at this citation, if a regular regimen of strength training is performed involving the shoulders, lower legs, and the other muscles that support the knee, an athlete could reduce their risk of injury.
A study by Knobloch, Vogt and Yoon conducted on elite masters runners found that individuals who ran more than four times per week had a higher incidence of shin splint overuse injuries. Likewise, individuals who had been running for at least 10 years had a higher risk of overuse injuries of the back. In addition, “At some time, 56.6% of the athletes had an Achilles tendon overuse injury, 46.4% anterior knee pain, 35.7% shin splints, and 12.7% had plantar fasciitis. (Knobloch, Vogt, & Yoon, 2008)” It’s in this way that we can use evidence from highly technical articles such as these to help focus the strength training of masters runners.
Recovery from workouts is also a key success factor. “The muscles of the masters athlete reach the same level of fatigue as the younger athlete; however, they are slower to recover. Strength-dependent events show the greatest rates of decline with age, whereas walking and jumping manifest the slowest declines. (Tayrose, Beutel, Cardone, & Sherman, 2015)” Again, we can take a look at the data presented in this study and discern that regular strength training in general, with a particular focus on the areas noted previously, can help a person participate in a training program while minimizing the potential of future injury. In addition, masters athletes can be given extra time to allow for proper recovery in-between workouts. Just because an 18-year-old and a 55-year-old can theoretically put forth the same types of times in a given marathon does not mean that each athlete does the same type of training to achieve their respective performance.
Part of the issue here is that “Masters athletes strive to maintain and, in some cases, improve upon the performance they have achieved at younger ages. (Tanaka & Seals, 2008)” Which is understandable as the last thing that a person wants or needs to be told is that they are no longer capable of doing something that they once were. Part of the puzzle, to a point, is to figure out if a person is in fact physically capable of running a particular time at a certain race distance, and then put that person on the path to success. In this case, success is defined as minimizing the risk of injury and overtraining. Guidance provided for ideal injury rehabilitation techniques for masters runners can also assist in designing a training schedule that addresses the needs of that population. This includes longer warm-up and cool down sessions compared to younger folks, a greater amount of non-impact cross training such as deep water pool running and using plyometric training to assist with increasing strength and power; two items that seem to be increasingly more difficult to sustain with increased age (Tayrose, Beutel, Cardone, & Sherman, 2015).
While some amount of aches and pains are associated with a training program, especially in the beginning, a proper training program will gradually increase the intensity and/or amount of work a person performs based on their current fitness level and running/medical history. Oftentimes nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are used by individuals in place of reducing the volume of an activity or attempting to deal with the root cause of the issue causing their use of the drug. Masters athletes in particular should be discouraged from using NSAIDs, as the side effects are magnified with age, and can even “have detrimental effects on muscle and ligament healing. (Tayrose, Beutel, Cardone, & Sherman, 2015)”
Having established the importance of a proper strength training regimen, especially in masters athletes, there is some research that can provide guidance on how to integrate strength training along with running in a training program. During a 12-week study, it was determined “that strength training before endurance training will impair running performance the following day to a greater degree compared to endurance training before strength training. (Doma & Deakin, 2013)”
Training for distance events such as the marathon, running many days throughout the week, sometimes on consecutive days depending on the training philosophy used, contributes to an individual’s ability to perform well. Using the information from this study can assist a coach in coming up with a training plan that sets an athlete up for success. After all, it is often not enough to give someone a guide on what to do for training, it is also helpful to provide on a guide on when to do the types of training prescribed. As with most things in life, this study did have a caveat, “running at maximum effort is impaired the day following strength and endurance training regardless of the sequence of the mode of training. (Doma & Deakin, 2013)”
And finally, exercises that work on the balance of an individual seem to be important, as “Clinically one of the earliest signs of decreased biomechanical function is altered gait. (Downes, 2002).”
It’s important to have a background as to the rationale behind “why” something should be how it is. Having peer-reviewed articles help in guiding these conclusions assist in making sure that we have legitimate information on which to base guidelines.
Of course, there are scholarly articles being released on a constant basis, and the conclusions derived from the sources of this paper must be continuously questioned and kept up-to-date. More research on behalf of the author is also required to ensure that existing scientific literature has been reasonably reviewed to effectively eliminate any false conclusions derived from the hypothesis derived from this brief review of current research.
In the meantime, based on the information discussed in this review, here are some conclusions we can derive (at least for now) on “How Aging Impacts Training Methodologies for Distance Runners”:
More time for rest is required in-between workouts.
Focusing on balance-based exercises as well as strengthening parts of the body that are most susceptible to injury are proactive ways of keeping individuals healthy while training.
Age should not preclude individuals from engaging in physical activity, although it is important to have -educated expectations.
Addison, O., Steinbrenner, G., Goldberg, A., & Katzel, L. (2015). Aging, Fitness, and Marathon Times in a 91 Year-old Man Who Competed in 627 Marathons. British Journal of Medicine and Medical Research, 8(12), 1074–1079. Retrieved from http://doi.org.ezproxy.monroecc.edu/10.9734/BJMMR/2015/17946
Doma, K., & Deakin, G. (2013). The effects of strength training and endurance training order on running economy and performance. Applied Physiology, Nutrition & Metabolism, 38(6), 651-656. doi:10.1139/apnm-2012-0362
Downes, J. (2002). The master's athlete: defying aging. Topics in Clinical Chiropractic, 9(2), 53-59. Retrieved from https://ezproxy.monroecc.edu/login?url=http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.monroecc.edu/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA89147463&sid=HRCA&v=2.1&u=monroecc&it=r&p=HRCA&sw=w&asid=6e525044385eee23f9188512964a82c6
Knechtle, B., Rust, C., Rosemann, T., & Lepers, R. (2012). Age-related changes in 100-km ultra-marathon running performance. Age, 34(4), 1033-1045. doi:10.1007/s11357-011-9290-9
Knobloch, K., Vogt, P., & Yoon, Y. (2008). Acute and overuse injuries correlated to hours of training in master running athletes. Foot & Ankle International, 29(7), 671-676. doi:DOI: 10.3113/FAI.2008.0671
Krampe, R., & Ericsson, K. (1996). Maintaining Excellence: Deliberate practice and elite performance in young and older pianists. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 125, 331-359.
Lara, B., Salinero, J., & Del Coso, J. (2014). The relationship between age and running time in elite marathoners is U-shaped. Age, 36(2), 1003-1008. Retrieved from http://doi.org.ezproxy.monroecc.edu/10.1007/s11357-013-9614-z
Lepers, R., & Cattagni, T. (2012). Do older athletes reach limits in their performance during marathon running? Age, 34(3), 773-781. Retrieved from http://doi.org.ezproxy.monroecc.edu/10.1007/s11357-011-9271-z
Tanaka, H., & Seals, D. (2008). Endurance exercise performance in Masters athletes: age-associated changes and underlying physiological mechanisms. The Journal of Physiology, 55-63.
Tayrose, G., Beutel, B., Cardone, D., & Sherman, O. (2015). The Masters Athlete: A Review of Current Exercise and Treatment Recommendations. Sports Health, 7(3), 270-276. Retrieved from http://doi.org.ezproxy.monroecc.edu/10.1177/1941738114548999
Young, B., Weir, P., Starkes, J., & Medic, N. (2008). Does Lifelong Training Temper Age-Related Decline in Sport Performance? Interpreting Differences Between Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Data. Experimental Aging Research, 34(1), 27-48. doi:10.1080/03610730701761924
About The Author
Running has always been an important part of Chris' life. He started running in high school, ran cross-country and track for Nazareth College, and has been an active marathoner since 2010. After helping pace a friend in 2013, he was inspired to earn his professional coaching certifications from the Road Runners Club of America, USATF, and be a student of the sport.