No matter who you are and no matter how old you are, you are getting older, and you will continue to get older. I guess you know that.
Do you realize that you do not need to age, physiologically? You needn’t ever be ‘old’ in that way. You don’t have to ever be that stereotypical ‘old’ person, not ever.
You never have to see the world from behind a walker or from the seat of a wheelchair. Nothing is guaranteed, but if you continue to run – and do a few other things, like eating reasonably well – you can look forward to extending middle age until the end of your life.
It turns out that exercise just may be the fountaing of youth. I just listened to the Inspired Insider podcast the other day. Dr. Jeremy Weisz was interviewing Dr. Bill Andrews, a world reknowned health and longevity expert who has focused 34 years on extending human lifespan. You can listen to/watch that podcast here.
It was a fascinating, almost 3-hour long, podcast, and at the end, Dr. Weisz asked Dr. Andrews – who happens to be an ultramarathoner whose favorite race is a 135 mile ultramarathon – to summarize his advice on staving off aging. His number one piece of advice was to participate in endurance sports, running, for example. He was quick to add that you should avoid overdoing. Never stress your body beyond what is comfortable; that’s bad for you, which is certainly important, but he said endurance exercise is key.
How about that? You’re already doing the best possible thing.
In her book, Older, Faster Stronger: What Women Runners Can Teach Us All About Living Younger, Longer,” Margaret Webb writes, “Masters athletes are proving that as much as 50 percent of age-related decline, maybe even 70 percent, is due, not to aging but to deconditioning – losing physical fitness by doing very little.”
In Gretchen Reynolds’ article on the NY Times Well blog, titled, “For Older Runners, Good News and Bad,” she describes research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. The University of New Hampshire and other schools studied 51 competitive runners ages 18 to 77.
The runners had placed in their age groups in a 5k or 10k, and the purpose of the study was to determine how the running economy of the older runners compared to that of much younger runners. Because, as we all know, older runners tend to get slower, the researchers were surprised to discover that the older runners were as physiologically economical as even runners half their age. It is important to note, though, that these were runners who trained regularly and placed in their age groups; so, certainly this wouldn’t be the case for all older runners, but the critical finding was that it is possible for any runner to maintain running economy throughout life.
Reynolds goes on to report that the 60 and older age group is the fastest-growing age group according to most statistics.
The bad news, she notes, is two-fold: One, the older runners were more prone to injuries, and two, they had poor upper body strength and lower body flexibility.
The study’s lead author, Timothy Quinn, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Hampshire, pointed out that the higher injury rate might be due to the fact that the older runners were still training like they did when they were younger despite the fact that their bodies take longer to recover from workouts.
That happens a lot. When you feel like you felt when you were 20 years younger, it is really hard to rein yourself back and resist the urge to train like you did back then. This is when we need to exercise the wisdom that comes with being older. Sometimes that happens, but sometimes it doesn’t. I know. I’ve slipped up here, myself.
To counter that loss in strength, Quinn advised runners to make it a point to strength train a few times per week.
That NY Times article is full of nuggets.
Knowledge really is power, and knowing that being a runner has the potential to entirely change your ‘older’ years will make all the years in between better, as it will remove most of – or all of – the anxiety you feel, we feel, about aging. That is why this message is incredibly important to everyone.
If young people – or younger people – know that running – or any endurance sport – can totally change your life beyond middle age, allowing you to extend middle age, that should provide incredible motivation. Plus, I think it takes a load off, mentally, as you don’t worry as much about getting older.
It always knocks me out when people say, “I’m too old to start running.”
Many people experience tremendous, full running careers, despite never running a race before their 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, or even 80’s! You’re saying, “What? No way.” Well, read on, and be ready to be impressed!
My friend Velma Radloff is a good example. She started running at age 59, after never having been the least bit athletic, but as so often happens, she was soon hooked on running and ended up running seven marathons and many half marathons.
I was there last year when she ran the St. Augustine Half Marathon; Velma was the oldest female finisher, winning a beautiful engraved silver chalice.
“Recently, 92-year old Harriette Thompson of Charlotte, NC, became the oldest woman to finish a marathon.” She did it in 7 hours and 24 minutes, 36 seconds. She looked fantastic crossing the finish line.
Here is something important you should all know about her: Thompson started running when she was in her 70’s!
In 2011, Fauja Singh, ran the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 8 hrs, 25 minutes at the age of 101 to become the oldest man to finish a marathon, and he was not last, by the way. He took up running, by the way, at the age of 89. Yes, that’s what I said, 89. He started running when he was 89!
A few months ago, 70-year old Gunhild Swanson became the oldest woman to complete the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run, finishing in 29 hours, 59 minutes and 54 seconds. Check out this post race interview.
Margaret Conner, 74, and Norman Thompson, 73, an amazing running couple, are a fixture at local races, here. I met them at the starting line of the Gasparilla Distance Classic one year, and we’ve been friends ever since. I often run into them on my morning runs, and it always makes me feel good to see their gray heads out there getting in their miles. They both work hard at staying fit, and it’s obviously working. Norman took a tumble, recently, broke his arm, and was in a cast for a few weeks; that didn’t keep him from training, though; it just slowed him down for a while.
Margaret retired last year, and now has the time to really focus on her running. As I write this, it’s August, and she has already finished three half marathons this year, including her first trail race, ever, the Croom Fools Run, a strenuous 16-mile run in the Withlacoochee State Forest. That’s one of my favorite races. You can watch a video of it here. I asked Margaret her advice for older runners:
“I think you have to do what you always did as a runner and that’s to listen to your body. We do lose strength as we age naturally but we need to try to preserve our body (heart, blood vessel function and muscles, tendons, joints, organs and so on) by diet , rest, and sensible training to keep it going as long as one is able. We all age differently… I’m still trying to find out the answers. Desire to run plays a big part in my running.” -Margaret Conner
I could go on and on, but the message is clear:
“Age is only a barrier if you let it be. Age is not an excuse for not exercising; in fact, it is the best reason to exercise!”
“For Older Runners, Good News and Bad,” by Gretchen Reynolds, New York Times Well Blog, December 21, 2011
Older, Faster Stronger: What Women Runners Can Teach Us All About Living Younger, Longer by Margaret Webb, Rodale, 2014
“70 Year-Old Woman Steals Western States Show,” Runners’ World, by Erin Stout, June 29, 2015.