What’s Age Got to Do With It When It Comes to Running

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Aging is a natural process and can affect us in many ways from our looks to a decrease in running times. But is this true for everyone? You may hear from one pessimist, “As we get older, our body changes and we won’t be able to do what we used to.” But at the same time you may hear from a realist, “Age is just a number.” And from the optimist, he may say, “You are only as old as you feel.” Who’s right? There is some truth to all of these clichés but let us dive right into what science says.

Aging can be defined as the progressive damage to your cells, tissues, and organs over time. From a gruesome standpoint, it may lead to disease and eventually death. It is thought that the process begins just around 30 years old as the body stops growing and begins aging. But we have seen in endurance races that runners around the age of 40 are the fastest growing age group in the sport of marathons. This study found in almost 3 decades of the New York City Marathon (1980-2009) the number of finishers for less than 40 decreased while the greater than 40 age group increased.

So how does aging affect the runner?

Well to start off let’s talk about the racing peak age. Researchers at Marquette University wrote a paper that determined the average age of elite marathon runners is 28.9 for men and 29.8 for women. In regards to the aging runner, one study by Ray Fair & Edward H. Kaplan goes into detail about the effects of aging on runners’ race results up to the ripe age of 95. The results of this study were discussed in this Runner’s World article, ultimately finding that runners maintain speed through their 30s then gradually start to slow down in their 40s through and until their mid-70s by about 1% per year. After the late 70s, the rate slows down by 1.5% per year until 90-95 years of age where the speed decreased more rapidly by 2-3% per year.

Therefore, while aging is something that cannot be avoided, a positive aspect found in this study is that speed does not rapidly decline, rather only gradually. While running may be about weight loss or general fitness for some runners, for a lot of runners running is a competition against themselves, always trying to get a new personal record. This drive to compete still exists as we age and that is why age group categories have been created in races, to still allow for fair competitiveness within our aging adaptations. This is why you will find it possible to attend and participate in many events that encourage and celebrate all participants efforts.

Now, what about mind over matter?

Can our belief system and positive outlook along with a proper healthy lifestyle defy the calendar?

I interacted with some popular running facebook groups to see what the average runner has to say about aging. Many were downright angry that others tell them that their bodies may not keep up with their activities. Most found that thanks to running and training, they felt in better shape in their later years than when they were in their 20s. While plenty attributed health and wellness to self-care, exercise and proper nutrition, many stated that our positive outlooks on life play an important role in determining our real age.

One commenter said, “It’s fine to acknowledge the reality that our bodies and capabilities will change as time goes on, as long as we’re not letting it hold us back or define what we can do.”

Another stated, “I’m also more determined, calm, live a healthier lifestyle, and prioritize health in a different way than I did back then. Stay positive, grateful, loving and happy and you can do anything you set your mind to do!”

A 53-year-old commented, “I’ve been able to place in my age group 50-59. I’m over the moon and blessed to live to reach this age group!” Proof that plenty of 50-year-olds and beyond have still got it!

In conclusion, life is short, or long, but no one knows their expiration date. Aging does not have to hold you back from being an athlete or in any other passion you desire. Choices in healthy lifestyles and mindsets will ultimately play a role in what and when you want to do something, despite age.  And while we acknowledge setbacks like injuries or disease can occur, sometimes out of our control, and the running journey may shift and/or change naturally due to these setbacks, this does not have to deter our goals and dreams. Putting our goals and dreams to rest just because we reach a certain age could be viewed as letting go of our best selves. No one should play by the thought that age has deadlines. Acceptance of age is variable and while sometimes modifications may enter our training programs, ultimately genetics, lifestyle choices, evolving and positive outlooks will be the key to happiness, success, and reaching age group goals!

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