Canadian Running

The Run­ner's Body


- By An­drew McKay Health · Running · Productivity · Health Tips · Lifestyle · Healthy Living · Journaling · Fitness · Lifehacks · Driving Advice · Athletics · Sports · Time Management · West Vancouver · Vancouver · University of British Columbia · British Columbia · Elmore

Our bod­ies are mirac­u­lous things – and built for run­ning. Here’s how your body changes as you age, what those changes could mean for your run­ning and how to keep time at bay for as long as pos­si­ble.

Let’s call it the Ed Whit­lock ef­fect: to­day’s run­ners, some in­spired by the age­less Cana­dian won­der who con­tin­ued to set records well into his 80s, are striv­ing to get faster at older ages. There’s no short­age of in­spi­ra­tion to be found. If Whit­lock’s not your taste, how about West Van­cou­ver’s Olga Kotelko? Kotelko didn’t take up track and field un­til she was 77 – and in the next 18 years she set 34 world records, in­clud­ing 15 af­ter turn­ing 95 (not long be­fore she died, in 2014). When she was ex­am­ined by McGill Univer­sity re­searchers at age 91, Kotelko’s mus­cle fi­bres showed less de­cay than you’d find in most 65-year-olds.

Alas, this isn’t an in­spi­ra­tional story about how you can over­come the great­est of chal­lenges with ge­net­ics, a lit­tle gump­tion and willpower. The re­al­ity is that, for all but the out­liers like Whit­lock and Kotelko, our bod­ies will go through a nor­mal aging process, and it will im­pact our run­ning and train­ing as we get older.

The day will come when you re­al­ize that your fastest days are be­hind you. That’s not a bad thing – run­ning should al­ways be about the en­joy­ment of move­ment and ex­er­cise. And you can al­ways run longer, set new age-group goals or look for run­ning part­ners who run for the same rea­sons you do. The se­cret is to fig­ure out what your body is ca­pa­ble of and what you can still do. 20s

As an ath­lete in your 20s, life is great. You’re at al­most peak bone mass, and your me­tab­o­lism is high. As pro­tag­o­nist Quen­ton Cas­sidy says in John L . Parker, Jr.’s 1978 novel Once a Run­ner, “If the fur­nace is hot enough, any­thing will burn.”

Equally im­por­tant are the lig­a­ments and mus­cles that hold you to­gether. While adults reach peak height be­tween 18 and 20 years old, mus­cle de­vel­op­ment con­tin­ues for a year or more. Un­trained women usu­ally achieve peak strength by age 20, while men reach top strength be­fore age 30. As the mus­cles de­velop, the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem also maxes out, so the lig­a­ments, ten­dons and tis­sues that en­able max­i­mum per­for­mance are fir­ing on all cylin­ders. In other words, ge­net­i­cally, you’re re­ally start­ing your 20s at your peak, and while you’ll be able to off­set some of the ef­fects of aging, there are some phys­i­cal feats from this mag­i­cal decade that you’ll never be able to repli­cate.

Malindi El­more is a great ex­am­ple. When she was 2 4, El­more rep­re­sented Canada in the 1,500m at the Olympics. In 2020, she set the Cana­dian record in the women’s marathon, and she may well be headed back to the Olympics, 17 years later. But she knows her fastest days oc­curred in her 20s.

“Me­chan­i­cally, I can’t run as fast as I used to be able to,” El­more says. “My body at 40 doesn’t scale up as quickly as it did at 25, when I could re­ally ham­mer out a 400m pretty quick.”


How do we say this nicely? In your 30s, things start to get … harder. First of all, you stop adding mass. Sec­ond, your me­tab­o­lism will also be­gin to slow. It’s sub­tle – two to three per cent every 10 years – but it’s enough to start adding fat to your body.

In your 30s, you also start to lose mus­cle mass (any­where from three to eight per cent per decade af­ter age 30). The fine phys­i­cal spec­i­men of your 20s is now get­ting a lit­tle weaker and a lit­tle heav­ier, year by year.

This is about the point that you should re­ally start some se­ri­ous weight train­ing. Chris Napier, clin­i­cal as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor in the depart­ment of phys­i­cal ther­apy at the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia and the au­thor of Sci­ence of Run­ning: An­a­lyze Your Tech­nique, Pre­vent In­jury, Revo­lu­tion­ize Your Train­ing, says the on­set of your master’s years is the time to start pick­ing up very heavy things. “I don’t think a lot of peo­ple know – or they don’t want to know – that they should be spend­ing more time in the gym as they get older,” Napier says.

Napier stresses that even if you’re do­ing weights, you’re prob­a­bly do­ing them wrong. A lot of run­ner-spe­cific strength rou­tines fo­cus on high reps and repet­i­tive work­outs, when you should be striv­ing for lower reps with heav­ier weights. “Ba­si­cally what we’re look­ing at is 80 per cent of your one-rep max­i­mum, so if you’re do­ing three sets of 15–20 reps, that’s go­ing to be too low-re­sis­tance, and you’re get­ting lots of that high-fre­quency, low-load ac­tiv­ity from run­ning any­way,” he adds. In­stead, Napier rec­om­mends a low fre­quency, high-load strat­egy to pro­vide a dif­fer­ent stim­u­lus on your mus­cles and ten­dons. Your ideal work­out should be three or four sets of six to eight reps; by the eighth rep, you shouldn’t be able to do any more.


In our 40s, we con­tinue to lose lean tis­sue and ac­cu­mu­late fat, es­pe­cially around the mid­sec­tion. You might also no­tice that you be­gin, well, shrink­ing. Af­ter your 40th birth­day, it’s com­mon to lose a half-inch of height every decade, thanks to changes in your bones, mus­cles and joints.

The big­gest ad­just­ment in your 40s comes from your heart. For men, the risk of heart dis­ease starts to rise in your 40s. Func­tion­ally, your max­i­mum heart rate starts to drop, your car­diac out­put de­creases and your VO2 max starts to de­crease. It’s no co­in­ci­dence, then, that the com­pe­ti­tions that are see­ing higher par­tic­i­pa­tion and more PBs from the over-40 crowd in­volve less ex­treme ex­er­tion and more en­durance. Napier says the VO2 max doesn’t mat­ter as much in a half-marathon as it does in a 5k, for ex­am­ple. “That’s prob­a­bly why we see master’s run­ners do­ing bet­ter at the longer dis­tances,” he adds. “We don’t gen­er­ally see the same trends in the mid­dle dis­tances that re­quire hit­ting max­i­mum heart rate and sus­tain­ing that.”

One im­por­tant change you can make in your 40s to off­set de­te­ri­o­ra­tion and a loss of fit­ness is to hire a coach. While coaches are gen­er­ally thought of as tools for as­pi­ra­tional run­ners, the phys­i­o­log­i­cal im­pact of a pre­scribed work­out can’t be un­der­rated. “One thing that hap­pens when you’re self-coached is you tend to avoid the hard stuff, so you tend to grav­i­tate to the work­outs that feel easy and im­pact the ar­eas that you don’t nec­es­sar­ily need to work on,” Napier says. “As you get older, you may be steer­ing your­self away from those VO2 max work­outs, whereas if you’re be­ing coached, your coach is go­ing to make sure you get that con­tent in.”

The last area of sig­nif­i­cant change in your 40s comes in per­haps the most im­por­tant part of the body: your legs. While younger run­ners may ex­pe­ri­ence more form-re­lated in­juries to knees and the IT band, master’s run­ners are more sus­cep­ti­ble to in­juries in the Achilles ten­dons and calves. Sim­ply put, as you age, your train­ing load can over­take your body’s abil­ity to sus­tain that load, and when that hap­pens, the Achilles be­comes highly vul­ner­a­ble. “The calves and Achilles com­plex is re­ally the most im­por­tant area to de­velop as you get older,” says Napier, “be­cause we start to lose mus­cle mass there, and that’s re­ally linked to a lot of the me­chan­i­cal changes we see.”

So if you haven’t al­ready started with your box jumps and calf raises, it’s time to get mov­ing.

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