Have you ever wondered why some runners pay little heed to the calendar as the years pass by while others seem to run into a brick wall? Or why others come out of obscurity to become age group aces when they reach their 40s or 50s? Don’t you just hate it when a “new kid” of 50 or 60 knocks you back a place in your age group? Why is it that some runners age more gracefully than others?
How quickly you age is due to both your genetics and overall lifestyle. Your genes play the largest role in how quickly you fall apart as the years go by. Your genes regulate the myriad of processes that we collectively describe as aging. They tell your body to make thousands of types of proteins such as human growth hormone, collagen, and testosterone and some people’s bodies naturally make more of the good stuff and make it longer than others. This helps to explain why some runners lose muscle and put on fat despite their best efforts, while others drift into middle age with little change in body composition or performance. Unfortunately, as of today there is very little you can do about your genes (but stay tuned).
Another major factor in aging is your lifestyle. The cumulative effect of all that alcohol, saturated fat, caffeine, late nights, sugar, and general hard-living takes its toll on your liver, heart, brain and the rest of your body. Ah, to be able to turn back the clock. To get a pretty good idea of how you will age, take a look at your parents and try to factor out the lifestyle differences between you and them, remembering that genetics is typically the larger determinant in aging.
For runners, however, chronological age, genetics and general lifestyle factors only tell part of the story. To determine your “running age”, you also need to factor in your running history.
Let’s take a brief look at the careers of several outstanding runners who had amazing results at a relatively advanced age to see if there are any common threads in their success.
Great Britain’s Priscilla Welch started running competitively at age 34, finished sixth in the Olympic Marathon at age 39, and set the master’s world best of 2:26:51 in the London Marathon two years later. At 42, Priscilla won the 1987 New York City Marathon.
New Zealand’s Jack Foster turned from competitive cycling to running in his mid-thirties and set the master’s world best in the marathon of 2:11:19 at age 41. Jack’s master’s marathon record was broken at the 1990 Boston Marathon by his compatriot John Campbell, who ran a personal best of 2:11:04. John had been a promising junior runner, took a few years off during his twenties and thirties and came back with a vengeance in his late thirties. In 1993, John retired again with chronic sciatica only to return to competition six years later at age 50 and run a superb 1:06:49 half marathon.
Would Priscilla have won in New York if she had competed throughout her teens and twenties? Would Jack have run a 2:11 marathon in his forties if he had been training and racing for 20 years? Did John give himself three racing careers by knowing when to recharge his batteries?
Perhaps. But consider Carlos Lopes who won the World Cross Country Championships at age 37 and again at 38. He also won the 1984 Olympic Marathon at age 37, and followed that up by setting the world best of 2:07:12 in the 1985 Rotterdam Marathon at 38. Carlos’ story is different, however, from those of Priscilla, Jack and John. Carlos had a successful international career spanning several decades, including a win in the 1976 World Cross Country Championships (and two other top 3 finishes), and an Olympic Silver Medal in the 10,000 meters at the Montreal Olympics.
Perhaps it is not necessary to start competing at an advanced age or to miss a few years in mid-career in order to become a world beater in your late thirties or forties (or later). Perhaps over 20 years of training and racing is what allowed Carlos to reach such lofty heights.
Every mile you run is money in the bank in terms of improved aerobic fitness. The more you run, the more capillaries, aerobic enzymes, mitochondria and dozens of other positive changes occur in your muscles that help you to become a better runner. Unfortunately, more running also often means more injuries and more scar tissue. It is the balance between the positive adaptations of years of training and the accumulated wear and tear on your body that determines your “running age.”
With over 1,000 footstrikes per mile, your legs and back withstand a lot of jarring during a 5 mile run. Forty miles per week represents over 40,000 steps. Over the course of a year, that’s over 2 million footstrikes, and over the course of your running career-you get the picture.
Injuries come and go but generally leave a little something to remind you they were there-a muscle that tightens up a bit more quickly, an overstretched ligament, or a slight loss in proprioception. The more injuries you have had, and the more severe they have been, the more these little reminders accumulate with the outcome being that you cannot train as much or as hard as you once did. It is not a direct consequence of age per se, but rather a consequence of your running history. In my case, my body is like a car badly in need of a front-end alignment. If I run too far or too fast, I rattle myself to bits.
Priscilla, Jack, John and Carlos reached their late thirties and early forties with a positive balance between miles in the bank and wear and tear on their bodies. This same equation determines your personal running age. Your own combination of genetic inheritance, lifestyle sins and virtues, miles in the bank and injury history determine whether you are a young or old runner compared to your chronological age.
(This column originally appeared in Running Times Magazine.)