by Richard Beauchamp, M.D.
There are many reasons why a runner hurts after running. The more obvious ones include training errors, repetitive stress syndromes, lactic acid retention, improper shoe wear, and anatomical conditions. What about age, though?
Aging describes the progressive changes produced by the passage of time. During this time, we might expect to see our endurance decrease and our race times slow down. It’s possible to witness an increase in injuries, as well as the time it takes to heal from them. It should not be a time to dwell on how fast or how strong we were several decades ago; instead, we should enjoy our chosen activity of running and walking. In order to ensure this, some adaptations to our sport must be made.
Why do some runners at an older age experience more pain and aches when they run? Are we supposed to hurt physically and mentally as we run into the sunset? The answer to this should be a vehement “no.” To address these issues, it is important to understand some basic physiology.
The human body is composed of several organ systems, various tissues and many cells. It is these cells that are responsible for the production of energy to make muscles and other tissues work. As we mature, the various relationships between the cellular elements change. The elasticity of the skin, muscles and other organs diminishes and is replaced with fibrous tissue and fat—neither of which is particularly suited to movement and stretching. As a result, we can expect to see a decrease in the flexibility of the joints, muscles and tendons with increasing age.
This lack of flexibility is probably the most important factor in decreasing muscle output and increasing injury occurrence with age.1This lack of muscle flexibility results in poorer muscle contractions in the heart and hence reduced cardiac output. This will result in a decreased oxygen consumption, or VO2 Max.
Healthy individuals experience a gradual decrease in VO2 Max by approximately 10% per decade after 25 years of age. In elite athletes, this may be a reduction of only 5% per decade. VO2 Max decreases for two reasons: first, because there is a decrease in heart rate and in cardiac output; and second, because there may be a decrease in muscle contraction or a loss of muscle mass.
Running speed deteriorates faster with increasing age than endurance. Peak performance in marathons, for example, occurs in the range of 25 to 30 years. After 40 years of age, there is a linear decline in performance. This fall in performance mirrors a decline in a runner’s VO2 Max.
This shows us that there are definite reasons why we run more slowly and possibly get injured more frequently as we age. As a “masters” runner, you have to accept this normal physiological phenomenon and adjust your running accordingly. We are no longer the flexible, muscular gazelles we once were. Our running times are slower. Our limbs are stiffer and less flexible. Our muscles are weaker. We are more prone to minor injuries and in some situations more prone to major injuries. That said, it is important that we keep active for a number of reasons, namely: cardiovascular health (there is a reduced death rate from heart attacks in runners), musculoskeletal structure (there is a decreased incidence of osteoporosis in recreational runners) and psychological factors (there is less depression in runners and those who keep active).
If you are having pain with running, you need to look at your running program. Remember to start slowly and take walk breaks (an especially important practice for master’s runners) during any runs lasting over 60 minutes. Pay attention to your water intake to avoid dehydration. Allow adequate rest and recovery time—doing tempo runs too close together will result in increased injuries and increased pain. Pre and post run stretches are helpful but not always necessary for your short runs.
Research indicates that runners who remain fit can expect a 0.5% to 1% decline in performance per year from age 35 to 60, with a faster rate of decline after age 60. On the positive side, appropriate training tends to decrease this performance decrement compared to inactive seniors. A study showed that after analyzing 415,000 runners in the New York City Marathon from 1983 to 1999, male and female masters continued to improve their running times at a greater rate than the younger athletes, whose performance levels had plateaued.2
Many runners continue to run into their 60s, 70s and beyond with minimal or no pain complaints. Age, therefore, should not be a deterrent to running. If you hurt during and/or after your runs, this may suggest that you are running too hard, too fast or too frequently. Running should not give you pain—if it does, it should be a “pleasant” pain only.
1. European J App Physiology, Dec 2016.
2. British Journal of Sports Medicine, Aug 2004
Dr. Richard Beauchamp is an orthopedic surgeon based in Vancouver. He is the medical director of the Shriner’s Gait Lab at Sunny Hill Health Centre and a clinical professor in the Department of Orthopedics at the University of British Columbia. He is an avid runner and walker who has completed seven marathons.