The Effects of Ageing on Training and Performance
By Roy Stevenson
As we age, a number of questions surface about what runners can expect, as we get older. Here are a few burning questions that have probably crossed your mind about ageing and its effects on your running.
1. How does ageing affect our running performance?
2. What causes our performance to decline?
3. Is performance loss inevitable in distance running as we age? If so, when does the rot set in?
4. Does running increase our lifespan and slow ageing?
5. How can performance losses from ageing be minimized? How should we modify our training as we age?
So, let's have a look at how ageing affects our running, and vice-versa. Some interesting phenomena emerged when I looked at the research on this topic. First, the rate of decline in running performance varies tremendously from runner to runner, indicating that genetics play a large role in our ability to stave off the effects of ageing. Second, the different systems in our body age at different rates, which may explain some perplexing research data. Aerobic capacity, for example, declines at a faster rate than muscular strength.
How Does ageing Affect Running Performance and, What Causes the Performance Decline?
This list of detrimental effects of ageing on running performance looks formidable. The inexorable passage of time does indeed slow us down—yet the same research also shows some amazing counter-effects of running on ageing.
Cardiovascular System - The heart becomes less efficient and works against increased resistance. A decrease of 8-10% per decade in the ability of the heart and lungs to supply oxygen to the muscles occurs with ageing. There's a decline in maximal heart rate, maximal cardiac output and leg blood flow to exercising muscles of 10% to 15%.
Aerobic Capacity - Moderate decline in maximal heart rate and stroke volume. Oxidative enzyme activity decreases by 10% to 15% in older runners.
Lactate Threshold - May actually increase with age when expressed as a percentage of VO2 max.
Respiratory System - Less efficient, primarily due to stiffening and loss of elasticity of lung tissue and chest wall; decreased ability to clear air passages; maximum breathing capacity decreases by about 60%, between ages 30 and 80. Vital capacity and forced expiratory volume decrease linearly with age, starting between ages 20-30.
Muscular System - Progressive loss of muscle tissue starting at age 40. Rate of muscle protein synthesis is reduced. Changes in muscle fiber composition: decrease in number and size of Type II muscle fibers of 10% after age 50, and reduction in size of Type I muscle fibers—therefore decreased strength and endurance.
Running Economy - Stays approximately the same, but we have to run with faster leg turnover to maintain our racing pace because of shorter stride length.
Body Composition - Muscle tissue declines, fat percentage increases. 8-12% decrease in basal metabolic rate.
Flexibility - Decreases with age. Connective tissues between muscles and bones become more rigid with ageing—thus our stride length decreases.