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Running After Age 40 - How to Prevent Injuries and Improve Performance

Training and injury prevention tips for runners 40 and older

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Updated May 30, 2008

Running is one of the most efficient ways to maintain and improve cardiovascular fitness, balance and muscle tone as you age. It's also one of the easiest ways to get injured if you don't acknowledge the physical changes that come along with getting older and modify your training routine accordingly.

You're never too old to start or continue a running program, but to run safely and prevent injury, it's helpful to understand how aging affects your physical capacities. Running is a high-intensity activity, and runners typically reach their prime fitness in their 20s and 30s. At about age 40, even elite runners see a decline in performance.

The Physical Affects of Aging
As we grow older our muscle fibers shrink in number and in size (atrophy) and become less sensitive to nerve impulses. This may result in decreases in cardiovascular endurance, strength, balance and coordination. Most athletes experience some of these declines around age 40, but the extent and speed of the decline depends on factors other than age alone. Some of these factors include genetics, diet, lifestyle and our physical activity levels. In fact, research shows that much of the age-related loss of fitness we take for granted is actually due to inactivity rather than age alone.

Increasing training time and intensity in response to the affects of aging often backfires. Older athletes who train harder and longer often wind up with injuries, such as overuse injuries, overtraining syndrome and acute injuries. In order to continue a successful running program, older runners need to train smarter not harder.

Training Tips for Runners Over 40

  • Slowly Increase Time and Intensity
    As you age, you may find that you need to ramp up your training more gradually than when you were younger. If you are new to running, you may find that you need to begin a running program by alternating 30 seconds of running with 3 minutes of walking for a 20-minute session. Over time you will slowly increase the amount of time running and decrease the time spent walking. This slow transition will help prevent injuries and build strength and endurance in the muscles.
    More: How to Design a Personal Exercise Program
  • Stay Motivated
    If you are taking up running later in life, you may find that it doesn't come easily. Keep in mind that you are doing this for fun, for health and, most of all, because it's a great, efficient way to get fit. You don't need to be competitive to get health benefits from running, so take it easy and have fun with it.
  • Listen to Your Body
    You may be more prone to joint injuries as you get older, so if you notice any pain in the joints during a run, stop and walk. You might need to be a bit more forgiving and flexible if you are an older runner. Keep in mind that you can alternate running days with another low-impact exercise, such as swimming and biking, and still be able to maintain a bit of running. In fact, it's unlikely that you will want to run every single day, so find an alternate exercise that you enjoy.
  • Rest and Recovery
    Rest and recovery is important for every athlete, but as we age, rest is even more critical to injury prevention and performance gains. You may find that instead of one recovery day after a hard-training run, you may need two days to completely recover. One way to determine recovery is to take your resting pulse each morning before you get out of bed. If your morning heart rate is higher than this average, especially after a difficult run, you may not be fully recovered. Take another day off or just do an easy workout for the day until your heart rate returns to your baseline.
  • Add High Intensity Intervals
    It's critical for older runners to have one high-intensity workout each week. You need to work at about 80% of your maximum heart rate during this workout. This can be done in an interval-training format of 60 to 90 second intervals of sprinting, separated by 5 minutes of easy jogging for recovery.
  • Build More Strength
    Maintaining muscle strength can help maintain running speed as we age. All it takes is one to two 30 minute weight-training sessions per week, to keep muscles strong. Include both upper- and- lower-body exercises, and lift weights that are 60 percent of your one rep maximum.
    Also see
  • Improve Your Balance
    In general, as we grow older, we experience a decrease in strength, balance and coordination. A simple balance-training exercise can help you stay agile and help prevent injury while running.
  • Stay Hydrated
    As you age, your thirst mechanism becomes less acute and you may not feel as thirsty. One easy way to tell if you are getting enough fluid is to make sure your urine is a light color and not dark or concentrated.
  • Choose Your Terrain Wisely
    To limit the chance of injury from ankle sprains, try to train on a smooth and forgiving surface. You'll want to baby your joints and muscles and limit any chance for falls or twisted ankles.
  • Adjust Your Expectations
    It's helpful for older runners to change their training goals. Consider tracking your training in minutes rather than mileage. For example, set up your training to look like this:
    • Day 1 - 20 minute weight training
    • Day 2 - 30 minute easy run or rest day
    • Day 3 - 45 minute cross training
    • Day 4 - 30 minute weight training
    • Day 5 - 30 minute interval workout
    • Day 6 - rest day
    • Day 7 - 90 minute jog - slow pace
  • Run Smarter, Not Harder
    Older runners have the advantage of experience. You won't need to train as hard or long if you train wisely. Learn how to use the above tips to your advantage, and you will be able to enjoy running as much as when you were 20.
    Also See: Ten Tips for Safe workouts.

Sources:

Exercise and the Master Athlete — A Model of Successful Aging? Hawkins et al. Journals of Gerontology. 2003; 58: 1009-1011

Exercise and Physical Activity for Older Adults, ACSM Position Stand Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Volume 30, Number 6, June 1998

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