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May 01, 2014

Is Age Truly Nothing But a Number?

Written by Dena Evans



The ranks of aging runners are swelling, and the growth of these numbers shows no signs of slowing down.  According to Running USA’s 2013 State of the Sport Report, runners 35 and older made up more than half of the timed US race finishers in 2012, with over 25% of finishers 45 years old and over. Not only are the ranks growing, but the role models in the over 40 demographic are flying the flag well.  Meb’s win and personal best in Boston at age 38, Deena Kastor running 1:11 for the half marathon as a 40+ athlete in April, even Joan Samuelson running 2:52 in her late 50s – our running heroes of 10, 20, even 30 years ago aren’t retiring.  So, why should we?  The age of the masters and veteran athlete is upon us.


A generation ago, or maybe not even that many years back, runners were cautioned about the perils of years and years of tread worn off the tires.  Would our bodies fail us?  Would running be a good idea for the long term?  It is easy to see the long term runner as an anomaly who is just trapped in their own habits, but a 2008 study by the Stanford School of Medicine found running brings many health benefits.  Researchers tracked 538 runners over the age of 50 (and a similar sized group of non runners) and found that 21 years later, the runners had a lower mortality rate, later onset of disability, and enjoyed (generally predictable) cardiovascular benefits in addition to greater avoidance of  (perhaps much less predictable) neurological ailments, infections, and other potentially life threatening problems.


In addition to these findings, another Stanford study drawing from a separate subset of 50+ runners found that over the a similar period, runners who maintained the habit had no greater risk of knee osteoarthritis than non-runners, a great encouragement for all of us who have already put in decades of time on the roads and trails.


Certainly, not every runner is blessed with a pitfall-free path to running in the golden years, and not every body follows the pattern found in the studies.  Genetics and hereditary traits remain important to remember and regular medical check-ups are important to stay abreast of how your particular body is reacting to running year in and year out.


Slight behavioral adjustments might also be in order increase the chances that running may continue to be a positive and enjoyable aspect of daily and weekly life as we age.  The average amount of weekly running for athletes in the Stanford study reduced from 4 hours to 76 minutes over 21 years.  Like Meb, who has integrated cross training as a regular part of his training regimen, many older runners enjoy benefits from interspersing running with non-impact exercise or an extra recovery day between hard efforts.  Whereas as a younger athlete might not pay close attention to core strength an ancillary exercises, this kind of work can help stave off injury at any age, and can be a very useful tool for older athletes.


While all-time personal bests might become increasingly hard to come by for long time runners with glory days from their earlier years, a host of competitive opportunities still await the aging runner.  Most races have prizes or recognition for age group winners and placers in five or ten year increments.  Additionally, many athletes enjoy competing for age-graded scores, based on the table developed by the World Association of Veteran Athletes.  These values give a percentage based on the world best for an athlete of a specific age and gender.    Check out this calculator and see how your current times stack up!


Many factors have contributed to the growth in senior runners.  More opportunities, more women who have entered middle age with Title IX era youth experience in athletics, and not least, savvy marketing by race organizers and shoe companies.  Regardless of the reason, our hope is that our veteran athletes have the chance to continue on as long as they desire, and we look forward to helping chart your training journey along the way.








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