When 40-year-old Joe Pavey raced down the home straight to 10,000m glory at the European Championships in Zurich last year, women everywhere let out a sigh of utmost respect. Pavey, a mother of two who’d given birth to her youngest less than a year earlier, had become the oldest woman ever to claim gold at the European Championships, inspiring women throughout the world.
The long-distance runner achieved this feat just days after winning Commonwealth 5,000m bronze, at an age when most athletes are retired. And Pavey’s not a new athlete – she’s been running at an elite level for decades. ‘Someone such as Jo has had a very long career,’ says New Balance running coach, Steve Vernon (@SteveVernon29). ‘She’s had a lot of injuries, but really enjoys her running and has a great outlook on the sport. She’s someone women can look up to because she enjoys the highs and lows.’ Of course, Pavey isn’t the only athlete flying the flag for veteran runners – women everywhere have been inspired by her lead. In fact, the age of runners is on the rise, with data showing that the percentage of runners over the age of 45 has increased by more than 30 per cent in the past five years. ‘There are a lot more veteran runners, thanks to the advances in sports medicine, shoe technology and physiotherapy that have allowed people to look after themselves better,’ explains Vernon. ‘And veteran athletics has also become more competitive. There are more events – such as Parkrun or the Great Run Local series – that people can get involved with to help them enjoy running.’ But can you really improve with age? A determined mindset helps – but it’s not the only thing to consider. From the age of 40, your maximal aerobic capacity (that’s your VO 2 max) starts to decline by as much as 10 per cent per decade. This is due to a decrease in cardiovascular capacity. Think about it – if the formula for maximal heart rate (MHR) is 220 minus your age, older athletes can’t work at as high a capacity as younger competitors. And then there’s the loss of muscle mass, which affects even the speediest of runners. Studies show that you lose around one per cent of lean muscle mass every year, starting as young as the age of 30. A loss of muscle mass has a direct impact on your body fat stores – because smaller muscles burn less energy – and extra fat weight can slow you down. It’s a reality that will depress even the happiest of souls. The good news is that there are a lot of things that will preserve your running fitness. Train hard, for example – a study from the Washington University School of Medicine found that older athletes who continued to perform strenuous exercise lost a mere five per cent of their VO2 max per decade, halving the rate of aerobic decline. And avoid unnecessary weight gain and strength loss by doing regular weight training. ‘When you hit your late 40s, you’ll notice the effects of muscle wastage,’ says Vernon. ‘So it’s important to max your muscles because you need them still.’ You’ll also need a strong cardiovascular system, hardy body and resilient mind to boot. Follow our expertapproved rules (facing page) to have it all.
Rule #1: run different cardio
Learn to love the bike, pool or gym machines. While studies show that high-intensity exercise is a great way for veteran athletes to slow down the ageing process, you’ll notice that your body takes longer to recover from hard training as you age. This is largely because the recovery of muscle and tissue slows down over the years. Unfortunately, running again before your body is ready can subsequently increase your risk of injury. The answer? ‘Give your body more recovery time, and do crosstraining in between intense workouts,’ suggests Vernon.
Rule #2: hit the weights
Don’t neglect the importance of resistance training. Research from Tufts University in the US shows that post-menopausal women who strength-trained twice a week for a year lost three pounds of fat and gained the same amount of muscle. ‘Weight training has its place [in a run training schedule],’ says Vernon. ‘But, if you haven’t lifted weights before, start by doing some bodyweight exercises. Core stability classes such as Pilates are successful with veteran athletes, partly because these workouts use bodyweight while working on balance and core control.’ Learn to love the bike, pool or gym machines. While studies show that high-intensity exercise is a great way for veteran athletes to slow down the ageing process, you’ll notice that your body takes longer to recover from hard training as you age. This is largely because the recovery of muscle and tissue slows down over the years. Unfortunately, running again before your body is ready can subsequently increase your risk of injury. The answer? ‘Give your body more recovery time, and do crosstraining in between intense workouts,’ suggests Vernon.
Rule #3: enjoy the ride
Fact – running is a lot easier when it feels like a privilege, not a chore. ‘I have a motto that a happy runner is a fast runner. If you enjoy your running then you’re going to run well,’ says Vernon. The key is to make training fun – try running in a small group and avoid going on the same old routes. ‘I change a lot of stuff with my running group,’ adds Vernon. ‘We might do hill reps regularly, but we will use a different hill each time for variety. As a veteran athlete, why not try mixing things up if you’ve being doing the same training for years?
Rule #4: plan your training
A good training plan will help you to train wisely, while boosting motivation. ‘What works for a veteran athlete often depends on the individual, but taking control of your own training can help,’ Vernon believes. ‘You’ll be able to find out what best suits your body and make training work for your lifestyle. Don’t rush into things – if you’ve got a goal, have a plan and an idea of how you’re going to get there. It might take a little longer than it used to when you were younger, but you will get there, especially if you factor in ways to get stronger.’
RUN THIS WAY
Not all training runs were created equal. These methods are made for veteran athletes!
Coach Steve Vernon swears by hill training because the incline stresses the heart and lungs, while the slower pace protects joints. Run off-road hills because the ground is softer. To ensure your body isn’t constantly being stressed in the same way – and, therefore, at greater risk of injury – vary your sessions. You might do hills and fartlek one week, and track and tempo running the next week.
Data in the online journal Frontiers in Physiology shows that polarised training – which includes performing either hard or easy, but no moderate-intensity, runs – is ideal for older athletes. The researchers observed 41 athletes on one of four schedules: a polarised plan, high-intensity training, tempo-training or high-volume training. The polarised runners reaped the greatest VO2 max results, with an 11.7 per cent improvement.
How fast and far you run is determined by your stride length and stride rate. Unfortunately, stride length decreases with age (40 per cent by the time you hit 70). Combat it by doing track sessions (think 400m repeats), which encourages your limbs to stretch during running.