13 Mar

Age No Barrier

Fauja Singh with his EMF Medal

Ageing is something that comes to us all - runners included - but there is no reason to hang up your trainers as the years creep up on you, Christine Appel reminds us...

Of all the misconceptions people have about running, one of the most unfounded is that it's an activity only to be enjoyed or taken up in one's youth. The reality is that countless runners in their 50s, 60s and 70s enjoy the sport at different levels. Fauja Singh - the 'turbaned torpedo' who set a marathon PB of 5:20 at the age of 92 - only took up running in his 60s. And at 101, he's still going strong.

Simply put, people of all ages benefit from exercise, and there's no reason why we can't start or carry on running well into our bus-pass years. The benefits of running for 'mature' individuals are clear: a more youthful appearance, improved fitness and circulation, a healthier lifestyle and a strong sense of achievement that contributes to good mental health.

Running is also a great way to socialise. Joining a club for companionship, competition and camaraderie is good advice for runners of any age, but for the recently retired, joining a local club is a good way to reconnect with your local community, perhaps after what seems like a lifetime of commuting away from it. Running can also form the basis of a wider fitness routine, and help condition you for other activities like golf, dance or chasing after the grandkids. One of the undeniable effects of aging is the decline in muscle mass and bone density that begins in middle age. Strength training, which also nicely supports your running, can help counteract this.

If you've never been a runner, the same advice on starting out holds as much for over 50s as it does for everyone else: consult your health professional before you start, invest in good kit and take things slowly when you begin. Many local sports or community centres have run/walk programmes aimed at the mature audience; regular running groups are a good place to start too.

Mature EMF Runners

Avoiding injury is important for all runners, and again the same general advice holds: reduce the impact on your joints where possible by cross-training for aerobic fitness, allow yourself plenty of time for recovery and don't forget to stretch! Swimming and other forms of aqua-fitness are particularly good cross-training activities for older runners, as they don't place undue pressure on the joints. By the time you reach your 70s, flexibility, balance and reaction times have all decreased significantly. The risk of falling (and of subsequent injury) increases, so it might be best to start giving icy pavements or slippery trails a miss at that point!

And what about the big question: Performance? Speed does decline as we age, as the 'fast twitch' muscle fibres that give us our velocity have already seen their best days. But the impact of quality training and good fitness can keep the rate of decline on hold to some extent - we've covered more than a few runners in their late 40s and 50s winning races outright, and improving on their times year after year! It's also important to remember that endurance and speed are relative: when you're 60, you'll be competing against other 60-year-olds, not an iron-thighed 19-year-old Olympic hopeful.

Recovery after a hard workout or a race is another area in which age does seem to play a part. Recovery rates will always vary from runner to runner, but many mature runners do report that it takes a bit longer to recover from big exertions than it did a few years earlier. From your 30s, your maximum heart rate and V02 max decline, and mature runners should also factor this into their training and racing schedules.

But the issue that seems to affect most older runners who we spoke to - for better or for worse - was time. Many female runners told us that the time available to them for training actually increased as they got older, allowing them to become better and better. Some were the fittest they'd ever been now, in their 40s and 50s, and that their training had a renewed energy and focus. After years of running after the children, many were finally running for themselves, on the road, on the track and in the hills.

With this increased personal awareness also came the reassessment of goals. Many of our runners accepted that they might not be as fast as they once were, but rather than feeling the end of their racing days were upon them simply changed their goals: they tackled new distances or new terrains. Some, knowing too well the demands of training for a marathon, switched to the half or 10K to ensure they still had time for other retirement pursuits as well as quality training.

In October 2001, Fauja Singh became the first centenarian to run a marathon, and given our own experience, there's no reason that any of our readers can't be the next!