Runners over the age of 60 are the fastest-growing group in the sport. A recent study from the University of New Hampshire suggests that their running can remain fast as they age, too. The study, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, found that the running economy – how efficiently the body uses oxygen at a certain pace – of older runners was no different than that of younger runners.
"That really jumped off the page. It was surprising, but in a good way," says lead author Timothy Quinn, who is an associate professor of exercise science at UNH. You can read or download an abstract of the study online, "Aging and Factors Related to Running Economy."
Yet in general older runners are slower than younger ones, which is why races segment competitors by age. Moderating the good news about running economy, Quinn and his colleagues found that maintaining this running economy came at a higher "cost" to senior runners. Their VO2 max, which measures the body's capacity to transport and use oxygen during exercise, was significantly lower than their younger peers, as were their maximal heart rates.
"For the runners over age 60, it's physiologically more difficult to run at that speed, even though the absolute oxygen uptake value is the same as a younger runner," explains Quinn, in the November 29, 2011 news release, "Study: No decline in running economy for older runners." In other words, it will feel harder.
Runners in their eighties also are on the rise
Working with competitive male and female distance runners who had all finished first, second or third place in their age categories in large local road races, the researchers grouped their subjects as young (18-39 years), master (40-59 years) and older (60 years and over). In addition to running economy, Quinn and co-authors, who include former UNH exercise science graduate student and instructor Michelle Manley and former clinical assistant professor Allison MacKenzie (now at the University of Buffalo), looked at other factors – strength, power, and flexibility -- that might explain how running performance declines with age.
Runners over the age of eighty would like to do is stimulate other 80-year-olds to stay active, to stay healthy and to participate in outdoor events. Also check out the February 18, 2013 news article, "Mike Sandrock: Running in their 80s, these men are inspiring younger athletes."
The goal, whatever your physical condition with your doctor's approval can be to be more active and to participate with young people. For example, when one runner, Ken Wright crossed the finish line after helping the Boulder Road Runners take the over-80 team title at the 2013 USA Cross Country Championship in St. Louis on Feb. 2, he was greeted by Olympian and former world cross country champ Craig Virgin, according to the news article, "Mike Sandrock: Running in their 80s, these men are inspiring younger athletes."
Craig Virgin, according to the February 18, 2013 news article, "Mike Sandrock: Running in their 80s, these men are inspiring younger athletes" is a coach and an icon in the St. Louis area. The runners over age 80 mentioned in the news article include names such as Verne Carlson, Mike Fenerty, Don Hayes, Bill Smythe and Wright. They made up the Boulder Road Runners squad that continues making history by maintaining its streak "as the only over-80 team ever to compete in the U.S. cross country championships."
No decline in running for older runners, says the University of New Hampshire study
In a 2011 study of runners over the age of 60 mentioned in the news release, "Study: No decline in running economy for older runners," the older runners fared significantly worse than younger ones on all three measures, helping pinpoint the sources of age-related performance declines. Strength, in particular upper-body strength, is necessary to propel runners uphill and to hasten leg turnover, says Quinn.
Muscle power – how fast that strength is generated – governs the speed at which runners can change speed or direction or run up hills. And flexibility, measured in this study with a sit-and-reach test to assess hamstring and lower back flexibility, correlates with stride length and step frequency.
Muscle power for seniors can be built up
These findings should by no means suggest that older runners should hang up their sneakers, the researchers say. "Strength declines with age, but you can minimize that if you do strength training. It doesn't take a lot to maintain strength," says Quinn in the news release. "We need to set up programs that enhance strength, especially upper-body strength, and power. They'll be better runners for it."
Quinn, who has done research on running, cardiovascular function, and fitness throughout his two-decade career at UNH, hopes to measure this same group of runners over time, launching a longitudinal study that will shed new light on the performance of runners as they age.
In addition to Quinn, Manley and MacKenzie, co-authors on this study were Jason Aziz of Concord Hospital in Concord and Jamie Padham of Husson University in Bangor, Maine. The University of New Hampshire, founded in 1866, is a world-class public research university with the feel of a New England liberal arts college. A land, sea, and space-grant university, UNH is the state's flagship public institution, enrolling 12,200 undergraduate and 2,300 graduate students.