It’s a commonly accepted concept in the running world that as you age, you lose your speed. It’s the natural progression for someone who has been a distance runner for many years. Most elite runners move up in distance over time, as they build aerobic strength and begin to “lose” their speed. I have heard many runners bemoan their age and complain about being “old and slow.” Many times this negative thought process begins as early as an athlete’s 30th birthday!
I have never bought into this paradigm. I ran all of my personal best times when I was in my thirties. I moved up to the marathon distance and back down to the 5k for my last Olympic appearance. I made a US National Team after I turned 40. I’m certainly not the only masters athlete continuing compete at a high level, the likes of Meb Keflezighi, Jo Pavey and Bernard Lagat all represented their countries in the 2016 Olympics. Is there something that makes us unique or special? I don’t think so. I think the key is to not accept this idea of a guaranteed slow down. It’s imperative to continue to do speed work, strength training, and be open to fine tuning the details as your body changes over time. We may not be able to run personal bests year after year as we get older, but we can manage just how much we slow down. It’s not a predetermined fate.
Physiologically speaking, what are the main reasons we slow down with age? Our bodies produce less testosterone, human growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor. If we don’t train it, we lose muscle, beginning as early as in our thirties. Maintaining muscle mass plays a role in metabolism and hormone function. If we don’t maintain muscle mass this can encourage a vicious cycle of producing less of these hormones, therefore reducing our ability to maintain muscle. Additionally, past studies have shown that older athletes lose lower leg strength. This can alter your stride, causing you to use more hip flexion and push off the ground at a less optimal angle. While these factors may present challenges, they are not insurmountable with good nutrition and strength work.
I think a more interesting question is: how does our change in mentality affect us? Do we get slower because we accept it as a fact? Does our pain tolerance decrease? Even as a young elite athlete that first race of the season (aka “rust buster”) was always tough for me. It felt like my body had quickly forgot how to push through the pain, no matter what mindset I had when I stepped on the starting line. But, as the season progressed, each race I became a little more calloused to the pain and things seem to get “easier”. If we avoid this process all together and chalk up the difficulty to being old, we will plateau somewhere at a lesser fitness level. This is a choice; it is not something that is defined by our age.
When you haven’t run specific speeds in a long time it feels REALLY hard when we go back and run them. This definitely isn’t a psychological boost, and it may not provide us with that endorphin high that we crave. It can encourage us to avoid these types of efforts and reside in what is our new comfort zone. In my own running, I’ve always been able to run 34-35 sec 200m repeats with short rest and be really comfortable, like I could run them all day. Last fall I gave this a go and found out that I could only run 37-38 sec for 200s. But rather than accept this as the new normal, (saying to myself, oh well, a 37 is what a 35 used to be…) I’ve continued to do them consistently and now I’m back to being able to run 34-35s relatively easily. It’s important for us to not confuse the process of getting in shape with age related decline.
I realized recently that despite running some good races last year this is the first time that I can’t remember my fastest times in practice. I’m pretty sure this is because they didn’t stand out as “exciting” to me. Even if the times I ran aren't flashy, I don’t want to start drifting away from pushing myself as hard as I did in the past. I’ve decided to challenge myself to running my fastest 200m, 400m and mile in practice, at least twice a year. This way I can keep track of exactly where I’m at. I’d encourage everyone to do the same. The purpose of this isn’t to compare yourself to anyone else, it’s to compare you to you. And it’s fun to start seeing the times drop again!
A word of caution: if you haven’t done speed work in a long time, don’t go straight to your local track and run an all out 200m or 400m! Begin by adding some pick ups into your runs and doing some easy strides afterwords. You’ll know when you’re ready to test yourself. Always do a proper warm up before doing speed work. This should include some easy running followed by warm up drills and strides. The main difference I notice as an older athlete is that I don’t recover as quickly from hard training sessions. We can still run those big workouts, we just need extra recovery between these types of sessions. Be sure to plan this into your training.
I’m starting with the 200m this week, I’ll let you know how it goes!