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The Truth About Running After Fifty

Find out how running affects our bodies as we age.

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*Excerpt from Joe Friel’s Fast After Fifty, published with permission from VeloPress.

The Aging Myth 

There may be plenty of voices telling you that you shouldn’t be exercising so strenuously, that advancing age means you must slow down. Maybe they’re telling you horror stories of broken bones and heart attacks. Look at so-and-so, they say. He wouldn’t stop, and now he’s getting knee replacements. Quit training and competing. Overdoing it is bad for you. No one keeps racing forever. Back off—you’ve earned a rest. Enjoy the twilight of your life. 

Rest assured, you can indeed remain vigorous into your 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond.

How does science explain the phenomenon we call “aging”? Interestingly, scientists are still working on that question. They don’t fully understand it yet. They have theories, and there is ongoing research, but they don’t have solid answers. Instead, most researcher have chosen to examine only the symptoms of growing older. Here’s a partial list of run-of-the-mill signs of aging as reported in most of the research:

  • Skin loses its elasticity and becomes drier as oil glands slow their production. Fingernails grow more slowly.
  • Hair thins, and there’s more gray hair as pigment cells are reduced.
  • Compression of joints, including spinal discs, causes a loss of height. By age 80, the loss of 2 inches is common.
  • Somewhere around age 55, high-frequencyy sounds start becoming harder to hear.
  • By age 50, most people need reading glasses as the eyes’ lenses become less flexible, impairing the ability to focus on anything close up.
  • Changes occur in the menstrual cycle before it ceases.
  • Sleep time basically becomes shorter, and the quality of sleep decreases. Waking often during the night is common.
  • Bone minerals are lost, resulting in more fragility.
  • The basal metabolic rate slows down, often resulting in weight gain—mostly fat.

Additionally, and sadly, the chances of contracting ailments such as osteoarthritis, hypothyroidism, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, coronary heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and dementia increase.

There’s a caveat, however. What we know of all these depressing changes has been based on studies of normal aging people. By “normal” I mean people who are generally representative of our society—many of whom are sedentary, overweight, and unmotivated. If you are active and vigorous, you aren’t normal—and that’s good.

As an aging athlete, you are still experiencing some markers of aging, but from a smaller subset of symptoms. Nearly all exercise physiology research has found that you can expect certain performance-diminishing changes with advancing age. The symptoms of aging that concern athletes include:

  • Aerobic capacity (VO2 max) declines.
  • Maximal heart rate is reduced.
  • The volume of blood pumped with each heartbeat decreases.
  • Muscle fibers are lost, resulting in decreased muscle mass and less strength.
  • Aerobic enzymes in the muscles become less effective and abundant.
  • Blood volume is reduced.

These are the symptoms we need to reverse or at least minimize in our training and lifestyle.

The Older Athlete

Before going any further, let’s make one important point clear:

First, exercise keeps you healthy and much younger than what is normal for our society. Moreover, that exercise does not have to be highly intense to foster excellent health and allow you to lead a robust life as you get older. Exercise, regardless of intensity, is powerful medicine when it comes to health.

If your reason for exercising is to live a long life filled with vibrant family activity and fun for many years to come, and you don’t really care about how fast you are, then vigorous and frequent exercise of any type, including long, slow distance, is the way to go.

So far, about all science knows about exercise and aging is that there seems to be an inverse relationship between older people’s volume of exercise and their risk of premature death, regardless of cause. In other words, the more you exercise, the less likely you are to die early.

Of course, there’s more to life than just how long you live. Quality is at least as important as quantity. Living a long time in loneliness and boredom, with little in the way of activity except for occasional exercise, is not what any of us wants. Quality of life means not only participation in sport as an athlete but also simply being an energetic and dynamic person in all aspects of life.

While aging does inevitably take a toll on the performance of aging athletes, it’s small compared with the loss of functional performance that normal, inactive people experience due to disuse. Most people “rust out” due to inactivity rather than “wear out” from being overly active.

Additionally, exercise plays an important role in slowing aging. Genetics and lifestyle — often referred to as “nature” and “nurture” — are both important, but there is reason to believe that the major contributor to performance decline as we get older is nurture, with nature playing a smaller role. This contradicts what our society has come to believe—that the vagaries of aging occur at a given rate, are inevitable, and are completely outside one’s control. That line of thinking makes is easy to throw your hands up and surrender.

But a vigorous lifestyle— and especially strenuous activity, or “high-intensity training” — has a powerful influence on physiology and has the power to keep old age and poor performance at bay.

Longitudinal studies have shown that reduced training intensity resulted in marked changes in performance-related physiology of athlete subjects, and loss of a vigorous lifestyle may also explain, along with diet, declining lifespan in native populations.

Some scientists who study sport and aging also see the balance tilted toward the nurture side because as we age, exercise behavior (nurture) appears to play a significant role in how our given genetic biology (nature) plays out. This balance could be around 60-40 or even 70-30. In other words, 60 to 70 percent of our reduced performance might be explained by changed in training (and lifestyle in general), with the changes due to biological aging accounting for only 30 to 40 percent.

With that in mind, the chief question must be: What do we need to do to get the large nurture portion right so that we can stay fast after age 50?

The first question in our plan is this: What physical performance changes are occurring as you become older? And I do mean you. Although the research indicates what senior athletes generally experience with aging, not all of those conclusions may apply to you.

To get started on this question, perhaps the most important discovery you can make is to determine what is holding you back — your specific weaknesses, or “limiters.”

Many areas of your life could produce nurture limiters, such as the amount of time you have to train, your diet, how much sleep you get, your speed of recovery, and much more. But our focus right now is the big rocks—those few things in your training and lifestyle that may well be limiting your performance. For nearly all senior athletes, the performance-related changes that are most common are what I call the “big three” aging limiters:

  • Decreasing aerobic capacity: You simply aren’t as capable of delivering oxygen to your working muscles. You may well be doing something to turn this around, but my experience has been that most aging athletes aren’t. The key to maintaining your aerobic capacity is our old friend high-intensity training.
  • Increasing body fat: In the normal population, there is a significant change in body composition starting around age 65. Compared with where they were at age 25, by their late 60s most men have lost about 26 pounds of lean mass and women about 11 pounds—mostly muscle. Even as aging athletes, we can expect some change in body composition—more fat and less lean.
  • Shrinking muscles: Sarcopenia is the loss of muscle as normal people age. Here’s what science currently knows about it. Starting around age 40, a progressive decrease of muscle begins.

These changes in aerobic capacity, body fat and muscle make up the big three most common reasons for the decline in performance as we get older, but there’s more happening in our bodies that we need to understand in order to counteract the negative effects. These include loss of bone density, an increasing propensity for total-body acidity, a slowing of the metabolism, a loss of joint range of motion, and more. But many of what we consider to be the inevitable changes of aging are things that we have some control over.

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