Fitter After 50

Fitter After Fifty

How to run happy, healthy and injury free in your 40s, 50s, and beyond.

Photo credit: Stròlic Furlàn - Davide Gabino. Published with no edits or alterations.

One of the many wonderful things about running is you can pick it up at any age. There is no learning curve. Just buy a good pair of running shoes, lace up, and step out the door.

And your knees? Myth. We now know that runners are at no higher risk of knee osteoarthritis than non-runners. Quite the opposite, running strengthens the muscles, so your joints have to do less work. Runners' knees are, in fact, healthier, than the knees of non-runners.

Of course, it's not all that simple. Forty may be the new 20 -- which must make 50 the new 25 -- but beginning a running, fitness or endurance sports regimen at that age is a whole new affair. Approach it with the panache and all-in-all-now attitude of a 20-something, and you will find yourself injured before you can even retire that first pair of running shoes.

Why, What's Going on with this Ol' Body?

At 50, even assuming you are in good health and active, your blood pressure is likely higher than that of people in their 20s and 30s. (If BP is higher than 140/90, by the way, definitely get evaluated by a physicians before you begin anything.) 

One of the reasons for higher BP is that cardiac output is lower. The heart pumps less blood with each stroke, so it needs to work harder to supply oxygen to active muscles -- which in turn means you tire out sooner and more easily. 

Muscle mass is likely lower too, as is bone density. We'll get back to those later. 

Last, but definitely not least: as we age, we lose elasticity in our connective tissues. Our muscles become less flexible. So you probably can't do the splits. More importantly (and with real-life implications), muscles are more "rigid" as they perform the constant contract-release-repeat cycle of running.

This means that:

a) older muscles have less power output. If you have been a runner for a while, this is a big reason why you're slowing down. 

b) they take longer to warm up. To see this in action, put an elastic band in the freezer for 10 minutes, take it out and try to stretch it. Not much give, right? These are the muscles of a 50-something person, while the same elastic band, but at regular-room temperature, is like the muscles of a 20-something. Nice and warm, ready to spring at a moment's notice.

c) Finally, older muscles recover more slowly than younger muscles. One reason is that growth hormone production begins to gradually decrease after 30, and human growth hormone is pretty much the director of muscle repair. 

Implications for runners

The main challenge with running in your 40s and 50s is avoiding injury. At that age, we are much more easily injured, for all the reasons described above. So whether you are picking up running for the first time ever, or after many years of non-running, or you have been a runner for a while already, consider these five elements integral to your running lifestyle:

1. Patience. If you are a new runner, keep all your running aerobic (i.e., slow down). If you are a former runner getting back to it, do not expect your body to adapt to training the way it did in your 20s and 30s. Take your time to build a solid base (300-500 miles at least) before you so much as think about trying to run fast --  or faster. Take all the time you need, and then some, to warm up and cool down properly. If you only have an hour to dedicate to running, it's better to give 20 minutes of that hour to a solid warm-up routine and another 5-10 minutes to a cool-down, than to spend all 60 minutes running.    

2. Recovery. Your body needs more time to recover from running than it did when you were younger. If you are a new runner or coming back to it after a hiatus, do not run on consecutive days, at least while you are building your base. Even if you've been running for a while, you may need to replace one or two run days with rest days or cross training. Recovery is important, but even more important is active recovery: yoga, swimming or any water-based exercise (aqua aerobics, aqua walking, aqua Zumba... you get the idea) is particularly therapeutic. 

3. Strength work. Under the supervision (at least initially) of a certified fitness professional, incorporate a weight-training routine into your schedule. Depending on your general conditioning, you may need to begin with core strength and balance work only, gradually moving through the stages of performance training. This will help halt and reverse the inevitable loss of bone density and muscle mass that comes as we age, and - bonus! - help your running, too. 

4. Nutrition. You probably don't need to hear from a running coach that you can't eat in your 50s like you did in your 20s. A healthy diet is essential, and in many cases -- best done under the supervision or following the direction of a Registered Dietitian -- increasing protein intake will aid in muscle repair and recovery. 

5. Sleep. By the time we're in our 40s, sleep is something of an after-thought. Our bodies have long grown accustomed to sleep-deprivation (first studying and partying, then work, kids, more work, parents, stress, responsibilities... the reasons go on). But here's the thing: what little human growth hormone our older bodies produce (hGH = the body's main muscle recovery system) is released during sleep. So put sleep on your exercise schedule. Chronic sleep deprivation, when coupled with the added stress of a new exercise regimen, will do more harm than good over the long term.

“The miracle isn't that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.” 
― John Bingham, No Need for Speed: A Beginner's Guide to the Joy of Running

A person is never too old to become a runner, or to get back to running. Be patient, persistent, and respectful to your body, and it will pay off by becoming as fit, or even fitter, than you were in your younger years. 

Do you have an inspiring story about running in your 40s or 50s? 

Coach Aleks