The ageing myth: advice for older runners - Women's Running

The ageing myth: advice for older runners

Author: Women's Running Magazine

Read Time:   |  January 15, 2021

Lace up your trainers and live your best life whatever your age

Words by Louise Pyne

We often focus on the negative side of ageing, but there are huge benefits to getting older. Through the lens of life experience often comes a natural sense of inner strength, wisdom, maturity and peace, which you can apply to all areas of your life.

In addition, once you retire you’ll have more time to dedicate to hobbies you love; in fact, you might even find that you run more in your 60s and 70s than you did in your 20s and 30s when you were juggling a career with a busy social life. And you might find that having all those extra hours to dedicate to the things you love means you feel like challenging yourself to try new things; different styles of running, joining a running club or even taking a leap and signing up to an event abroad.

Physical changes

Of course, on a physical level, there are inevitable changes that happen as we clock up the years, and these can all impact training. Our metabolism starts to slow down, and you might notice stubborn weight gain (especially around the middle) due to changing hormones. Your mood, energy and concentration levels might not be flying quite as high as they were in your 20s and 30s, and your joints may suffer general wear and tear which could mean you don’t run as efficiently as you once did. Older adults also face a higher risk of chronic disease, but our lifestyles also play a massive role in our wellbeing, so taking time to eat healthily and exercise will help to minimise these risks.

The ageing myth

If you’re smart and look after your body there’s no reason why fitness should take a big dip as the years roll by, and with the right training, your fitness could increase. We’re living longer than ever and we know much more about how to keep our health and fitness on the right path.

“Regular physical activity has consistently been proven to be an effective method of disease prevention at all ages. As we age, the incidence of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes and certain cancers increases. However, we also know that exercise reduces the risk of developing these conditions in the first place as well as being a way to improve the severity of disease when it does occur,” explains GP and fitness instructor Dr Folusha Oluwajana.

Ageing is a time for celebration, and with the right approach to fitness, nutrition and lifestyle, your health and training don’t have to plummet. With this in mind, here are our suggestions to help you get the most out of exercising throughout each decade from your 40s through to your 70s and beyond…

Running in your 40s…

Your 40s can be a decade of fundamental physical change for many women in one way or another.

What’s going on?
According to the latest stats from the Office of National Statistics, the rate of women aged 40 and over who are conceiving is higher than ever before. While common pregnancy niggles happen at any age, conceiving in your 4os can bring with it increased risk of developing complications such as pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes. Add to that the general exhaustion and common pregnancy aches and pains, and you might need to tweak your training accordingly. That being said, while pregnancy in your 40s might be physically challenging for some, you could easily be one of the lucky ones who sails through pregnancy problem-free.

If you regularly ran before getting pregnant, you should be able to continue to train for as long as you feel comfortable. However, if you are not used to running or jogging, pregnancy is definitely not the time to start as your joints won’t be used to the impact of running. Gentle swimming or brisk walking are good alternatives if you want to keep active.

If you’re a regular runner, you need to be aware that running when pregnant can be extra tough on your joints. This is because, during pregnancy, the hormone relaxin makes your joints loosen and this can increase the risk of injury. And as your bump grows, your balance might be slightly off so make sure that you run on even ground. Wear supportive running shoes, a proper sports bra and focus on technique rather than pace. Keep hydrated and fuel up before and after run. If you have any unusual pains while running, seek medical advice immediately.

Post-partum body changes mean that you should wait until at least 12 weeks after having a baby before lacing up your trainers – in order to give muscles, organs, nerves and connective tissue in the pelvic region time to heal.

Of course, it’s not all about making babies. Sometime in your 40s, you are likely to start to go through perimenopause, when your body makes the transition to menopause. Oestrogen levels fall and rise unevenly at this time, which means your periods may lengthen or shorten. You may also experience menopause-like symptoms including hot  ushes and sleep problems. Hormonal fluctuations can also mean changes to bone health, reduced muscle tone and strength. “A decrease in muscle mass is called sarcopenia. Weightbearing exercise such as walking and running, and strengthening activities such as weight training can help preserve muscle mass,” GP and fitness instructor Dr Folusha Oluwajana explains.

What to do:
Simple changes to your lifestyle can have big rewards in helping to offset perimenopausal symptoms. “You can improve your sleep routine by having a regular sleep schedule, avoiding electronic devices and actively winding down before bed.

Aches and pains can be improved by keeping active and ensuring you stay hydrated and that you eat a nutritious and varied diet,” explains Dr Oluwajana.

You can further support your diet by adding supplements; make sure you have plenty of healthy fats found in fish such as salmon, as well as almond and flaxseed. Fats rich in Omega 3 help with hormone production and keep joints lubricated to ease the impact on your body of running.

Sallie, 45, from London says:
“I started running when I was eight. We lived in rural Australia and I entered a cross country run which saw me jumping fences and running through fields of cows! I can still remember the feeling of winning; my love for running started there!

“My running routine varies depending on whether I’m training for an event. When I’m training for a marathon, I run six days a week, and in the month leading up the race, I combine shorter faster runs with longer runs. When I’m not training, I like to run five miles three or four times a week to stay fit. I live right on the edge of Epping Forest so I have no excuse not to run.

“Up until very recently I have been injury-free. I have noticed that, as I get older, sleeping and eating well make an enormous difference to how I feel when I’m running and help with recovery times. I have also found that after two children my pain barrier was higher than before and I was able to dig much deeper when I needed to!

“I have competed in a lot of races. My most memorable races are my first marathon, which was London in 2012 (3 hours 37 minutes), and the Edinburgh Marathon in 2013, because I got my PB of 3 hours 21 minutes there. I have since had another child and I am not training as much but plan to pick this up again in 2021. My ultimate goal is to run a sub 3-hour marathon.”

Running in your 50s…

We’ve all heard about feeling fabulous at 50, but is it made more difficult with menopause and power energy levels? Let’s see…

What’s going on?
If you haven’t already gone through the menopause, the cessation of monthly periods will be a key feature of your sixth decade due to declining oestrogen levels. While it can be a daunting time for some, it’s a time for trying to look after yourself and your needs; some women report feeling more confident and secure in their own skin once they reach menopause, but it really is different for everyone.

According to the NHS, menopause normally occurs between 45 to 55, although this can vary from person to person. Menopause can bring with it several unwanted symptoms, including hot flushes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, difficulty sleeping, low mood and problems concentrating. These symptoms can last around four years after your last period, although some women experience side effects for much longer. “Aches and pains may make training more difficult, mood disturbances may affect your motivation and urinary incontinence may cause embarrassment during exercise,” says Dr Oluwajana. The risk of osteoporosis, a condition which affects over 3 million people in the UK is also increased during menopause.

What to do:
Since osteoporosis is a key risk, try and keep your bones healthy by watching what you put onto your plate. Phytooestrogen foods are key; they are plant foods that have oestrogen-like effects and help to balance hormones and include lentils, chickpeas, edamame beans and tofu.

You should also try and get 20 minutes of exposure to direct sunlight daily (even in winter), and take a vitamin D supplement to top up levels. Although many of us are deficient, especially during the winter months, Vitamin D is actually essential as it helps your body to absorb calcium.

If menopausal symptoms are making you feel low, consider joining a running club where you’ll get to run in a friendly environment at your own pace with other runners for support.

Rachel, 50, from London says:
“I have always enjoyed running and started when I was in school. From the very beginning I was a keen cross countryrunner. It was always about distance for me rather than speed.

“For me, the motivation to run has not always been just about the physical; there are the mental benefits of clearing the mind too. I also enjoy running with my husband or friends as it becomes social and fun. During lockdown and home-schooling, my morning run was my sanity. It was the only time when no one could reach me, ask me for a snack, how to spell or to find their pencil! I honestly don’t know what I would have done without it. It can be challenging to find motivation though on wet days, and if I’m feeling tired or stiff. I had to dig deep while training for the 2018 London Marathon in dreary January rain! But I also know that once I’m outside and in my stride it is always 100 percent worth it.

“Running can be challenging as you get older, but as long as you have a base level of fitness and are in good health I believe everyone can run. Build up your distance, run on soft ground and always stop if you feel any pain. There are some really great running guides and apps out there to help you along. Most of all, have fun and enjoy the feeling of endorphins and the progress you can make if you dedicate the time and effort.”

Running in your 60s…

Being in your 60s can mean muscle, bone and joint changes but it doesn’t mean you should hang up your trainers. However, it does mean you need to stretch!

What’s going on?
There’s plenty to celebrate in your 60s; whether it be family, financial independence or even welcoming your first years of retirement. An estimated 40 per cent of women report still getting menopause symptoms such as hot flushes in their 60s, but fortunately these will probably have petered out by the time you reach 65.

Mobility often also becomes a pronounced factor in our 60s and previous injuries, in particular those that never healed properly, may worsen niggly mobility problems. “Deteriorating mobility affects training and also increases our risk of injury and is a result of age-related changes in muscles, bones and joints. Joint stiffness is more common and range of motion declines due to thinning cartilage and a reduction in lubricating joint fluid,’ says Dr Oluwajana.

What to do:
Running helps to keep the cartilage between bones healthy so don’t be put off running. A bone density scan may be recommended by your doctor if you are at a high risk of osteoporosis. This is usually used alongside a fracture risk assessment to analyse your chances of getting the disease.

Stretching is very important in your 60s; concentrate on your hamstrings, lower back and calves as the muscles in these areas tend to stiffen more. Try to run on so surfaces and hop on a stationary bike, cycling at a gentle pace if you start to feel joint niggles.

Calorie needs reduce as you get older, but the need for nutrients rises. As the gut is not as efficient at digesting food as it once was, eat plenty of foods rich in good bacteria such as probiotic yoghurt, sauerkraut and kefir as well as prebiotic foods including oats, bananas and asparagus. You could also take a daily probiotic supplement to keep your digestive health in good form.

Roma, 65, from Kent says:
“I was 43 when I first got into running. I hadn’t done any proper exercise for years but I stuck with it and slowly became addicted to the surge of energy it gave me afterwards. From then on, I went out almost daily, running for 30 minutes at a time.

“My body has adapted well as I have got older because I have reduced the time and length of my runs in order to avoid injuries. Luckily, I have only had a couple of pulled muscles in the past but now I listen to my body and if I feel I should slow down, I do.

“Running has meant that my weight and shape have barely changed at all over the years. I never lack motivation to train. I wake up every day with a routine: tea and newspaper in bed around 6am followed by a 30-minute run before breakfast. I gave up the gym 18 months ago and bought myself a treadmill. I use it every morning unless the weather is perfect, in which case I go outdoors.

“I follow a good diet, with lots of fish, vegetables and homemade bread. I also take New Zealand Blackcurrant extract (CurranNZ) to help with recovery after running and mental stimulation.

“Running was my saviour when I went through my divorce, and it helped me during the menopause too. I still run every day, whether it’s 5K on my treadmill or a 5K run outside. Running has been a major part of my life for 24 years, and I just want to keep running.”

Running in your 70s and beyond!

Improve everything from mental acuity to bone density by running in older age, and decrease your chances of getting a chronic disease, too.

What’s going on?
You’re never too old to run and, as long as your body feels up to it, there’s no reason to put away your trainers once you reach your 70s. While the risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease increases in your 70s, the good news is that physical activity can reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer by up to 35 per cent.

Balance is something that can be an issue as you get older. Dr Oluwajana explains, “Balance is maintained by our brains by continuously analysing and processing information from visual, vestibular and nervous systems.  is complex, unconscious process can become impaired and disrupted as we get older and is associated with an increased risk of falls and injury. By the time we reach the age of 80, 50 per cent of us will have at least one fall a year.”

And of course, factors such as vision and hearing contribute to your balance and these are functions that change in old age. Dr Oluwajana explains, “Deterioration in vision and hearing tends to start as early as our 50s, but by the time we reach our 70s the majority of us will be affected. Impaired vision and hearing impacts our balance and also affects our ability to engage in physical activity safely.”

What to do:
This all sounds a bit bleak but don’t worry, there are plenty of ways to adapt your training to suit you. “Balance exercises and other low-impact activities such as yoga, tai chai and pilates can help slow down physical deterioration and help preserve your balance. Regular eye and hearing tests are therefore recommended in order to identify and treat these changes early. You can access free eye and hearing tests directly in some high street opticians or you can speak to your GP to find out more,” recommends Dr Oluwajana.

In addition, vision-preserving foods that contain the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin may also help to give your eyesight a boost. These include leafy greens such as spinach and kale.

Women's Running Magazine

NMA’s 2020 Lifestyle Magazine of the Year, Women’s Running provides expert advice on gear and training, motivation from your favourite runners and the latest running news.

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