How to Adjust Running Workouts for Older Runners
Last week I wrote an article on how to re-think your perception of training theory or workout ideas when you think you’re too slow for them to apply to you.
Continuing on that theme of common questions we get about overall training, I want to address the often asked question: “how do I adjust my running workouts for my age?”
On one hand, this is a great question because we know that we do need to adjust our training as we get older. On the other hand, it’s a bit simplistic because your age in years is only a small part of the equation.
So, while training does need to be adjusted for your age, it’s not only about your age in years. Perhaps more important factors are…
- Your training age (how many years you’ve been training)
- Your overall health and injury history
To illustrate this, let’s imagine two 60 year-old runners approach us for coaching and want customized workouts for their upcoming half marathon.
The first runner has been training since his mid-twenties. He ran 60-70 miles per week through his 40’s, but runs about 40 miles per week now and hasn’t suffered any significant injuries as of late.
The second runner started running at 55 after his doctor told him he needed to be more active. His average mileage is about 30-40 miles per week and his knees give him a bit of trouble every month or so.
Two runners – exactly the same age in years – but with very different training backgrounds and health issues and therefore training needs. I call the combination of these factors relative age.
Therefore, when we examine or talk about “how we modify our training plans for older runners”, we need to think in terms of relative age, rather than actual age.
Now that we understand the importance of all these factors, let’s discuss in a general sense how we modify training based on your relative age.
Age in years
We do know from research that some aspects of your running will change with age, regardless of how long you’ve been a runner or how healthy you are.
Specifically, as you get older you will lose some of your ability to generate peak muscle power.
Just like everything with age, some of us will lose muscle strength and power more rapidly than others, but it will all come for us eventually.
Therefore, as you get older, you should include more training that helps strengthen the major propulsion and power muscles in your legs: the glutes, hamstrings, and calves.
These muscles are what generate power during your running stride (here’s how). Keeping them strong will hopefully stave off the age-related changes in running mechanics.
We also know that susceptibility to certain injuries increases as we get older.
For example, we know from research that the risk of injuries to your calves increases with age.
Researchers hypothesis this is because as our primary power muscles get weaker (see glutes and hamstrings above), we rely on our calves more to generate power to maintain our stride.
Therefore, as you get older you need to include more injury-prevention work into your training, specifically in areas susceptible to injury as you age.
Modifying your training based on training history as you age is basically the same approach you’d take with a runner of any age, with a few slight modifications.
If you have a significant training history, i.e. you’ve been running most of your life, you generally need fewer aerobic or easy miles and thus less overall volume.
This is because you’ve spent a lifetime developing your aerobic system and, while you can never really “max out” your aerobic development, there does come a time when gains become marginal.
If you don’t have a long training history, it’s advisable to increase your overall training a bit more conservatively and focus on aerobic and threshold development.
You want to increase your training volume and intensity a little slower than someone younger, simply because your body doesn’t respond as quickly to new stimulus as your younger self.
Likewise, aerobic development and your threshold are the key physiological elements to running faster. The more you can improve these, the faster you will run; period. Unfortunately, these systems don’t progress quickly. Since you don’t have the years of training behind you, the more you can focus on these types of workouts now, the better off you’ll be in the long-term.
Health and injury history
To be honest, I don’t think anything changes as you age when it comes to modifying your training for your health and injury history.
Whether you’re 20 or 60 years old, you need to stay on top of injury prevention work if you have pre-existing injuries or health concerns.
Unfortunately, runners of all ages are notoriously bad at this. It’s easy to drop the injury prevention work when you’re feeling better, but spending 10 minutes a few times a week is definitely better than getting injured again.
I hope this look at the actual factors involved when it comes to making changes your running as you get older helped you see the bigger picture and provided some good insight to make sure you make the right training modifications for your personal running, not just your age in years.