Over the past 30 years, the average time it has taken top runners to complete the New York City marathon hasn’t changed significantly — except among older competitors. Since 1980, for example, the average time for the top 10 male finishers between 65 and 69 has dropped from about 3:50 to 3:35; over the same period, the top 10 female runners between 55 and 59 improved their average time from about 4:25 to 3:55. Older runners’ numbers have grown steadily as well: Three decades ago, runners over age 40 made up a third of the competitors in the New York race. Today they represent half.
Typical of this new breed of runners is Janet Howe, 52, an attorney in Sammamish, Wash., who ran her first marathon at age 47. “With my kids getting older, I entered a new phase of life,” she says. “I had extra time to pursue other hobbies and discover things about myself.” In the past five years, she’s completed 18 marathons.
Why Running Is Good for You at Any Age
The success of older runners reflects a broader societal shift toward people living longer and healthier lives. But it also confirms mounting scientific evidence that aerobic exercise, like running, can not only “delay the onset of age-related muscular atrophy, it also strengthens brain cells,” says Mark Mattson of the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore. “Running even stimulates the production of new nerve cells in some parts of the brain.”
Experiments with mice have found that those housed with a running wheel have better long-term memory and experience less cognitive decline as they age. A recent human study conducted by University of Pittsburgh researchers found that aerobic exercise of any kind, including running, actually increased the size of the hippocampus — the brain’s seat of learning and memory — in middle-aged participants, leading to improvements in memory function and spatial recall. Aerobic exercise, the study’s co-authors wrote, effectively reversed age-related loss in the hippocampus by one to two years.
Running, while being an excellent aerobic exercise, is also just plain fun. “My running club is full of great people,” Howe says. “I’m seeing parts of the area that I wouldn’t see from a car, and there are opportunities for traveling.”
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Older runners may not be as powerful as younger ones, but they can be just as fit. Timothy Quinn, Ph.D., an exercise-science researcher at the University of New Hampshire, last year compared the abilities of competitive runners ranging in age from 18 to over 75. Unsurprisingly, the older runners rated significantly lower in flexibility, power and upper-body strength. But they were just as “economical” as their younger counterparts. That is, they used the same quantity of oxygen to run the same distance at the same speed. So while older racers may not be able to reach the top speeds of younger racers, Quinn’s study showed that at lower speeds, such as those maintained during steady exercise runs, they were just as efficient.
Running Risks: Myths vs. Reality
Some casual runners may worry about the risk of suffering a heart attack if they decide to increase their distance and commitment and attempt a marathon. But although individual marathon deaths are widely reported in the press, the number of fatalities is strikingly small. A study led by Dr. Julius Cuong Pham, M.D., of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that fewer than 1 in 100,000 racers died after starting a marathon, most of them men with heart ailments. “Our data shows, quite strongly, that marathon running is safe for the vast majority of runners,” Pham told the New York Times, adding that it was likely that running had saved many more competitors from heart attacks by helping them stay active and healthy.
As the average age of distance runners has risen, though, several recent research reports have found that the frequency of Achilles tendon, calf, knee, hamstring and quadricep injuries has increased. Older runners also tend to require more time to recover from injuries than younger ones. But those who have fallen in love with the sport are always eager to get back on the trail.
Bob Wismer, 51, of Renton, Wash., and his wife turned to serious, year-round running at age 39, and they have increased their mileage every year since then. “This year we’re doing 12 marathons or ultras,” or races longer than 26 miles, he says. “Our goal is to run a 100-miler next spring.”
Wismer has suffered occasional overuse injuries in recent years, including a torn medial meniscus and tendinitis in both ankles. He puts most of the blame on pounding the pavement during races on city streets. “Most of our runs are on trails now,” he says. “It’s so much easier on the body. As we get older, we feel good that we’re not beating up our bodies as much. If I do get injured and can’t run, I go through withdrawals.”
Janet Howe, currently preparing for her 19th marathon, feels the same way. “Nothing controls weight gain and keeps your legs young and strong like running. I would like to run all the way into my future,” she says. “At some point, a half marathon will have to do instead of the full distance, but I’m not there yet.”
Tips for Fiftysomething Runners
- Talk with your doctor. You’re never too old to start running, but always check with your physician before embarking on a new exercise regime. He or she should check for signs of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. None of those conditions would necessarily prevent you from running, but you may need to take extra precautions.
- Join a local running club. Not only will you get instant access to advice, support and training sessions, but the social element can help keep you motivated. Most clubs feature groups for beginners, veterans and senior runners. The Road Runners Club of America can help you locate a group in your area.
- Develop a warm-up routine. Warm up carefully before each run, and stretch afterward.
- Find a distance and route that work for you. Take it easy at first, listen to your body and enjoy yourself. If running a longer distance is your goal, work up to it gradually. Running on off-road trails has a less jarring impact than running on pavement, but it also entails more risk of tripping on roots, holes, rocks or sticks.
- Hit the gym. Along with your roadwork, Quinn advises, try to get to the gym a couple of times a week. Building upper-body strength through weights or resistance training will help you pump your arms on hills, and Pilates or yoga classes can boost your flexibility.
- Get a sports watch. They’re affordable and great for tracking workouts and watching your speed and endurance improve. A higher-end GPS watch can help plot your route, and a watch with a built-in heart-rate monitor can help you exercise at the ideal intensity.
- Enter a race. Even if you’re not feeling competitive, the energy and atmosphere of a timed event can inspire a great performance — and create wonderful memories.
- Don’t get discouraged if you suffer an injury. Healing can take a while, but while you wait, if your health permits, switch to a lower-impact sport such as cycling or swimming. Who knows? You might even be inspired to become a triathlete.
© Twin Cities Public Television – 2012. All rights reserved.
This gallery contains 24 photos.
It has nearly been one year since I did the NEK (North East Kingdom, VT) Tour de Kingdom and there were so many good experiences I had during the 5 day event and so many photos. I will give you the shortened version and a flickr gallery within this blog so you don’t get too bored. […]
I would like to say the week before 24 hour of Old Pueblo started like any other week….but I can’t. The Tuesday before the race several pictures surfaced on Facebook depicting a snow covered course. Yes, the race is in Arizona and the pictures weren’t just a “dusting”, there was a good inch or two covering the ground. Huh? My iPhone Weather app showed a sun and 60 degrees all week. Being the positive guy that I am, I could only imagine that this is the PERFECT situation–the snow would melt and provide a record setting course for all involved! As it turns out, I was right with Mike Melley breaking the course record in the Men’s Singlespeed Solo category with 18 blistering laps (~288 miles).
I prepped my gear and headed to the store to get some last minute endurance fuels- Paydays, Hot Tamales, Skittles, and Coke among other items to supplement my Gu and Gu Brew Recovery drinks. When stepped out of my car at the store I noticed that I happened to park next to a storm grate. I thought to myself that it would suck to fumble my key down that thing and I was sure some fool had done it at some point. When I finished shopping and returned to my car, I chuckled to myself as I again thought how much it would suck to drop my key down the iron guarded hole……..whoa…whaaa….F! Seriously!
As I looked down in astonishment, I could only laugh and look around to see if anyone saw what just happened. Needless to say, the city wants these things to stay put. It weighted like 50lbs and hadn’t been moved in years and it took some doing but I finally got it moved and jumped down into the cigarette butt, vomit smelling, dirty hole to get my key, and of course I had to take a picture.
So I feel like I shot the same gear picture last year. Funny how there’s a formula to racing 12 and 24 hour races…the right gear, the right nutrition, trust the training.
The team Single Minded- originally Yuri Hauswald, Keith Machando, Nat Ross and myself (2010) started as us all racing singlespeeds in the geared category at this race (6th out of 138 teams). This year we didn’t get it together with Nat (won 2 person co-ed with Rebecca Rush) but we did pick up Kaolin Cummens- local SS rockstar! ( 2nd SSAZ by 1:30) and crushing the local MBAA race series. The Nor Cal crew arrived in Phoenix and met me at the Cruise America location to pick up the RV where Jodi, my wife had dropped me and my gear several hours earlier. We loaded the RV and arrived at the venue effortlessly 3 hours later. That night Yuri and I slept in our bags in the back of the pick up truck under the Gu Ez up. It definatly got cold near dawn. In fact, when we woke up we noticed the truck had ice condensed on the hood.
When race time came, I was up for the challenge of the mass start. I had strategically placed my bike far past the other bikes as it is easier to run through bikes as opposed to pushing/ riding my bike through other bikes struggling to get going. Boom! We were off. The run was WAY longer then 1/4 mile, more like 1/2 mile and the scene at the bikes had DRAMATICALLY changed! As I was caught up in running hard I didn’t realize I had ran past my bike! What I thought was the end of the bikes, was actually dozens of spectators and as many additional bikes surrounding mine. Yuri shouted at me in excitement and then turned to shouts of panic as he saw me run by the bike. “travis….TRavis…..TRAVis…..TRAVISSS!” IMG_1109 A quick adjustment back to the bike and I was off. I turned a 1:01 lap and we settled into 2nd place against a team that turned their first 2 laps in blistering place….whoa, who were these guys. Sufficed to say, the Red Bull wore off and they eventually faded to 6th place.
We held the lead the whole race from lap 3 on. First leading by 2 minutes, then 9 minutes, then 19 then 42, then 50 minutes. The way to win 12 and 24 hour races whether it’s a solo, duo or quad is steady racing, no mechanicals, eat to recover and no risky moves. There were several times when we all came on slower traffic on the course and need to keep a level head and not unnecessarily pass in high-risk areas. These are the times where you feel the pressure of racing but really don’t need a crash or flat tire set back.
Kaolin and Yuri pulled out their fastest laps on the last 2 of the race, securing our 1st place finish with 22 laps. We were 16 minutes off the record. Hindsight is always 20/20. That’s only 30 seconds per lap, shoot, we could have made that up…..or could we have? We had the 6th fastest time against several hundred teams and we had 1 gear. WERD.
PS. A friend of mine at the starting line put this sign on my back. I rode 2 laps not knowing it was there. This is what singlespeeding is all about.
Some close friends of Kaenon, including Travis McMaster, recently took quite a trip on FatBikes, sporting Kaenon sunglasses, Hard Kore White G12 the entire way. We’re going to let the story come straight from the source on this one. Straight from Travis’ journal comes a set of great photos and story-telling, below. Enjoy the read:
“Let me paint you a picture. You’re on a soft sandy beach with clear turquoise water. The beach stretches 100 yards in front and behind you. There’s a point with a gaggle of Pelicans resting. The air temperature is 70 degrees and the sky stretches across the watery horizon as far as you can see. The road that brought you to this point is made up of tiny crushed sea shells as if it were leading you to Neptune’s castle. You’ve probably imagined this or even experienced it vacationing on a remote tropical island somewhere in the world.
This point in particular does exist in the real world and is merely a 4 day beach ride away from Cholla Bay, Mexico located just outside El Gulfo Santa Clara at the tip of the Sea of Cortez.
The 4” tires on the FatBikes allowed us to ride on the fine sands of Mexico without expending extra energy or walking great lengths loaded down. Although the bikes weighed nearly 80 lbs, riding it was as easy as riding a bike along a canal or dirt road.
The first day started with rain which dissipated in the early afternoon. Chris Reichel, Joe Berman, Devon Balet and I set off from JJ’s Cantina in Cholla Bay loaded down with about 76lbs of gear, food and water. There is no person to my knowledge that has ridden a bicycle from Cholla Bay to Rios San Louis Colorado. In fact, without the assistance of the 4” tires on the rigs we rode, it is inconceivable that any one has even attempted it.
As we rode along a road paved in beautiful white seashells I wondered if they could possibly puncture my tire. I kept this thought to myself until several minutes later; Devon asked “I wonder if these shells can puncture our tires”. Psss-sss-ssssst. Just as I crossed one of the many brackish fingers of the Colorado delta a shell lodged itself into my tire creating a nickel sized hole. Luckily we packed several spare tubes, patch kits and CO2 for tire repairs. Devon ended up having 7 flat tires during the trip. I guess some things should be left unspoken.
When we reached Mexico Hwy 3 we soon realized that tire pressure played an important role in energy conservation. While we rode on the beaches, we lowered our tire pressure to about 10psi. Just as if you were driving your SUV in the Outer Banks, NC…the lower the tire pressure, the greater the “patch” or surface are on the sand thus allowing you better traction. After riding for about 10 miles on the highway we stopped and increased our tire pressure back up to the recommended 30psi.
Here’s a breakdown of my gear:
Kaenon Hard Kore G12, cowboy hat (sunshade), POC helmet, 600oz of water, 1 Jet Boil (for boiling water FAST), 8 packets of Tuna, 4 freeze dried breakfast, 6 freeze dried dinners, up to a 12pack bottled beer, 10 packets of Maple Butter, tortillas, first aide kit (Mylanta, Pepto, Zantac, etc) video camera, phone, Ipod, solar panels (to charge stuff), external speakers, bivy sack, down sleeping bag, sleeping pad, down jacket, rain jacket, thermal tights and top, wool cap, full finger gloves, 3 pair cycling shorts, 6 pair socks, toiletries, sun block, 8 CO2 cartridges, and secret money stash in the hand pump
Riding for 8 hours a day on a bike tour allows you time to soak in your surroundings and think about where you’re going to sleep at night or if where exactly your route is leading you…
The sunset looked like a modern day Normal Rockwell picture. Just taking timeout to watch the sunset before we figure out where we were going to sleep. Priorities.
After spending the night at Los Pinos fishing camp under the fish cleaning structure, we set out to the highway to make up some miles from our late start early in the week. When we reached the highway about a half mile off the dirt road, the winds were gusting up to45+mph, picking up sand and moving it across the highway. Chris asked “had anyone seen the movie Hidalgo?” Imagine pedaling a 76lb bike with a profile of a small car through 45mph head winds. I didn’t realize but I was leaning to my bike 10degrees off center fighting to keep the wheels turning. There was a point that we stopped and all decided that since we had traveled 4 miles in 2 hours, that we should explore all transportation options. Turns out $20 will get you almost anywhere in Mexico. A couple of commuting bank tellers stopped to help out. Apparently the 90kph speed limit signs are merely suggestions.
That night we caught a break at a hotel in El Gulfo Santa Clara. We ordered two entrées each and several rounds of cerveza. You see on a trip like this where you don’t have any idea where you’re going to sleep or where your next meal is coming from, your self-preservation instincts kick in. We loaded up on Bimbo cinnamon rolls, Oreo cookies, chips and other goodies for the rest of the trip and headed out.
Literally 1k from the boarder Joe got his first flat. Ugh. Throughout the trip when someone got a flat tire, we all saw it as an opportunity to sit down or have a bite to eat. There were never any negative feelings in these situations, just down time. Many of those times, I saw the opportunity to journal the day’s happenings.”