Achieving longevity as a distance runner: twelve principles.

In the past seven posts I have addressed the challenge of maximising longevity as a distance runner.  For many of us, age appears to offer the prospect of inexorable decline.  In contrast, a few individuals achieve performances in their 70’s or 80’s that would be a source of great satisfaction for many runners 30 years younger.  Ed Whitlock recorded a time of 2:54:48 in the 2004 Toronto Waterfront Marathon at age 73 and as recently as a week ago, set an M85 half-marathon world record of 1:50:47 in the Waterloo half-marathon.  Even Ed is slowing as the years pass, but he has transformed our understanding of what an elderly distance runner can achieve.

In a previous blog post I attempted to tease out the secrets of Ed’s phenomenal longevity.  I concluded that his remarkably high maximum heart rate, determined largely by his genes, was one of the key elements that made him truly phenomenal, but his life-style and training allowed him to realise the potential offered by his genes. A central feature of his training has been frequent long, slow runs of up to 3 hours duration, often up to four or five times in a week.  This high volume of low intensity running is augmented by moderately frequent races, typically over distances of 5-10Km.

For most of us, merely attempting to emulate Ed’s training would be impractical, either on the grounds of lack of time, or because our bodies could not cope with the volume of training.   However, I believe that if we examine the anecdotal evidence provided by the training of Ed Whitlock and augment this with evidence that is emerging from current scientific studies of aging itself and of the way in which the aging body reacts to training, we can begin to formulate some general principles that will help maximise the chance of achieving the potential longevity offered by our genes.   It is also encouraging that the rapid accumulation of scientific knowledge offers the prospect of even better guidance in the future.

Meanwhile I have assembled a set of 12 principles that encapsulate much of the material presented in the past seven posts.  In this summary, I will not present the evidence justifying these principles. That evidence is presented in the preceding articles. Here are the 12 principles:

  1. Continue to run regularly. The evidence indicates that continuing to run, at least into the seventh and eight decades decreases risk of disability and death. However, by virtue the stressful effect of the impact at foot-strike, and also because running tends to exacerbate the age-related shift of hormonal balance away from anabolism (building up of tissues) towards catabolism (break down of tissues), the risks associated with running are greater in the elderly than in young adults.  Greater care is required to minimise these risks.

 

  1. Increase training volume gradually. Gradual increase minimises the stress of training and decreases the risk of excessive rise in the stress hormone cortisol, and allows gradual building of resilient less injury-prone tissues.

 

  1. Recover thoroughly after strenuous training and racing. The major reason is to ensure that acute inflammation resolves rather than becoming potentially destructive chronic inflammation.  However to prevent the development of constrictive adhesions due to the deposition of collagen fibres, it is important to maintain mobility during recovery. This might be achieved by easy exercise – walking, jogging, or elliptical cross training. Perhaps stretching has a role to play though there is little compelling evidence in favour of stretching. There is substantial evidence in favour of massage.

 

  1. Do a substantial amount of low intensity training. Low intensity training promotes both mitochondrial biogenesis and fat metabolism, while also building the resilience of muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones.  Low intensity training enhances the ability to handle lactic acid by developing the ability to transfer lactate from fast twitch fibres into slow twitch fibres where it is consumed as fuel.

 

  1. Do a modest amount of high intensity training. High intensity training helps to sustain power (the ability to deliver force rapidly) while also being an effective way to enhance the mechanism for pumping calcium back into muscles. High intensity training enhances the ability to clear lactate from muscle and transport it to other tissues such as liver where it can be utilised.

 

  1. Optimise cadence. A relatively high cadence at a given pace requires a shorter stride length, thereby reducing peak airborne height (and reducing impact forces) while also reducing braking forces.  Overall, potentially damaging forces are reduced. However high cadence does increase the energy cost of repositioning the swinging leg, so very high cadence is inefficient.  The most efficient cadence increases with increasing pace.  Most runners increase cadence with increasing pace.  Nonetheless for the elderly runner, it might be best to maintain a quite high cadence during training even at low paces because minimising impact forces is more important than maximising efficiency.

 

  1. Engage in low impact cross training. Although running itself is the most effective way of getting fit for running, running is a very stressful form of exercise on account of the impact forces.  Many of the desired benefits of training, especially cardiac fitness, can be acquired through other forms of exercise. Low impact cross training, (elliptical, cycling, walking) provides substantial benefit with minimum damage.

 

  1. Do regular resistance exercise. Resistance exercises help maintain strength and power, while promoting anabolism, thereby correcting the age-related tendency towards an excess of catabolism over anabolism. There are many different forms of resistance exercise.  I do regular barbell squats and dead-lifts with quite heavy loads (typically 100Kg) and also do hang-cleans to enhance power in the posterior chain muscles (glutes, hamstrings, gastrocnemius).  These exercises enhance the recruitment of type 2 fibres.

 

  1. Consume a well-balanced diet. The question of the healthiest diet remains controversial, but there is no doubt that elderly individuals require a higher intake of protein to maximise tissue repair; variety, including bright coloured vegetables, helps ensure adequate intake of micronutrients. At least a moderate amount of omega-3 fats is required to promote repair of cell membranes, but a balance between omega-3 and omega-6 is probably necessary to promote acute inflammation with minimal chronic inflammation.

 

  1. Get adequate sleep. Sleep is a crucial element of recovery. It promotes a naturally regulated release of growth hormone and encourages tissue repair.

 

  1. Avoid sustained stress. The body is a dynamic system that requires a degree of challenge, and hence of stress, to prevent atrophy. The body responds to stress of any kind – physical or mental – by increasing release of the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. In the short term this shifts the hormonal balance towards catabolism mobilising the energy required to respond to the stress, but if sustained it damages tissues, not only via break-down of body tissues, but also by promoting more subtle damage to DNA, as discussed in my post on ‘whole body factors’.  To achieve well-being in life and optimum benefit from training, any stress, from whatever cause, should be accompanied by a commensurate amount of recovery.  Measurements such a heart rate, heart rate variability, and blood pressure can provide useful warnings of harmful imbalance.  However, our brains are very well attuned to assessing our level of stress, and sensitivity to one’s own sense of well-being also offers useful guidance.

 

  1. Develop confidence in control over one’s life.  Scientific evidence from large studies demonstrates that a sense of control over one’s life promotes longevity, while abundant anecdotal evidence illustrates that confidence is a key element in athletic performance.  Good health and optimal performance are facilitated by minimising self-defeating thoughts.  Each individual needs to develop their own strategies for achieving this.

 

I have been pleased to see from the stats provided by Word-press that many readers from many parts of the world read my blog. There are typically around 30,000 page views per year from over 100 different countries.  I started this blog nine years ago with the aim of encouraging discussion and debate about efficient running and training. Over the years there have been some vigorous debates, mainly about the more controversial issues of running technique.   The challenge of achieving longevity as a distance runner has not aroused the same passions. In part this is because the evidence is less controversial, but nonetheless, some of the evidence could be challenged, and there are many areas in which it could be expanded.  Please let me know if you disagree with these principles or alternatively consider there are other important things to be taken into account.

 

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13 Responses to “Achieving longevity as a distance runner: twelve principles.”

  1. Steve Wiser Says:

    I have not replied in a while but still read your informative articles. Maybe one day you can turn these into a short book for posterity.

    • canute1 Says:

      Steve, Thanks for your comment. On account of the rate of growth of understanding of the mechanisms of processes such as inflammation, which a key aspect of the mechanism of training effects of interest to all athletes, and also the rapidly increasing knowledge about mechanisms of aging, a blog that can be regularly updated is perhaps the best way to present the relevant information. Maybe at some point in the not too distant future the picture will have crystallised well enough to justify a book.

  2. James Rogers Says:

    Canute, I agree with all of your twelve principles, which are concise and elegantly stated. But I would add a 13th principle: The elderly distance runner, just like younger runners, should maintain as light a body weight as absolutely possible. In your discussion of Ed Whitlock, you neglect to mention that he is extremely thin, having a BMI of 19 or less. His high volume, low intensity training probably serves as much to keep his weight low as it does to provide a training effect. Almost all ills of old age are made worse by excess body weight; but for the distance runner, the excess weight not only reduces efficiency but makes injury more likely by adding impact stress on every foot strike. Because we tend to sit more and move less as we age, it becomes difficult for us old-timers to keep excess weight off. Your discussion of a well-balanced diet is absolutely correct, but I would add that the elderly distance runner needs to be obsessively conscious of keeping caloric intake lower (probably much lower) than what might have been appropriate in his or her younger years. Simply put, this means that refined sugar (or any other type of empty calories) must be avoided like the plague.

    • canute1 Says:

      James, Thanks for that useful summary of the importance of maintaining a light body weight. I agree.

    • Just ask Ed Says:

      Unless you are sedentary and on a calorie reduced diet, there is no reason to avoid sugar. Sugar is not an “empty calorie.” The muscles need glycogen restocked as quickly as possible after long runs and nothing does that as well as plain old sugar. Like all things, balance is key. Don’t eat anything to excess.

      • padraigjapan Says:

        Interesting take on sugar. I believe that in its natural form, such as fruit, sugar is part of a balanced natural diet and good for you. This would not include that bags of refined sugar that would appear on our breakfast table throughout the 70s and 80s.

    • canute1 Says:

      The evidence regarding benefits and risks of sugar remains a hot topic.
      ..
      There is a growing consensus that sugar should be included only sparingly in the general diet, but the evidence remains inconclusive.

      For refuelling after heavy training or racing, it is important to replenish glycogen stores, though I do not know of evidence demonstrating that this has to be done very rapidly. Sugar is likely to produce a sharp insulin spike which promotes transport of nutrients into fat cells, as well as muscle and liver where glycogen synthesis occurs. Frequent insulin spikes also tend to decrease responsiveness of cells to insulin creating a vicious spiral that promotes increased need for insulin. I therefore try to minimise large insulin spikes, and hence minimise forms of carbohydrate, including sugar, that create a risk of a rapid insulin spike. Furthermore, especially in the elderly, replenishing protein is also important. After racing or training I take more complex foods that include carbohydrate and protein rather than sugar, even though this strategy might result in a slightly slower replenishment of glycogen.

      During training, I try as far as possible to promote fat burning and therefore I am sparing in use of nutrients with high sugar content. In contrast, during a marathon race, it is probably best to consume readily accessible forms of glucose, and sugar might meet this requirement. However, in an ultramarathon, the gut is usually more comfortable with food that is not excessively sweet.

      Overall I think sugar has only a small role to play in the diet of an athlete.

  3. Ewen Says:

    Thanks Canute. I’ve bookmarked this page as in my view the 12 points you make are the perfect guide for all older runners. The point James makes about weight is valid, but one has to be careful when advising people about a low BMI helping with running performance. Some runners get too hung up on numbers “If I get to such and such a BMI or run this many miles a week, or these times for 10 x 400 metres” etc.

    In the article about Whitlock, it was interesting that although he broke the age WR for the half marathon by a substantial amount, he didn’t seem overly impressed by his performance. All competitive runners always want more! I wonder what he’ll be happy with should he return to the marathon?

    • canute1 Says:

      Ewen,
      Thanks. With regard to body weight, there is little doubt that moderately low weight benefits both health and distance running performance, but the evidence regarding very low weight remains ambiguous. I certainly agree that minimising intake of sugar and other ‘empty calories’ is beneficial. In many animal species, severe calorie restriction promotes longevity, but the evidence for humans is less clear, and the risk of promoting excess catabolism makes me very wary of severe calorie restriction.

      It is interesting that Ed estimates that he can do better than his recent performance in the HM. In his interview with Steve Lablanc for InsideHalton.com. in March he hinted that he might try for the M85 marathon record in Ottawa in May if the he ran well in the Waterloo HM. However, in another interview with Steve Lablanc last week after the HM, he said that the marathon attempt in May was off. He will focus on shorter distances over the summer. I hope he will attempt the marathon record in Toronto Waterfront Marathon later in the year, though it is noteworthy that his problems with several injuries in the past two years indicate that he can no longer be as confident of long injury-free periods.

  4. Laurent Therond Says:

    Hi,

    FWIW, I await every new post as a new edition of a favorite magazine!

    The list is excellent.

    Point 8, in my opinion, needs greater emphasis, particularly for the aging athlete. Loss of general strength, or loss of balance between muscle groups is definitely responsible for a great number of overuse injuries, at all levels of the sport.

    Another point, which may be controversial, is “lean body mass”. If you want to have longevity has a runner, you must take care not to let fat replace too much muscle, or let too much fat accumulate on top of adequate muscle mass.
    It’s related to point 8 and point 9; but quantity can overcome quality quite often.

    • canute1 Says:

      Laurent,

      Thanks for your comment.

      For athletic performance, it clearly makes sense to maintain lean body mass in order to conserve power to weight ratio. It is also sensible for maintaining general health.

      Kortebien and colleagues found that ten days of bed rest results in three times as much loss of leg muscle mass in elderly individuals (mean age 67) compared with the expected rate for younger adults, despite consuming the recommended daily intake of protein for adults. ( http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17456818 ). This is one of the reasons for strongly recommending increasing the amount of protein in the diet with increasing age. A greater dietary protein leads to greater availability of amino acids in the blood stream and promotes protein synthesis (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15572657 ). Weight loss tends to be associated preferentially with loss of lean body mass, while weight gain usually results in gain in fat, so merely restricting calorie intake is a risky strategy. It therefore makes sense to do resistance exercise to minimise the tendency for hormonal balance to shift away from anabolism with age.

  5. padraigjapan Says:

    Another outstanding piece. Thanks a lot for all the effort you have put into these posts. I have gotten a lot of value from them, I just have to put them into action over the next 20 ~ 30 years.

    • canute1 Says:

      Padraig,

      Thanks fr your comment, and for your continuing support. Best wishes for the next 30 years

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