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