There are many myths about the effects of running on your body as we age, some positive, some negative, many rooted in hearsay. Most of the negative remarks we hear about running as we age often come from ‘non-runners’ - but do their comments have validity? I want to take a look at a few concerns and address what current literature has to say, give some suggestion on training, and just help you continue running... because any way you look at it, healthy and safe running is a fantastic way to maintain strength, mobility, and quality of life to age successfully!
Of the over 25+ million runners, 40% of all fall into the ‘Master’s’ category, or those over 40, with many more over 50 runners taking up running every year. As we age, our function, flexibility, and ability to withstand stress change and these considerations is where we need to focus our attention to stay healthy and prevent injury.
THE MOST COMMON MYTH
Let me know if you have heard this one... Running is BAD for your knees, don't do it!
We have all had one person or another say to us, ‘oh, running! That’s is bad for your knees, it will cause arthritis!” Really? According to numerous studies published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine and the Journal of Orthopedics and Sports Physical Therapy, running does NOT increase the incidence of osteoarthritis (OA). On the contrary, we now have evidence of higher rates of knee osteoarthritis in the sedentary population. Likewise, we have seen recently that long-term (10-20 years) of high mileage running (ambiguous but let's say 50-75, up to 100 miles per week) has been associated with increased ‘wear & tear’ or osteoarthritis...but, BUT, current data is limited in this area. I will say that this is likely as there is a small population of runners who have been charting high mileage for decades, many of which I have interacted with...some have knee/hip/ankle pain, some do not. Take it for what it is but running is better than not!
Just with any activity, running has risks related to overtraining, new to training, and accidents. While we know that running does not necessarily contribute to arthritis progression, we do have more common risks in the aging population. If you can envision yourself in 20 years, what do you think your mobility, strength, and speed will look like? If we are honest and familiar with the aging process, they all appear decreased. This poses a few problems as we run into our later years. As we age, our muscles and joints stiffen. This stiffness leads to a more ‘shuffle-like’ gait that has a decreased ability to absorb and attenuate or displace shock forces, basically how the ground fights back as we pound the pavement. This increased absorption of forces coupled with a mileage or intensity increase can cause a spike in stress fracture risk.
While injuries are a real risk, often inevitable, measures to prevent should be one of the first and last things you do. Time must be given to the practices of warming up, cooling down, stretching, and strength training. Here, I want to share 3 very easy items you can add to your routine that can help reduce injury risk while improving your ability and enjoyment of running.
Warming up is the best way to prepare your tissues and joints for the rigors of running and protect yourself from injury.
Foam rolling is a safe, somewhat comfortable, and very effective means to decrease muscle tightness without putting excess tension and stress through the tendon and attachment points.
SINGLE LEG WORK & BALANCE
One way to help prevent injury and fall risk is to improve balance and reaction time. This doesn't just include footwear type, this must include training, focus, core strength, etc.
Just with other runner’s, progression rates must be addressed in the aging runner. With the decrease in adaptation ability of an older runner, a few items may be different. We have all been told to increase no more than 10% in volume from week to week, to decrease mileage every 4 weeks by 25% to allow recovery, that we should strength train, cross train, and eat, hydrate, and sleep adequately. This is all still true...but the one point I want to address and end with is RECOVERY. Whether it is sleep, cross training, foam rolling, etc., recovery needs MORE focus in the aging runner. I truly believe that we slow down as we age, not mainly because of our ability, but due to our ability and speed of recovery. Taking your recovery and injury prevention measures seriously can greatly advance your running and racing abilities!
There are risks associated with any sport, running is no different. Current research demonstrates that the cardiovascular, muscle, bone, and joint benefits of running, far outweigh the risks.
Dr. Reheisse is a Board Certified Chiropractic Sports Physician practicing in Cottonwood Heights Utah. Revive Sport & Spine provides evidence-supported chiropractic care and conservative sports injury management.