How Aging Ultrarunners Can Get Faster in Their 40s, 50s, and 60’s
By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
When I was 30 I bemoaned getting slower and weaker. I thought I was old and I would never be as good as I was in my 20’s. Not true. By any performance measure I can think of, I am a better ultrarunner in my 40s than I was one or two decades prior. My times on everything ranging from local climbs to the Leadville Trail 100 course have all improved over the years. This hasn’t happed because I simply trained more, trained harder or found a magic supplement. It is, however, a consequence of changing what I’ve done over the years to leverage the aging process, not fight against it. Eventually I will get slower at the ultrarunning game, but when that will happen I haven’t the faintest clue.
The athletes I work with in their 40’s 50’s and 60’s are similar. They continue to see progress despite maturation, less training and a few grey hairs. Their training is different, and it’s no accident. Here’s what you should consider as you climb into your 40’s and beyond.
Your performances might not get worse
To start off with, let’s dispel the notion that you will automatically perform worse through your 40’s and even 50’s as compared to your 20’s and 30’s. As you age, you likely will have measurable physiological declines in VO2max, pace at lactate threshold, maximum strength or any other variable we can measure. However, performance is not inexorably tied to physiological values. Performance is multifactorial. And, ultrarunning is about as multifactorial as you can get in endurance sports. Ultrarunning rewards patience, consistency and the ability to adapt, all which are honed over the course of time and improve with experience. So, if you are in your 40’s and beyond, despite the gradual downward trend in physiology, you can take solace in the fact that your ultrarunning performances can still improve.
Impairments to muscle protein synthesis
As you age beyond your thirties, regardless of whether you are a man or a woman, one of the primary physiological pitfalls is the ability for your muscles to repair themselves. The muscle protein synthesis response in older athletes is blunted through a mechanism termed ‘anabolic resistance’. All this means is that the protein you consume is not as effective in synthesizing new muscle and repairing damaged tissue. As a consequence, there are a cascade of practical training and nutritional adjustments that you will need that go far beyond the tried and cliché ‘you need more recovery’.
Include more dietary protein, space it out during the day
Because aging athletes are not as good repairing and regenerating new muscle tissue, they can benefit more of a focus on daily protein consumption. Muscle protein synthesis is reliant three aspects:
- Adequate amounts of daily protein intake
- The timing of protein feedings
- Quality and amino acid profile of the protein intake
So, as you age, consider eating to maximize all three. This likely means upping your protein intake. Consume ~2.5 g of protein for each kilogram of body mass per day. Space your protein feedings in ~20-25 gram servings every 3-4 waking hours. In other words, eating protein throughout the day is a better choice than eating a massive portion of protein all at once. Finally, you can get further bonus points in the muscle protein synthesis game for incorporating protein sources that are high in leucine such as chicken, beef, tofu, navy beans and eggs.
Less focus on volume
As you age, you have a huge reservoir of low intensity training built up over decades that anchors your fitness. That type of fitness is stubborn, it takes years to build up and is highly resistant to detraining. When you get into your 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, the cumulative amount of all of this low intensity training will number in the tens of thousands of hours, and adding more of this type of training is like throwing a teaspoon of water into the ocean, it’s not going to raise the tide all that much. So, as you age, your weekly and annual training volume should either stay the same or go slightly down (~10%). Your longest long runs should be shorter, and you can rely less on back to back longer training days. If you regularly did 12-hour training weeks in your 30’s, take it down to 10 or 11 hours and you will not be any worse for it.
Space out your hard days, but make a bigger proportion at higher intensities
As you age, you should consider a two-phase shift in your intensity work. First, give yourself more space between hard workouts. Even if you make adjustments to your protein intake, as you age the recovery and adaptation processes are still going to be longer. So, if you were used to doing 3 hard days per week in your thirties, consider spreading out those three hard days over a 10-day period in your forties and beyond. Second, when you look at your long range plan over the course of 6-12 months, you should be including proportionally more high intensity work like RunningIntervals as opposed to TempoRuns and SteadyState runs.
You might need to add strength training
All this talk about taking stuff away, what about stuff you can add? If you are getting older and concerned about overall health, mobility, strength and maintaining lean muscle mass, adding a strength training program (or changing your current one) is your ticket. However, if you are going to commit to hitting the gym and continue to run, do it right and get the most out of your gym sessions. As my friend and colleague Dr. Stacy Sims would say ‘less LSD (Long Slow Distance), more LHS (Lift Heavy Sh!t)’.
For the aging athlete, your strength training program should include low reps (2-3 sets of 3-5 reps) and heavy weights performed to 80-90% of exhaustion (i.e. you should feel like you could squeeze out one more rep) with full recovery in between sets. I use a simple ‘push, pull, hip hinge, twist, carry’ design with my athletes. Meaning, each gym session should include one type of exercise from each category. A push can be a bench press or pushup. A pull can be a pull up or a lat pull down, a hip hinge can be a deadlift or a squat, a twist can be a wood chopper or medicine ball toss and a carry can be a farmer’s or butler’s carry. Each exercise is performed for 3-5 reps (except for the carry with is usually the length of the floor you have) times 2-3 sets. And even in the COVID-19 era of closed gyms, you can easily do these with a $50 set of resistance bands.
Remember, strength training is training for strength (not training for endurance)! And this is particularly true for the aging ultrarunner. There’s no need to do ten thousand arm curls with a 2 lb dumbbell or shorten the recovery time to increase the intensity of the gym session. Get in there. Lift heavy sh!t. Go home. Be stronger.
Aging does not mean you have to get slower. You do have to change how you do some of the things you do. Older runners can lean into their natural physiology and experience and perform for the better. Don’t fight the age you are, accept what you can become!
APA Burd, Nicholas A.; Gorissen, Stefan H.; van Loon, Luc J.C. Anabolic Resistance of Muscle Protein Synthesis with Aging, Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews: July 2013 – Volume 41 – Issue 3 – p 169-173
Wish to get stronger
Thanks for the information. Great to keep in touch with CTS through these articles.
My doctor also told me to focus on getting enough protein in my diet now that I’m “old”. Is the 2.5g/kg protein recommendation based on a 2,500 cal diet? How should the protein proportion change with workload? i.e. after a 2500 kj workout should the protein intake be increased to 5.0g/kg? Over the next 24hr? 48hr?
I really appreciate this article being in my early 40s and not finding running until late in life. It is good to know I can still get better. Strength training is something I’ve always struggled with and am working hard to be more consistent with now.
Maybe a different article on how to accomplish this type of workout with just the resistance bands would be great. I’m going to be 63 this month and know I should be doing strength training but have zero desire to be in a gym. Guess I need to really embrace the intervals as well….uuug!
Great stuff as usual
Jeff in MA