Faster with Age

Like a good wine, plenty humans improve with age. With more time to train, and often a deeper appreciation of physical fitness, the masters-and-beyond category has increased in size and speed at trail races over the past few years.

In this article by Trail Runner Mag a study indicates that Marathon performance peaks around 30 years of age, or even later. For 100 milers, a 2013 study found that peak performance was 39 for women and 37 for men. It seems that the fountain of youth may be hiding on registration websites for ultramarathons. “Smart training may not be the fountain of youth, but it could be the spigot of continued development over time.”

The science around anatomy and aging is fascinating.

“Those fast trail racers in their late 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond are likely losing a bit of their peak strength and maximal aerobic capacity like the rest of us. But instead of giving up and watching TV news all day, they use the changes to their advantage. As described by Training Peaks, athletes past their peak may be able to perform with higher relative levels of chemical by-products associated with fatigue. As Type II FT fibres become less predominant, endurance powerhouse Type I slowtwitch fibres could pick up the slack. Plus, just because max strength peaks doesn’t mean sub-max strength decreases. Sustained aerobic development over time could improve aerobic threshold even while VO2 max stays constant or goes down.”

This is all a fancy way of saying that the body is highly adaptable. There are some general rules of the aging game, guided by baseline physiology. But you can game the rules to get faster as you go.

Chris Goldschmidt (60) from Cape Town is still a regular on both trail and tar, and his advice is to “Accept that you are getting older and adapt your training to minimise impact. I find hill hiking to be a great strength builder.”

In South Africa, our great road marathon, Comrades, has the highest number of participants between 40 and 44 years of age, for both men and women. In trail running, the line between vets (40+) and masters (50+) is regularly blurred as the masters continue to throw down as competitively as their younger opponents.

Sandy Glover, a 50+ runner and triathlete from Port Elizabeth says as long as she is taking care of her joints, she can continue to compete. “Train short distances and often. Do strength training at a gym. Run hills. Keep supple with yoga / pilates. Cross train with swimming / cycling - something not too taxing on the joints.”

Noel Ernstzen, owner of Trail and Tar in the Cape, is officially a masters category runner, but chooses to compete in the vets category in team events, as he still punches well above the pace norm there. He reckons there is only one word to consider when it comes to remaining strong, or getting stronger, as the years tick over, and that is “motivation”.

“I have always believed we are all capable of competing well in to our 50s, we just need to train clever. Cross training becomes more and more important. Suppleness is the key to remaining injury free, and with age comes “seizing up” so any activity that enhances this goes a long way to maintaining a high level of fitness. Quality is superior to quantity, at any age. But the biggest hurdle, by far, is motivation. Proper training i.e. speed work, hill repeats, strength classes… all hurt like hell, and using age as a reason not to push your body, is always very, very tempting. The old adage of whoever waits it the most holds true at any age… its just after 50 the temptation to say f*%k it, been there done that, is a constant companion.” Says Noel, as he speeds off in to the sunset.