In light of the recent 2018 USATF championships where centenarians took center stage and bagged four world records, many can’t believe that they will ever be able to achieve such feats. However, there is some truth to this belief. Loss of muscle is a natural part of growing old and is usually unavoidable despite the many attempts of senior runners to preserve their muscle mass. We often find older runners undertaking extra mileage, faster workouts and regular strength training to slow down this process.
The technical term for age-related muscle loss is Sarcopenia and it usually starts when you hit your 30’s. The advent of sarcopenia is marked by the lowering of anabolic hormones that are essential for muscle building. This results in a decrease of neuromuscular efficiency, affecting the quality of communication between the brain, central nervous system, and the muscles; and a reduced ability to synthesize protein. To understand sarcopenia better, it is important to be aware of the causes and also learn how to cope with it. Let’s take a look:
Higher Chance Of Atrophy
Runner’s World says that the main culprit for muscular degeneration is inactivity. People who have a very inactive lifestyle can lose as much as 3 to 5 percent of muscle mass per decade. When they spoke to Scott Trappe, Ph.D., director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University, he said that “Although it is clear that we can slow the decay in our physical systems with exercise, the fact still remains that our body will age and no matter how active we are, ageing still wins.” He continues by saying,”One will see a gradual but consistent loss until your 50s and 60s, but then the rate just shoots up.”
An expert on the effect on muscles during periods of misuse, especially age and space flight, Trappe steers away to justify the effect of gender and body type on muscle loss. “While women going through menopause have hormonal changes similarly men experiencing andropause have a decrease in anabolic components. These hormonal changes affect everyone at some point and need not be the cause of atrophy.”
Trappe’s research shows that aging seems to affect the fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are used in explosive activities like sprinting, than the slow-twitch muscle fibers, those which are used for lower-intensity endurance activities such as distance running. This provides an accurate explanation since we see that senior runners usually start losing their speed much before their overall endurance.
Other causes are more specific to runners. Since we now know that fast-twitch fibers deteriorate faster, many runners undertake longer and easier runs. Doing so only encourages fast-twitch fibers to decline further. Similarly incorporating long periods of aerobic activity can contribute to neurological changes that are already taking place in the body.
Physiotherapist Phil Wharton, who has worked with several elite athletes is also of a similar opinion. He says, “It’s not just whether you still have lean muscle, but the activation of the muscle is also important. In the case when the central nervous system fails to signal, that’s when atrophy is highly likely.”
Loss Of Elasticity
Daniel Frey, Doctor of Physiotherapy and a competitive runner says, “The more inelastic our muscles, tendons and soft tissue are, the less fluid our movement patterns will be. This change in elasticity limits the push-off during running.” He explains with an example: Due to a loss of elasticity in the muscles, the landings during a run become more rigid and the calf muscles cannot take as much load. Similarly, as runners get older, they face restrictions in their hips and quadriceps. One quad muscle – the vastus medialis, the teardrop-shaped muscle visible above the inside knee – can be particularly affected by this change. Over time, as these muscles aren’t as involved in your running, their tone and size will also lessen.
Another common reason is that our lifestyle demands sitting in front of screens for several hours a day. Wharton says that this is one of the main reasons why the muscles that we need to be using for running and walking are shutting down. And even when you do take up running, your muscles are not getting fired enough. Since running is a contact sport, as these changes accumulate they will increase your risk for injuries.
Living With It
“Think of your body as a car,” Frey says. “The first few years are smooth and pass by with just a routine maintenance. But as you go longer and grow older, problems will start popping up out of nowhere. This results in the repairs becoming bigger, and if you haven’t stayed on top of your game, things will just keep getting worse.” The same can be applied to older runners. Here are a few tips for senior runners to ensure an injury-free run and making sure your performance is at its optimum:
- Take more rest days between sessions and avoid over-training. This is what will keep you running for many, many years.
- Increase your training quality but cut back on the mileage. Running every day is not a competition
- Make sure you take enough time to warm up carefully before every run.
- Stretch after every run. This helps protect muscles which are less elastic and prone to injury.
- Focus on your weight training. Increase it so that it compensates for your decline in muscle mass.
- Get some good, high-quality protein within 30 minutes after a hard or long run to help rebuild your muscles. Maintain a food journal as this will help you keep track of your diet intake.