Whether you’re 35 or 65, chances are high that your fastest run times are behind you. It happens to all of us—as the years creep by, we slow down. That could mean a slower marathon finish, endurance bike ride, or walk around the neighborhood. Father Time gets the best of us eventually, but fortunately, you can still stay fast and have plenty of say in the matter. While slowing down is unavoidable, the rate of decline is partially up to you. Plus, it’s not as severe as you may think. A new analysis from Yale University looked at running speed and age, finding that age-related performance declines about 1 percent per year.
Of course, this assumes that runners maintain their fitness as they age, which isn’t easy and can be knocked off track due to injury. But if you keep up your training, you’ll stick relatively close to your best finish time for years into the future.
What Happens to Running Speed as You Age
As you get older, your heart pumps blood and delivers oxygen less efficiently. Additionally, your VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen a person can utilize during exercise) decreases. Some of your slowdown can also be attributed to biomechanics. According to a 2016 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, older runners—typically those over 40—display less muscle activation in their calves and ankles, which leads to weaker push-offs, decreased power, and a shorter stride. That, in turn, leads to a slower pace.
“As you age, your mile pace or marathon pace will slow down,” says running expert and Aaptiv Trainer Benjamin Green. He suggests thinking of your body as an engine. “If you take care of your weekly, monthly, and annual maintenance, your engine will run longer. So, if you take care of your body on a weekly, monthly, and annual basis, it will be able to perform at an optimal level for a longer period of time.”
How to Calculate the Decline
This handy calculator from Yale professor Ray Fair estimates your predicted finishing time as you age. Start by putting in your best time for a particular distance—whether it’s a 10K or a marathon—and the age at which you hit that number. Then, you will see your predicted finish time for years 40 to 95. (Fingers crossed that we’ll all be healthy and running at 95!) It’s a fun exercise and a friendly reminder that you won’t slow down quite as much as you may think. That said, there are several ways to ensure you don’t slow down more than nature dictates.
5 Tips for Staying Fast
“You can do multiple things to maintain speed as you age,” Green says, noting that this process doesn’t have to wait until age 40 or 50. Instead, he suggests employing these measures in your 20s and 30s to set yourself up for success later in life.
Mix in some strength workouts.
“First and foremost, consistent strength workouts should be included in everyone’s weekly fitness plan,” Green advises. “As you age, you will lose muscle mass. Therefore, strength training is critical.” He notes that building or keeping strength helps with stability as well as everything from bone strength to blood pressure as you get older. Green suggests performing any type of functional strength movement but emphasizes proactively working neglected muscles. For example, if you’re a runner, be sure to strengthen muscles that aren’t as active while running. “The body is only as strong as its weakest muscle,” he says.
Get plenty of sleep.
“In the first quarter of life, you can operate on less sleep,” Green says. “But as you age, you need more sleep. The body needs to recover, so it can handle the physical demands you apply to it daily.” For most people, that magic number lies somewhere between seven to nine hours each night.
Eat a balanced diet.
Exercise and rest are important, but don’t skimp on nutrition. “A very simple and balanced diet is critical to maintaining speed as you age,” Green says. “[A diet consisting of] fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed foods might sound generic, but it does wonders for your body.” When in doubt, put down that packaged food item, and choose something fresh and simple.
Maintain a consistent routine, but also take breaks.
“Stay consistent with your routine,” Green suggests, but also “listen to your body. If you are doing too much, know when to take a break.” By avoiding overtraining and staving off the resulting fatigue or injury, you will help not just your speed but your overall longevity as a runner too.
Be good to your ankles.
In the above study about ankle strength and running speed, the authors concluded that older runners may be better able to maintain speed if they focus on lower-leg strength and flexibility as they age. While they didn’t prescribe any particular exercises, this foot and ankle conditioning program from the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons could help.
Keep up with your pace with these easy tactics to stay fast.