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Balanced Exercise for the Aging Runner

Updated on February 19, 2014

What happens as we age?

Obviously our bodies change as the years go by. But for a runner there are specific and noticeable changes that can cause a beloved activity to become painful and frustrating. For a runner, one of the first things to go is the knees.

Articular cartilage, which provides the cushion between the femur (the upper bone of the leg) and the tibia (the larger of the two bones in the lower leg) is critical to the athlete who participates in weight-bearing exercise such as running. It can begin to wear out, especially if there are alignment problems with the legs, such as knock-knees or bow legs. Picture a car with out of balance tires. The tires wear unevenly, just as our knees can wear unevenly if not aligned.

But even with well aligned parts, the knees of a runner take a beating. In addition to the articular cartilage, there can be cartilage deterioration on the back of the kneecap. Commonly referred to as "runner's knee," chondromalacia patella causes pain with weight-bearing activity.


Articular cartilage in the knee

What can we do about aging joints?

Lose weight: One thing we can do that will help our knees last longer is to lose weight. The less our body has to carry, the less the force of each step will impact the knee.

Nutritional supplements: Supplements such as chondroitin and glucosamine can help maintain joint health. Chondroitin is believed to help the body maintain fluid and flexibility in the joints. Glucosamine is believed to help develop and renew cartilage and keep it lubricated for better joint movement and flexibility. Supplements that supply both these components are easy to find at virtually any drug or bulk food store.

Good shoes: According to Runner's World magazine, the cushion in running shoes begins to wear out and break down between 300 and 500 miles. The mileage range can be explained by variations in runner's weight, gait, and the quality of the shoe that was purchased, but the main point is that running shoes don't last forever! Many runners, especially beginners, will wear he same shoes for too long. When you can see white midsole material poking through the outsole, or when the sole under the heel looks crushed, the shoes are long past their prime. And one additional point: there is no one "best" shoe. The best shoe is the one that fits you. However, cheap shoes will not last as long as more expensive ones. Even buying $100 shoes is cheaper than visiting the orthopedist!

Cross train: This becomes more important as runners age. It may seem counterproductive to think that if you want to run you need to do your training some other way, but it becomes more true the older we get. Non-weight bearing exercise such as bicycling can keep the cardiovascular system in shape and strengthen the legs, even though it does not use the exact muscles as running.

Respect recovery time: As we get older it takes longer for our bodies to recover from tough workouts. Give yourself the time to bounce back, or you may find yourself sick or injured. That bounce can take days longer than it does for a younger runner, but that's okay. Give yourself a break! One way to speed recovery time is to not beat yourself up too much getting the workout done. For example, use a run-walk method for long runs. Galloway's Book on Running can teach you to do this. And it's okay to take a walk break. Really! It doesn't make you less of a runner, although some people will argue with that notion. But I have had great personal success with walk breaks, including qualifying for the Boston Marathon in a race in which I walked for one minute every mile. It was the fastest marathon I've ever done.

Start slow: The run-walk method mentioned above can be a great way for a beginner to get started, or for a seasoned runner to come back after a long lay-off or injury. Starting slow can be as gradual as simply walking until that becomes easy and you can increase distance, then shifting to a schedule of walking 5 minutes and running 1 minute through your mileage goal. Gradually reduce the amount of time you spend walking and increase the amount of time running until you are comfortably doing the distance you want. Even if you can run three or four miles without walking you can use the run-walk to increase mileage. It works!

Admit you're going to slow down!

As we age we slow down, and there's no use beating yourself up about it. You can still set goals for time and distance, but don't compare them to the PR you ran when you were 23. Maybe you could have a post-50 PR. Or use some of the age-graded scales to compare your current results to those of younger runners. Sort of a handicapping system, like making a really fast horse carry extra weight. Runner's World has an Age-Graded Calculator - take a look. It's fun!

Keep going!

With careful strategy (i.e. old age and treachery) you can nurse that aging body to a long athletic career. Get out there and do it - just be smart!

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