The Good News and the Bad News

Fighting the effects of aging on the trails.

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This article appeared in our May 2011 issue.

Benjamin Franklin said death and taxes are certain. To that adage, trail runners should add “slowing down with age.” Over the decades, in small ways in varying degrees, the inevitable happens to the elite, weekend warrior and back-of-the-packer alike. Our pace slips on long runs, the tempo runs are lukewarm and we just don’t have the snap in our legs.

At first, slowing down occurs gradually. Studies at the University of Texas show flat performances from age 20 through 40, a gradual decline up through 55 to 60 and steeper declines above 60.

However, that steeper decline may be due to a lack of data. With fit boomers hitting their 60s, times in the upper age brackets may improve dramatically. In fact, Dr. P. Jopki, who studied masters at the NYC Marathon, found that their participation is growing rapidly and their times are getting faster.

Also, new research gives hope. Father Time always rolls on, but we can slow him down. Contrary to an informal poll I took of masters trail runners who believe the most important workout is the long run, shorter runs at a high intensity yield the greatest benefits.

Train to Reduce the Effects of Aging


On the track, use varying lengths of 400 to 1600 meters. After warming up, run at a moderately fast pace for 2 to 8 minutes. Run easy, 2 to 4 minutes or until heart rate drops to normal, repeat.


On the trails, run to various landmarks, some close, some far. Pick to a tempo pace for for 2 to 8 minutes, then recover and repeat.


Hills are your best training partner. Pick a hill (or a parking garage if you are a flatlander) that takes 2 to 8 minutes to summit. Run hard up and easy down. Start next climb after full recovery, and make sure to only run as fast as you can while maintaining form.


Cadence workouts forces you to step lively—aim for 180 steps per minute. Can be run anywhere, but start with the flats or slight hills. This workout differs from the others; the first week do five repeats of one cadence minute per repeat. Each week add on one cadence minute. So, week four is 5 x 4 cadence minutes. Sounds easy, but you will be working hard.

Why You Slow

Many changes occur as we age, including loss of muscular strength, increased body weight, reduced lung capacity and lower anaerobic threshold, but researchers and physicians attribute the slowdown to a decline in two main factors: maximum heart rate (MHR) and maximum oxygen uptake (VO2max).

Common literature states our MHR peaks at 220 beats per minute (BPM) and declines one beat per year above age 20. At 40, MHR is projected at 180 BPM. Running contrary (pun intended) to this general maxim is the research of Dr. Jack Daniels, a pioneer in the field of physiology of aging. He tested elite distance runners over a 25-year period. Their MHR dropped only two BPM! Although these athletes trained with an intensity few of us could tolerate, the results show what is possible.

VO2max is the maximum amount of oxygen you can breathe in and move to the bloodstream and cells. Values range from 20s to 90+.

Legends Steve Prefontaine and Frank Shorter were measured at 84 and 71, respectively, yet their three-mile times were very close. Says Shorter of the testing at the Cooper Institute in Dallas, “I was at the top of the percentage of VO2max that I could sustain. I think the secret is my light, quick footstrike…I developed an efficient style of running.” His running economy coupled with VO2max resulted in an Olympic gold.

Dr. Tom LaFontaine of the University of Missouri states 50 percent of the decline in VO2max is due to the drop in MHR. Often quoted in the literature are declines of one- to one-and-a-half percent per year. However, Daniels found only a 14-percent decline over 25 years and even less when he factored in the athlete’s weight gains. So intense training can result in a loss of less than 0.5 percent per year.

What To Do

Trail runners stay in great overall health by following the maxim “use it or lose it.” To really trip up Father Time, though, pick up the pace.

Says Dr. Steven Hawkins of the University of Southern California, “When you have a choice between hard and often, choose hard. High performance is determined more by intensity than volume.”

Since you need to run at 90 percent of your MHR, pick a method to monitor your running intensity. Perceived exertion is quite accurate—the Borg scale is from 0 (nothing) to 10 (very, very hard). Aim for 7 (very hard). Or use a heart-rate monitor and run at 90 percent of your MHR. For example, at 50, your MHR would be 170 and 90-percent level would be 153 BPM. Or simplest, you have the right exertion level if you can’t talk to your training partner.

No more than 10 to 20 percent of your weekly mileage should be intense. Gradually add on intervals and increase intensity. Although intervals and hill repeats yield the greatest benefit, choose your favorite workouts, or mix and match doing a different workout each week.

Always continue your usual runs for staying fit and keeping off the pounds. Relax and smile when you are being intense for you can now sneer at Father Time.

Dr. Jim Freim coaches beginning to elite runners, and has finished many trail ultras. He lives in a passive-solar, green house in the foothills of the Rockies. Reach him at

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