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The Faster Master : Part 1

Updated: Dec 15, 2022

Cardiovascular Considerations in Masters Running

Running can serve as a great form of exercise for athletes of any age. As a physical therapist and personal trainer, I frequently work with runners of all ages. However, as we age, many factors impact our relationship with running. This blog series is designed to take a more in depth look at the factors that impact our running as we age, and what we can and should be doing to maintain a healthy and lifelong relationship with running.

Master’s running encompasses athletes who are 35 years of age and older. As we age, our susceptibility to declining cardiovascular function, changing muscle capacity, and alterations in running gait mechanics are common. As a result of these factors, masters runners can be at higher risk for running related injuries than their younger counterparts. Despite these stark realities, masters running is FAR from being all doom and gloom. Many master’s athletes who have a well developed strength and prehab routine combined with a sustainable training plan are running healthy and happy well into their sixth and seventh decades, achieving their running related goals. If you feel you would benefit from help with devising a smart and sustainable training routine, you can reach out to Zenith here.

Although our heart and lungs do change with age, there are things we can do to slow these changes and run happy, healthy, and fast.

Here is an excellent example:

A runner in his late sixties who started working with us for wellness physical therapy to address chronic knee pain, has exemplified how master’s athletes can reach new heights later in their running careers. This master athlete’s chronic knee pain has been getting so bad he wasn’t able to do any running workouts, only slow jogging. He wanted to run competitively into his late 60s, but his knee was limiting him from being able to train at the necessary intensity, and he almost gave up. However, rather than chalking it up to age and throwing in the towel, he came to us at Zenith. With a targeted program, and some manual treatment, we were able to treat his knee pain.

In fact, we were able to go much further than simply returning this master’s athlete to the track and roads pain free. We got this athlete set up with a consistent whole body lifting routine, which entailed teaching him new movements and coaching him through proper lifting techniques. We also analyzed his running gait and set him up with a series of running warm up drills to work on improving his form. Additionally, we gave him some direction in gradually adding intensity to his current training program. The combination of skilled treatment and this runners’ hard work and commitment to his wellness plan really paved the way for running success. After three sessions over the course of two months, this individual was able to slice nearly THIRTY SECONDS off his 5k personal best! Better yet, there is even more to come from this athlete as he continues to run healthy and pursue bigger and bolder training goals.

Common Cardiovascular Changes

First, let’s look at how the cardiovascular system changes in masters’ runners. As we age, our exercise capacity decreases. A contributor to this is a decrease in our ability to elevate our heart rate with exercise. A lower maximal heart rate means the blood is not being pumped through the body as quickly, resulting in a decreased rate at which oxygen can reach the muscles. Although this is a natural part of aging, these cardiac related changes are less pronounced in active masters compared to their sedentary counterparts. One research study used EKG testing to evaluate heart rate and heart rhythms in both sedentary and active older adults during exercise. They found that active adults displayed more regular heart rate rhythms, suggesting that endurance training may serve a protective role for healthy heart function.

Research shows us that although a decrease in VO2max, aka aerobic exercise capacity, is associated with age, this decline can be slowed with regular endurance training. In fact, some research indicates that with consistent endurance training, this decline can be relatively gradual, at a rate of .5 to 1 percent per year after the age of 40. This is why many runners can keep improving and PRing into their 40s, 50s and beyond.

Drops in exercise capacity are more common in masters runners due to decrease in training volume. Running less as we get older can be the result of busy lifestyles and shuffling of priorities, but is often a result of injury interrupting training. Unfortunately, this is often misinterpreted as the simple result of aging itself.

What can I do about it?

There are multiple ways to enhance your exercise capacity as a masters athlete. You can insert intensity into your running regimen, you can supplement your running with cross training. Importantly, you can also play an active role in reducing the risk of injury.

Cardio Cross Training

As discussed in a previous post , your aerobic system can not tell the difference between modes of aerobic exercise. Riding a bike, swimming, rowing, running, etc. can all provide good aerobic stress to your cardiovascular system. As we know, stressing the system is what drives improvement. So, if you want to build your exercise capacity without logging more and more mileage, cross training can be an excellent way to supplement your running routine.

Add Intensity

If your running consists of running easy miles without structured workouts, that's great. However, if you are hoping to drive improvement, and have a target race in mind, adding structured intensity to your training can help combat decline in exercise capacity. In this situation the term “intensity” is referring to workouts, or bouts of running that elevate your heart rate more than an easy run, but at a level less taxing than an all out race effort. The type of intensity you insert into your program depends largely on your previous experience with running and what you are specifically training for.

Rehab and Prehab

The third and most important strategy is to take the steps to stay healthy, as nothing is going to cause your aerobic capacity to plummet more than extended time sidelined due to injury. If you know you are prone to a recurrent nagging injury, take the steps to fully rehab it. Or, if you suspect you have areas that are stiff or weak, be proactive and prehab. “Prehab” is all about being proactive rather than reactive and taking steps to address areas of weakness before they turn into injury. At Zenith Performance and Wellness, we are here to help you through this journey with both physical therapy, personal training, and wellness rehab.

So in conclusion, cardiovascular changes with age are normal. Fortunately, you can minimize these changes by boosting your aerobic endurance with: various modes of cross training, adding intensity into your training plan, and most of all by taking advantage of rehab and prehab to get healthy and stay that way.

Brisswalter J, Nosaka K. Neuromuscular factors associated with decline in long-distance running performance in master athletes. Sports Med. 2013 Jan;43(1):51-63. doi: 10.1007/s40279-012-0006-9. PMID: 23315756.

Christou DD, Seals DR. Decreased maximal heart rate with aging is related to reduced {beta}-adrenergic responsiveness but is largely explained by a reduction in intrinsic heart rate. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2008 Jul;105(1):24-9. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.90401.2008. Epub 2008 May 15. PMID: 18483165; PMCID: PMC2494835.

Krupenevich RL, Miller RH. Habitual endurance running does not mitigate age-related differences in gait kinetics. Exp Gerontol. 2021 May;147:111275. doi: 10.1016/j.exger.2021.111275. Epub 2021 Feb 5. PMID: 33556533.

Willy RW, Paquette MR. The Physiology and Biomechanics of the Master Runner. Sports Med Arthrosc Rev. 2019 Mar;27(1):15-21. doi: 10.1097/JSA.0000000000000212. PMID: 30601395.

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