Faster times, record numbers: the science of running marathons as an older person

The number of veteran runners is on the up and they’re leaving the times of their predecessors for dust

This year’s London marathon will have record numbers of veteran participants, with a near-doubling of the number of female runners aged 60 to 69 registering to run since 2018. As the number of veteran runners has steadily increased, performance has improved at a staggering rate.

In May, Jo Schoonbroodt, a 71-year-old from Maastricht nicknamed “the Grey Kenyan”, broke the over-70s record with a time of 2hr 54min 19sec. Last year, the Japanese runner, Mariko Yugeta, took the female over-60s record down to 2hr 52min 1sec, faster than the overall men’s world record in 1909.

Part of the trend is due to demographic and social shifts. The more participants, the bigger the pool of runners and the faster the times. Older people are increasingly concerned with health and fitness, have more free time and value the social element of being part of a running group. There is also increasing evidence that running is not only safe for older people, but that performance can be maintained at a far higher level than once thought possible.

“We’re seeing an upsurge in older people running very competitively and some of the times are quite phenomenal,” said John Brewer, a professor of sports science at the University of the West of Scotland and an over-60s marathon runner.

Advances in knowledge about training, recovery and nutrition have also led to substantial performance gains for older athletes. “The knowledge around training, nutrition and footwear has helped people stay healthier for longer,” said Brewer.

While in the past marathon runners would typically follow gruelling six-day training schedules involving multiple long runs, “training smart” means that it is possible to run three or four days a week and compete at a high level. “We know from science you can run marathons around a reasonably normal lifestyle,” he said. “You don’t need to live the life of an elite athlete.”

The risk of injury is often seen as a potential barrier to running in older age, with women at greater risk of osteoporosis. However, women are not at greater overall risk from running injuries than men, according to Brewer, and running can help reduce the chances of stress fractures by increasing bone density.

The evidence on overall fitness declines are also similar for men and women. The performance gap between genders does widen with age, but this is likely to be due to the higher proportion of men that still compete in older categories.

Aerobic fitness – how much oxygen is available to your body during exercise – typically drops by about 10% each decade after 30 years, but high-intensity interval training can help slow that decline. Similar trends are seen for muscle strength. “What exercise will do is maintain aerobic capacity and muscle strength,” said Brewer. “If you’ve got someone who has never exercised and takes up running in their 60s, they can even temporarily reverse the trend – it’s hugely beneficial.”


Hannah Devlin Science correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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