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Never too old to run

Paula Radcliffe and Haile Gebrselassie both hold world records for the fastest marathon times; both will be defending those records in Berlin's annual marathon today; and as ridiculous as it may sound, both are considered old.

health and fitness Updated: Sep 24, 2011 23:25 IST

Paula Radcliffe and Haile Gebrselassie both hold world records for the fastest marathon times; both will be defending those records in Berlin's annual marathon today; and as ridiculous as it may sound, both are considered old.

Radcliffe, at 37, and Gebrselassie, at 38, are over the hill by elite runner standards. Yet they are at the top of their game and among the favourites to win the standard distance 42.2-kilometre, or 26.1-mile, race on Sunday.

"Age for me is just a number," Gebrselassie said in a recent interview on YouTube with the organisers of the Berlin Marathon. "If you are old mentally, you are old physically. Automatically." He said that he feels 23 or 24.

Success in running is not just a mental feat, of course, it's physical, too. And the good news is that science backs up the cliché that age doesn't matter, or at least doesn't matter that much.

Fit for life
A few years ago researchers at the German Sports University Cologne took a close look at the finishing times of 4 lakh marathon and half-marathon runners between the ages of 20 and 79. They found no relevant differences in the finishing times of people between the ages of 20 and 50. The times for runners between 50 and 69 slowed only by 2.6 to 4.4% per decade. "Older athletes are able to maintain a high degree of physiological plasticity late into life," the researchers wrote.

That might explain in part why the running world is growing, and growing older. The number of runners who finished marathons in the US, where 7 of the world's 15 largest races took place last year, increased to 507,000 in 2010 from 25,000 in 1976, according to Running USA, an organisation that promotes the industry.

In 1980, the median age for marathoners was 34 for men and 31 for women. Last year, it rose to 40 for men and 35 for women. People over 40 now comprise 46% of finishers, up from 26% in 1980.

Training travails
Whether you are an elite athlete or an amateur, the daily training to complete a marathon, triathlon or any long-distance event can be gruelling and painful. There are debilitating shin splints, the risks of Achilles' heel, iliotibial band syndrome or plantar fasciitis. And there are fatalities. In August, a 64-year-old man died of a heart attack during the swimming leg of the New York City Triathlon.

So how can amateurs prevent injury and burnout to maximise athletic careers? There's no simple answer, but if you ask enough people the responses boil down to nutrition, moderation, discipline, setting goals, proper equipment and experience.

Never say die
Thom Gilligan's livelihood is running. A former competitive racer, Gilligan, 62, founded Marathon Tours & Travel in 1979 in Boston, which takes groups to races as far-flung as Kenya and Antarctica. For him, the hardest part is "keeping the passion going." His solution is to set achievable goals. "Any person who has been fit all their life I think realises the intangible benefits of having a healthy lifestyle," he says. "It's addictive."

The New York Times