Study: Older Runners Are Slower, But Still Efficient

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Older runners may not beat out younger counterparts when it comes to speed or recovery time, but a new study finds that in some ways they’re just as efficient.

In a recent study of 51 competitive male and female distance runners grouped by age, researchers led by Timothy Quinn, an associate professor of exercise science at the University of New Hampshire, tested several measures of performance, including something called “running economy”: how efficiently the body uses oxygen at a certain pace. Running economy was about the same in every group, the researchers found, regardless of age or pace.

But in other tests of fitness, the older runners (age 60 and older) fell behind the younger ones, which could explain the drop-off in performance with age. For example, older runners did significantly worse on measures of strength, particularly upper-body strength, which helps propel runners uphill. They also had less muscle power, which is what helps runners change speed or direction, and also makes uphill running easier. And older runners showed less hamstring and lower-back flexibility than younger athletes, which can affect the length of their strides.

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Further, although older and younger runners had no difference in running economy, it came harder to the older group. In a measure of aerobic capacity called VO2 max, which indicates the body’s ability to transport oxygen to the muscles during exercise, older runners were found to have less capacity than younger ones. “For the runners over age 60, it’s physiologically more difficult to run at that speed, even though the absolute oxygen uptake value is the same as a younger runner,” said Quinn in a statement.

Still, that’s no reason for the over-60 set to slow down. The researchers said that declines in factors like strength, power and flexibility can all be minimized with proper training — which can improve running performance. It’s good news for the seniors, who are the fastest growing age group in the sport.

The study was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.