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Why It's Never Too Late to Start Running

Even marathons are safe for most older competitors, and running can boost brain power as it improves overall fitness

By Mark Harris | June 25, 2012

Over the past 30 years, the average time it has taken top runners to complete the New York City marathon hasn’t changed significantly — except among older competitors. Since 1980, for example, the average time for the top 10 male finishers between 65 and 69 has dropped from about 3:50 to 3:35; over the same period, the top 10 female runners between 55 and 59 improved their average time from about 4:25 to 3:55. Older runners' numbers have grown steadily as well: Three decades ago, runners over age 40 made up a third of the competitors in the New York race. Today they represent half.

Typical of this new breed of runners is Janet Howe, 52, an attorney in Sammamish, Wash., who ran her first marathon at age 47. “With my kids getting older, I entered a new phase of life,” she says. “I had extra time to pursue other hobbies and discover things about myself.” In the past five years, she's completed 18 marathons.

Why Running Is Good for You at Any Age

The success of older runners reflects a broader societal shift toward people living longer and healthier lives. But it also confirms mounting scientific evidence that aerobic exercise, like running, can not only "delay the onset of age-related muscular atrophy, it also strengthens brain cells," says Mark Mattson of the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore. "Running even stimulates the production of new nerve cells in some parts of the brain.”

(MORE: How to Get Back Into a Regular Exercise Routine)

Experiments with mice have found that those housed with a running wheel have better long-term memory and experience less cognitive decline as they age. A recent human study conducted by University of Pittsburgh researchers found that aerobic exercise of any kind, including running, actually increased the size of the hippocampus — the brain’s seat of learning and memory — in middle-aged participants, leading to improvements in memory function and spatial recall. Aerobic exercise, the study's co-authors wrote, effectively reversed age-related loss in the hippocampus by one to two years.

Running, while being an excellent aerobic exercise, is also just plain fun. “My running club is full of great people," Howe says. "I’m seeing parts of the area that I wouldn’t see from a car, and there are opportunities for traveling.”

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Older runners may not be as powerful as younger ones, but they can be just as fit. Timothy Quinn, Ph.D., an exercise-science researcher at the University of New Hampshire, last year compared the abilities of competitive runners ranging in age from 18 to over 75. Unsurprisingly, the older runners rated significantly lower in flexibility, power and upper-body strength. But they were just as "economical" as their younger counterparts. That is, they used the same quantity of oxygen to run the same distance at the same speed. So while older racers may not be able to reach the top speeds of younger racers, Quinn's study showed that at lower speeds, such as those maintained during steady exercise runs, they were just as efficient.

Running Risks: Myths vs. Reality

Some casual runners may worry about the risk of suffering a heart attack if they decide to increase their distance and commitment and attempt a marathon. But although individual marathon deaths are widely reported in the press, the number of fatalities is strikingly small. A study led by Dr. Julius Cuong Pham, M.D., of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that fewer than 1 in 100,000 racers died after starting a marathon, most of them men with heart ailments. “Our data shows, quite strongly, that marathon running is safe for the vast majority of runners,” Pham told the New York Times, adding that it was likely that running had saved many more competitors from heart attacks by helping them stay active and healthy.

As the average age of distance runners has risen, though, several recent research reports have found that the frequency of Achilles tendon, calf, knee, hamstring and quadricep injuries has increased. Older runners also tend to require more time to recover from injuries than younger ones. But those who have fallen in love with the sport are always eager to get back on the trail.

(MORE: The Triathlon Challenge: It's Not Just for the Young)

Bob Wismer, 51, of Renton, Wash., and his wife turned to serious, year-round running at age 39, and they have increased their mileage every year since then. “This year we’re doing 12 marathons or ultras," or races longer than 26 miles, he says. "Our goal is to run a 100-miler next spring.”

Wismer has suffered occasional overuse injuries in recent years, including a torn medial meniscus and tendinitis in both ankles. He puts most of the blame on pounding the pavement during races on city streets. “Most of our runs are on trails now,” he says. “It’s so much easier on the body. As we get older, we feel good that we’re not beating up our bodies as much. If I do get injured and can’t run, I go through withdrawals.”

Janet Howe, currently preparing for her 19th marathon, feels the same way. “Nothing controls weight gain and keeps your legs young and strong like running. I would like to run all the way into my future,” she says. “At some point, a half marathon will have to do instead of the full distance, but I’m not there yet.”

Tips for Fiftysomething Runners

  • Talk with your doctor. You’re never too old to start running, but always check with your physician before embarking on a new exercise regime. He or she should check for signs of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. None of those conditions would necessarily prevent you from running, but you may need to take extra precautions.
  • Join a local running club. Not only will you get instant access to advice, support and training sessions, but the social element can help keep you motivated. Most clubs feature groups for beginners, veterans and senior runners. The Road Runners Club of America can help you locate a group in your area.
  • Develop a warm-up routine. Warm up carefully before each run, and stretch afterward.
  • Find a distance and route that work for you. Take it easy at first, listen to your body and enjoy yourself. If running a longer distance is your goal, work up to it gradually. Running on off-road trails has a less jarring impact than running on pavement, but it also entails more risk of tripping on roots, holes, rocks or sticks.
  • Hit the gym. Along with your roadwork, Quinn advises, try to get to the gym a couple of times a week. Building upper-body strength through weights or resistance training will help you pump your arms on hills, and Pilates or yoga classes can boost your flexibility.
  • Get a sports watch. They're affordable and great for tracking workouts and watching your speed and endurance improve. A higher-end GPS watch can help plot your route, and a watch with a built-in heart-rate monitor can help you exercise at the ideal intensity.
  • Enter a race. Even if you’re not feeling competitive, the energy and atmosphere of a timed event can inspire a great performance — and create wonderful memories.
  • Don’t get discouraged if you suffer an injury. Healing can take a while, but while you wait, if your health permits, switch to a lower-impact sport such as cycling or swimming. Who knows? You might even be inspired to become a triathlete.