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Running economy may not decline with age, a study finds

November 30, 2011|By Jeannine Stein, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Older runners might not be as fast as their younger counterparts, but their running economy is the same, a study indicates.
Older runners might not be as fast as their younger counterparts, but their… (Joseph Kaczmarek / Associated…)

Older runners may not have the speed of their younger counterparts, but they do have the same running economy, a study finds.

Running economy is a gauge of how efficiently the body uses oxygen at a given pace. Researchers used various tests to see how age affects factors of running economy in competitive distance runners.

The 51 male and female participants in the study were sub-elite distance runners who were grouped by age: younger runners ages 18 to 39, master runners ages 49 to 59, and older runners ages 60 and older. They were put through a number of tests, including lactate threshold (a measure of performance level), VO2 max (which gauges maximum oxygen consumption), body composition, muscle strength and endurance, running economy, flexibility and vertical jump power.

Running economy was about the same for all groups at various treadmill speeds. Results from the other tests gave a better idea of where older runners fell short.

Older runners had lower VO2 max compared with master and younger runners. They also had less upper body strength. While this may not seem crucial for runners, whose lower bodies do most of the work, having a stronger upper body makes it easier to change speeds and run uphill. Flexibility was worse too in older runners. This can affect step length, the authors noted, ultimately slowing running times.

The good news is that older runners are still using oxygen efficiently, even if they're not always outrunning younger runners. "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," lead author Timothy Quinn, an associate professor of exercise science at the University of New Hampshire said in a news release. The study was published recently in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

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