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The Advantages of Altitude Training

Much Running is Too Much? – Achieving High Loads Without Injury

According to Professor Jeroen Swart, Assoc Professor of Sports & Exercise Medicine UCT, there’s no set upper limit to how far the human body can run.

Instead, your threshold depends on a number of factors like the rate at which you increase your load. With sufficient adaptation time most runners can achieve high loads without injury.

However, there are factors that place a cap on certain individuals’ performance, including genetic factors, biomechanical constraints, and connective tissue strength amongst other things.

Let’s take a closer look at these factors with input from esteemed trail and road running coach *Neville Beeton, with over 2 decades of coaching experience and numerous successes to his credit.

Coach Neville offers some excellent insights in his article, Is Age Just a Number, published in Trail Magazine during 2019.

Does Age Affect How Much Running You Can Do?

Age is one of the more mysterious aspects surrounding the topic, ‘how much running is too much?’.

On the one hand we have runners in their 80s who are still completing and even winning long races. On the other, are those who peaked earlier and experienced a substantial decline in performance later on.

This phenomenon relates to biological age vs chronological age. The former refers to your age according to your birthdate, while the second applies to how long you’ve been training and running.

A few elite athletes manage to maintain relatively consistent performance despite these achievements. According to these professionals, this has to do with their training methods.

Those who train over shorter distances, rest regularly, and take pains to avoid overstraining themselves seem to enjoy a longer period of peak performance, regardless of age.

The average runner who simply wants enjoyment and a sense of achievement from their running can learn from these experiences. As a professional coach, Beeton recommends training wisely and avoiding overstraining yourself if you want to enjoy high loads for longer.

This matches Professor Swart’s suggestion that sufficient adaptation is key to achieving high loads safely.

Factors That Come Into Play as You Age

Regardless of your biological or chronological age, there are a few age-related factors that can still affect your performance over time. These are:

  • Declining muscle mass after the age of 50 reduces your power and ability to maintain pace
  • Increased fat gain with ageing slows our metabolism, and results in lower VO2 max (blood oxygen levels) and slower speeds
  • Intense training escalates the decline in VO2 max as we age
  • Decreased elasticity in tendons and connective tissue can slow us down

All these things may impact how far you can run safely. When it comes to chronological age, intense training and racing will wear down muscle, tendons, and connective tissue over time, making us more susceptible to injury.

When one takes these factors into account it’s clear that you should become familiar with how your body reacts to exercise so you can recognize the signs of overstrain and adjust your distances accordingly.

This is especially important when age-related physical decline starts to set in.

How to Improve Your Running Ability as You Age

Even these factors aren’t enough to limit the distances you can run when you’re older. For instance, if you’re genetically-inclined toward maintaining low body fat, you won’t experience metabolism issues.

According to Beeton, there are also some things you can do to help limit the effects of ageing on your running abilities. These are:

Preserving VO2 max
You can slow the rate at which VO2 max declines with short, high-intensity sessions like interval training and hill repeats. Tempo runs over distances of 4 to 8 km, depending on your fitness, may also help.

Maintaining Muscle
Focussed strength training contributes to good muscle mass throughout your life. Hill running and stairs are good options. Otherwise, you can hit the gym and consult a trainer about specific exercise to increase your muscle strength for running. Don’t neglect upper body and core strength in your workouts.

Limit Fat Increase
Unfortunately, the only way to limit body fat is the old-fashioned way. Restrict your intake of processed carbohydrates, sugar, fizzy drinks, and alcohol. Speed sessions also help you burn extra carbohydrates and maintain your slim physique.

Boost Flexibility
It’s not easy to maintain elasticity in your connective tissue and tendons. Years of hard training result in a build-up of scar tissue that inhibits your performance in these areas. Loss of elasticity in our tendons and connective tissue is harder to fix. Plyometric exercises like skipping can help keep the spring in your step over longer distances.

Up Your Recovery Time

When we’re younger, we bounce back quicker from a strenuous bout of exercise. After our twenties, this recovery rate declines every year. Increasing your recovery time between sessions to a few days will help you keep up the pace for much longer distances each time.

One thing that many runners don’t factor in to the equation is motivation. When you start to feel like you’re not getting anywhere with your training, it’s tempting to skip sessions and eventually give up.

Don’t give up, rather try switching to a low-impact exercise like swimming or cycling for a while. You won’t lose your cardiovascular condition, but you’ll feel more motivated to return to running refreshed and ready to go.

So How Far Can You Go?

Age is just one of the many things that affect the distance you can manage without harming yourself. For instance, some older competitive runners thrive at 10 and 21km races, while others can complete a Comrades marathon in their seventies.

When one considers the great diversity of runners out there, it’s easy to see that a number of things could affect your routine when it comes to achieving maximum loads responsibly. By following the basics we’ve covered here, you’ll be well on your way to achieving the results that bring you enjoyment in your running.

For more on this topic, check our blog for a follow-up on factors that make an impact on how much running is safe and effective for you as well as more information on how hill running fits into the picture.

*Reference: Neville Beeton – CoachNeville –

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