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Strength training tips for older runners

Updated: 2 days ago

I recently received an email from a veteran runner asking me whether age plays a role in how often you should do your strength training, how many sets and reps you do, or when deciding what weight to use. The short answer is that age isn't the main factor that should determine when or how you strength train, but it can have an effect.


Strength training for older runners

I've also discussed it in this video:



Training status (not age) is most important

Both long term (for how many years you've been strength training continuously) and short term (what have you done in the last few weeks) training status play a role in determining your strength training schedule and intensity.


Long term training status

Someone who has been doing progressive strength training for several years would have strengthened their tissue (muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments) to a level where they can handle weights that are quite heavy and also larger volumes or more frequent strength training sessions.


Someone who has only recently started strength training will have only a fraction of that strength and will require longer recovery periods between sessions.


Short term training status

Whenever you have a break in training, you lose some of your strength. So regardless of whether you have strength trained for years or started only quite recently, you will have to slowly ease back into training if you have had a break of more than two weeks. The longer the break, the lower the intensities you should start with and the slower you should ramp it up.


Strength training recommendations according to training status:

1. If you're relatively new to strength training:

  • do only two sessions per muscle group per week;

  • start with bodyweight exercises;

  • once you're ready to move on to weights, use lighter weights that fatigue you within about 15 repetitions.

2. If you're an experienced or regular strength trainer:

  • you may be able to do three strength training sessions per muscle group per week, but this will depend on what other training you do;

  • you'll benefit more from using slightly heavier weights that fatigue you within about 8 to 10 repetitions.

3. Regardless of your training status, if you've had a break from training, reduce your intensity and slowly ease back into it.


How age affects strength training in runners

Around the age of 50, both men and women experience a drop in hormone levels. This is important to understand because it affects your ability to build/maintain muscle and also how quickly you can recover from training.


I think even children know about women going through 'the change', but the fact that men experience a similar decline in hormone levels has not been that well advertised. Maybe it's because females experience very visible changes in that our menstruation stops? Regardless of the reason, it's important to understand that all runners over the age of 50 will have to put a bit of extra effort into getting the most out of their strength training and they will likely have to rejig their training schedules.


Tips to optimise recovery as you get older

Due to lower hormone levels, our ability to repair the damage we accumulate during a training session reduces - what used to take 24 hours to repair may now require 48 to 72 hours.


This often catches older runners off guard and can lead to injuries because there's no flashing light that goes off and tells you that your normal training habits (that's worked well for the last 20 years!) are now suddenly not right any more.


Achilles tendinopathy, gluteal tendinopathy, and recurring calf strains are some of the running injuries that are linked to this and that we commonly see in this age group.


How can you tell whether you're allowing enough recovery time? Listen to your body. You likely need more recovery time if you:

  • still have tired or sore muscles from your previous strength training session;

  • feel that your legs never feel rested and are always a bit fatigued;

  • feel that your muscles are tight and stiff most of the time regardless of how much strength training and foam rolling you do.

Tips to optimise strength gains as you get older

Lifestyle can impact our ability to build muscle and the effects of this become more prominent as we grow older.


Protein

When you're in your 20s, you only need about 20g of protein per meal to stimulate muscle growth. As we grow older, the body's response to the protein we eat reduces, so we need to eat a bit more of it. When we eat it in relation to our training sessions plus what other nutrients we include in our meals can also play a role. You can read an in-depth discussion here.


Chronic inflammation

Several factors in our diet and lifestyle can combine to cause low-grade chronic inflammation, which has been shown to increase muscle loss in old age. Some of the most common things to blame are high-sugar diets, processed food, alcohol, smoking, stress, and poor sleep. Taking antioxidant supplements may help, but it's always best to address the causes and make lifestyle changes rather than just take tablets.


Vitamin D

Vitamin D has several important functions. One is helping to build and maintain strong muscles. Sunshine is by far the most important source of Vitamin D, and it may be worth taking supplements if you don't get exposure to strong sunlight all year round. Your doctor should be able to test your levels and advise you on this.


Need more help with your injury? You’re welcome to consult one of the team at SIP online via video call for an assessment of your injury and a tailored treatment plan.


About the Author

Maryke Louw is a chartered physiotherapist with more than 15 years' experience and a Masters Degree in Sports Injury Management. Follow her on LinkedIn, ResearchGate, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.


References:

  1. Dickinson, J. M., Volpi, E., & Rasmussen, B. B. (2013). Exercise and Nutrition to Target Protein Synthesis Impairments in Aging Skeletal Muscle. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, 41(4), 216-223.

  2. Zhai Y, Xiao Q. The Common Mechanisms of Sarcopenia and NAFLD. Biomed Res Int 2017;2017