Can running itself protect older runners from injuries? The latest studies show that there’s a number of great reasons why people should keep up the miles later in life.
It’s never too late to start, and any lingering notion that the enjoyment of running depends on age was emphatically dispelled in Toronto on 16 October 2011, when Fauja Singh (born 1 April 1911) became the first 100-year-old to complete a marathon. An ageing population means that there’s more and more older runners, and this population is attracting the interest of researchers. For instance, one study of injuries suffered during a marathon discovered that older runners tended to have fewer calf injuries in comparison with younger runners, while another study discovered that hamstring injuries were more common among older runners than younger ones.
RUNNING GAIT AN EFFECT ON INJURY RISK?
The above mentioned studies are cited in a report with a title ‘Running Mechanics and Variability with Ageing,’ which was published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. The report’s authors, led by Dr. Julia Freedman Silvernail of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, were interested in how running gait could affect injury risk, and they compared the running mechanics of 14 healthy runners, aged 18-35 years who were matched by height, body mass and weekly running mileage to 14 healthy runners aged 45-65 years.
Even though there was little to distinguish the running mechanics of younger and older runners, two differences were noted. First, it was discovered that older runners had a smaller plantar-flexion moment − plantarflexion is a downward movement of the foot, such as pressing a car accelerator pedal or standing on tip-toe – than younger runners. Second, older runners had a greater range of hip motion.
The authors said that these differences could indicate a shift in reliance in older runners from the ankle to the hip. Muscle strength and flexibility decrease with age, and we already know that the muscles around the ankle become weaker at an earlier stage than other muscle groups. This may promote a greater reliance on those muscle groups – such as those associated with the knee or hip − that are higher up and have maintained their strength relative to the ankle. The researchers suggested that this notion of a shift in injury risk is supported by the observation that older runners are more protected from calf injuries than younger runners, but people with hamstring injuries are usually older than those without.
CAN RUNNING PROTECT OLDER RUNNERS FROM INJURIES?
All of the older runners in the study were very active and healthy, and the experts believe that their high level of activity and relative strength helps them to maintain the gait of a younger runner, thereby probably preventing injury. In this regard, running itself could be protecting older runners from injuries.
The researchers expected that the ageing process would alter running features, but their results suggest that running could contribute to the maintenance of healthy movement patterns as we age. It seems that the topic of running ageing process will continue to attract further research. So what further studies are on the horizon? The researchers are following up on this work to investigate whether there’s a differential response in running mechanics of women and men to the ageing process. In addition, they are exploring whether it’s the act of running itself that’s preserving healthy movement or if other types of physical activity provide similar benefits.
We heard that the legendary Fauja Singh had retired from competitive marathon running, but was now concentrating on speedwork! Whether this is apocryphal we are not sure, but what we are sure of is that Fauja Singh’s example is an inspiring one which reminds us that running can be enjoyed not only into old age, but extreme old age too. So, don’t hang up the shoes just yet!