There are some incredible perks of being a long-distance runner, surprising benefits, like women find you more masculine and attractive, and some myths that are unfounded. (Case in point: running is actually good for your knees!).
Now, scientists are finding even greater benefits for guys in their golden years (over the age of 65). One study found long-term endurance training can make your muscles more efficient, and new research from Humboldt State University suggests runners 65 and older who log some miles each week burn oxygen at the same rate as runners in their 20s.
First, a quick science lesson
How quickly you burn up your oxygen supply is known as your "running economy." Your running biomechanics can affect your efficiency: How vertical is your posture and form? What's your technique? How well do your muscles absorb shock and push off the ground? Are you a sprinter, mid- or long-distance runner? As can your physiology: How old are you? Are you a male or female? How much do you weigh? What's your ethnicity?
Sprinters run more vertically, so they're not as efficient in longer distances. Likewise, sloppy form can waste energy. So, in theory, you can burn more calories, but that energy isn't going toward running further or faster for longer. If you've taken notice, the best runners in the world typically come from Kenya; these men and women have less body mass for their taller height, longer legs, and shorter torsos. Their bodies are optimized for running.
As you can imagine, our running economy declines as we age: "...your body is like a car with a fuel efficiency level," study author Justus Ortega said in a press release.
The study results
"Your body has its own fuel efficiency and what we've seen is that the fuel efficiency in muscles is reduced in older adults who are sedentary or only walk occasionally," said Ortega. But in this Humboldt State study, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, that wasn't the case for older men and women who consistently ran their whole lives. Their bodies coped with the demands.
Researchers looked at the running economy and mechanics of 15 young and 15 older runners—all of which had a history of running at least three times per week for a minimum of 30 minutes per session over a six-month period. The men and women were ran on a specialized treadmill, which read the amount of force applied to the belt. Participants ran 5-minute sessions, at 2.01, 2.46 and 2.91 meters per second (4.5-6.5 mph).
In short, researchers found runners who maintain an active running habit into their senior years have almost identical running economy and spend nearly the same amount of metabolic energy as a 20-year-old despite differences in running mechanics.
Researchers did find differences in the biomechanics of the two age groups, but this was expected and actually a good thing. The older runners adjusted their form and running techniques to minimize impact to their joints and preserve energy while maintaining youthful energy levels during exercising.
"There's good evidence that it's never too late to get into exercise, it's about finding what types of exercise are right for your body," Ortega says. The team's future studies will seek to find if other choices of exercise can have the same effect on increasing muscle efficiency and whether a sedentary individual can reap the same benefit if they decide to become more active.