Over the last 25 years, the New York City Marathon has seen a 4000% increase in runners over the age of 65.
Let’s say that again: a 4000% increase.
How impressive is that? So many runners over 60 years old have found themselves excelling at the sport. Regardless of what they call themselves — masters runners, senior runners, “speedy after sixty” runners — there’s no arguing that distance running has become a popular sport of choice for older athletes!
It’s been made clear: you don’t need to stop running at a certain age because someone told you it’s “bad for your joints.” The health benefits and thrill of racing are still entirely attainable and don’t discriminate based on age or athletic caliber. In fact, with the proper approach, the sport will embrace you with open arms.
And that’s exactly what we’re here to talk about: what that approach looks like, and how it results in the safe and healthy longevity of your running career.
Is It Safe to Run After Age 60?
Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room: yes, it is absolutely safe to run after turning 60.
In fact, there are plenty of health benefits that can be especially important for older runners to maintain, so it’s extra unfortunate that so many people hold the misconception that aging means the end of your running career.
But that’s not necessarily to anyone’s fault. There’s actually a reason why we assume so…
And that’s because there historically haven’t been a lot of runners in their 60’s — period.
Jogging and running didn’t really become popular methods of exercise until around the 1960’s and 70’s; prior to that time period, it was pretty much reserved as a sport in the Olympics. As research began to reveal the cardiovascular benefits of running, people gradually took on the sport as everyday exercise over the next couple of decades.
So, running for exercise is still quite a new concept — and runners who are starting to hit 50 or 60 years old now were only just born during the 60’s and 70’s.
No wonder we’re uncertain about the idea of running in that age range, right? We haven’t seen a whole lot of people do it, and the unknown can cause us to speculate or make generalizations about the dangers of running past 60.
Thankfully though, we live in the age of data and technology, and we have the hard facts to prove that it’s entirely possible (and beneficial, even) to run safely and joyfully, even as we age.
But Can You Start Running at Age 60?
In short, yes!
Running knows no age boundaries; loads of articles have been written about people picking up running in their 70’s, 80’s, and even 90’s. If you’re nearing or living your 60’s and have a desire to run, know that it’s entirely doable.
That said, in order to ensure your running success, don’t dive straight into it without building a solid foundation of knowledge and data! It would be wise to seek the expertise of a running specialist in the field of physical therapy, that way you can undergo a thorough assessment of your current strength, range of motion, functional movement, and running form.
All of this data will provide you with a “pre-running” program to prepare your body for running, which will ultimately reduce your risk of injury. Plus, you’ll have a solid grasp of what optimal running form is, as well as additional methods to reduce loading on your body through running retraining drills unique to your running needs.
But, we’re sure you still have plenty of questions about what it means to run in your 60s and onwards — so let’s dive into the details.
Health Benefits of Running as You Age
It’s important to acknowledge that running is a sport that generally has a high injury rate. (Approximately 79% of all runners get injured every year.)
But just because there’s a high injury rate doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s guaranteed, or that you have to avoid doing the sport altogether! Instead, it should serve as a reminder to be proactive and deliberate in your running training.
Running as a sport has long been associated with a whole host of health benefits, like improved circulation, lower resting heart rate, improved body composition, and better sleep, to name a few.
Most of those same health benefits apply to you regardless of age. What’s more is that some running benefits are more directly applicable to older adults, like increased bone mineral density, decreased injury rate (especially when compared to sedentary older adults), and less loss of functional movement through the aging process.
Those who run over the age of 60 have LESS overall injuries and live healthier, more active lifestyles! (Perhaps running is actually the elixir of life we’ve all been looking for.)
As always, though, reaping the health benefits requires the proper form and approach — and that looks a little bit different as our bodies continue to age.
No one likes to think about the aging process and how it affects our bodies, but it’s an imperative consideration in order to maintain the safest, healthiest movement. (After all, how can one develop and execute an ideal plan if they get sidelined by the first obstacle that comes along?)
Changes in Your Tendons
Many runners over the age of 60 frequently sustain injuries in the tendons. As we age, the tendons in our bodies become less pliable and less tolerant to high forces and high-volume loading. This change often begins around age 30-40 and continues to decline over the following decades.
For runners, it’s especially common in the Achilles tendon (i.e., that band of tissue that you can feel in the back of your calf, just above the ankle).
Studies have shown how a majority of masters runners experience a decrease in both tendon extensibility and calf muscle strength. If the calf muscle is weakened, it’s incapable of properly absorbing forces, so those forces get improperly transferred to the tendon, which significantly increases your risk of injury. Most commonly, older runners sustain calf- or Achilles-related injuries (e.g., calf cramps and muscle pulls).
Many masters runners also have the tendency to be more “ankle dominant” in their running form. This means that they often rely more on the muscles around their ankles to do the work, as opposed to balancing that workload across all three joints (hips, knees, and ankles). And the more work is placed on your ankles, the more the calves and Achilles tendons have to take on the brunt of the workload.
As you can imagine, an increased workload at the site of decreased strength and pliability can be a recipe for disaster. Knowing this, it’s vital for masters runners to perform specific calf, shin, foot, and Achilles tendon strengthening drills to help protect their bodies.
It would also be extremely beneficial to incorporate further strength training and running retraining for better use of the hip muscles. (Interestingly enough, while aging tends to impact ankle and Achilles function, research indicates that neither the hip nor the knee experienced the same kind of decline.)
Changes in Your Bones
Similar to our tendons, our bones also experience some level of decline with aging.
Bone mineral density (i.e., the strength and toughness of our bones) actually starts to decrease around age 30. As you may know, this is most common in females, and they have a much larger risk for developing conditions like osteopenia or osteoporosis.
When you lose bone mineral density, your bones become porous and aren’t as capable of tolerating force or loading with movement. Combining low force tolerance with high-force activity can lead to a greater risk for injury, particularly fractures.
And considering that running is a high-impact sport, that can be an intimidating thing to read. Every step with running can result in 2-2.5x your body weight in force, so it’s imperative to increase or maintain strong levels of bone mineral density from as young an age as possible.
The good news is that any runner (or individual, for that matter) at any age can improve their bone mineral density with medically supervised exercises and consistent loading.
The even better news is that running, when done well and with proper shock absorption, can be an excellent method for bone building! People who begin running before age 60 show less bone density loss than their age-matched peers.
Let’s also take a moment to address a common concern with bones and aging: arthritis.
Arthritis is the one word masters runners don’t want to hear; there’s a good chance you may know someone diagnosed with hip or knee arthritis that’s affected their ability to run. It’s an intimidating degenerative disease, and it can feel especially worrisome the older you get.
Unfortunately, for those diagnosed with end stage or severe arthritis, continuing to run is less likely. Similarly, if you’ve already been diagnosed with arthritis and have only just started running in your 60’s, you can’t decrease the arthritis by way of running.
But here’s the good news — on average, runners have LESS risk of arthritis than non-runners! If you’ve been running for years and with sound mechanics, your cartilage is well-versed in handling the high loads, keeping it healthy and nutrient rich. Even many masters runners who were officially diagnosed with early or moderate stage arthritis have been capable of working with a physical therapist to improve their strength, mobility, and running mechanics to extend their running careers.
Recovery and Training Changes
This is an important facet to your training, runners.
Recovery plays an essential role in running training, but it generally doesn’t get enough attention. It’s often been said that your ability to train is directly related to your ability to recover — if you’re constantly running or working hard without giving your muscles enough time to rest and take in nutrients, your body will break down and leave you prone to injury.
For runners in their 60’s and beyond, recovery becomes doubly important to pay attention to. As we age, recovery takes longer and requires more diligent management.
Due to changes in circulation, decline in the tendons and muscles, and overall ability to manage bodily inflammation, runners in their 60’s need more rest between running workouts. This might mean running every other day with active rest on your off days, like cycling, swimming, or yoga. It could also mean further incorporation of mobility workouts and alternative exercises.
Alternating between supplemental physical activity and various running workouts will ensure that you stay active and maintain training progress without overloading the same tissues over and over again.
Similarly, masters runners also require longer warm-up times before heading out on a run. Aging bodies need more time to establish sufficient blood circulation to the muscles, so getting that proper blood flow in the leg muscles is key.
Keep Going Strong!
And there you have it — a starter’s kit to safe running, well into your 60’s and beyond.
While aging can feel like a frustrating process, it’s not something that has to hold you back from doing what you love (or falling in love with a new challenge). Many physical activity goals are entirely possible and sustainable, as long as you set a solid foundation for yourself.
Once you understand all the what’s, why’s, and how’s of proper running in your 60’s, the benefits will only improve the longevity of your running and health. So if you’re still itching to lace up those shoes despite your age, go for it!