You're only as old as you run

You're only as old as you run

Radcliffe, at 37, and Gebrselassie, at 38, are over the hill by elite runner standards. Yet they are at the top of their game and among the favorites to win the standard distance 42.2-kilometre, or 26.1-mile, race on Sunday.

“Age for me is just a number,” Gebrselassie said in a recent interview on YouTube with the organisers of the Berlin Marathon. “If you are old mentally, you are old physically. Automatically.” He said that he feels 23 or 24.

Success in running is not just a mental feat, of course, it’s physical, too. And the good news is that science backs up the cliché that age doesn’t matter, or at least doesn’t matter that much.

A few years ago researchers at the German Sports University Cologne took a close look at the finishing times of 400,000 marathon and half-marathon runners between the ages of 20 and 79. They found no relevant differences in the finishing times of people between the ages of 20 and 50. The times for runners between 50 and 69 slowed only by 2.6 to 4.4 per cent per decade. “Older athletes are able to maintain a high degree of physiological plasticity late into life,” the researchers wrote.

That might explain in part why the running world is growing, and growing older. The number of runners who finished marathons in the United States, where 7 of the world’s 15 largest races took place last year, increased to 507,000 in 2010 from 25,000 in 1976, according to RunningUSA , an organization that promotes the industry.

In 1980, the median age for a marathon runner was 34 for men and 31 for women. By last year, the age had risen to 40 for men and 35 for women. People over 40 now comprise 46 per cent of finishers, up from 26 per cent in 1980.

Whether you are an elite athlete or an amateur, the daily training to complete a marathon, triathlon or any long-distance event can be grueling and painful. There are debilitating shin splints, the risks of Achilles’ heel, iliotibial band syndrome or plantar fasciitis. And there are fatalities. In August, a 64-year-old man died after a heart attack during the swimming leg of the New York City Triathlon.

So how can amateurs prevent injury and burnout to maximise athletic careers? There’s no simple answer, but if you ask enough people the responses boil down to nutrition, moderation, discipline, setting goals, proper equipment and experience.

Arguably the most important tool to keep you running over the years is appropriate shoes. Koen Wilssens, 30, operates a chain of running shops called Runners Service Lab in Belgium. His selling point is an indoor track of some 40 meters that scans the foot as it hits the surface to determine the type of shoe one should wear. (Ms. Radcliffe appeared for the opening of the newest location, just outside Antwerp, because that’s where she buys inserts for her Nikes.)

Wilssens estimates that 50 to 60 per cent of people wear the wrong type of running shoe. Not everyone has access to a shop like his, but many metropolitan areas have shops that offer video analysis. The right shoes won’t guarantee you first place, but the wrong shoes guarantee you a short-lived running career.