Running Through The Ages
You have a high capacity for work and recovery, but you will also discover that life is demanding and can get in the way of training.
By Dimity McDowell
Inherently stronger and faster than a teenager, you likely run because you love it–and you’re good at it. Not because one of your teammates is cute, which is why Nick Symmonds, 24, a world-class 800-speedster in Eugene, Oregon, got started. “People typically race their best from their early 20s to their early 30s, when they have a high capacity for work and for recovery,” says coach Greg McMillan. Still, challenges can emerge: Graduation can send athletes into a tailspin, as former Harvard steeplechase star Rosalinda Castaneda discovered. She moved to San Francisco and started working as a blood-transfusion specialist to prepare for med school. “My hours were all over the place, and I couldn’t train consistently,” says the 24-year-old. “It was a shock to my body, which was used to running on a set schedule for eight years.”
You’re on top of the physiological world. Around age 24, not only are your bones as dense as they’ll get, but you’re as muscular as you’ll ever be (having attained the maximum number of fibers per muscle). Enjoy it–and shed your shirt during workouts without a second thought–because in your 30s, you’ll start to lose muscle mass (about four percent per decade). “Age-related muscle loss is obligatory and can’t be stopped with exercise, but it can be slowed,” says exercise scientist Steven Hawkins, Ph.D. “Runners also start with a higher level of muscle quality than sedentary people, so there’s a much longer way to fall.” You can impress competitors with a killer kick at the end of a 5-K–even if you haven’t been doing speedwork. Your fast-twitch muscle fibers, used for quick bursts, are most plentiful in your 20s, and yourVO2 max is also at its peak. Even though both will decline, runners have a massive advantage because our baselines are so much higher than the average person’s. “A fit 70-year-old has the same capacity to move oxygen around the body as an unfit 40-year-old,” says internist and longevity expert Walter Bortz, M.D.
You may start to feel twinges in your knees toward the end of your 20s. Cartilage, the gel-like, shock-absorbing substance that lines the ends of your bones, can become frayed as your 30th birthday looms. Adding insult to injury, chondrocytes, the cartilage cells in charge of repair, also decrease in number with age. You’ll likely do some self-inflicted damage before you figure out how to balance the demands of real life with running. “Young, unsupervised athletes usually don’t get enough sleep, hydration, or adequate nutrition,” says Bradley Young, Ph.D., sports psychologist in the school of human kinetics at the University of Ottawa. “At some point, usually the fourth or fifth year out of college, you realize that you can’t stay up until 2 a.m. and belt out an eight-mile tempo run the next morning. You eventually learn to self-regulate–or you become a post-university running casualty.”
Your most important training tool this decade? Self-control. Cardiovascularly, you’re a rock star, but your musculoskeletal system can’t always keep up with your heart and your lungs. “The demands and impact of running are too intense on your joints and muscles to complete tough workout after tough workout without getting injured,” says McMillan, who recommends you take at least one easy day between hard runs and incorporate no-impact cross-training activities into your routine.
“Runners in their 20s tend to either eat poorly or eat just to get by; they don’t make the connection between food and performance,” says Lisa Dorfman, R.D., a sports nutritionist in Miami. When you’re running, you want your body to tap into easily accessible carbs for fuel, not drain your protein stores. “Not only does protein aid in muscle repair, it also contributes to your immune system, the upkeep of your hair and skin, managing your hormones and water balance.” So what you eat before, during, and after a run should all be part of your training plan. Before any run that’s going to exceed an hour, eat about 40 grams of carbs (one cup of sports drink and half a banana or energy bar). If you’re going longer than 90 minutes, restock your carbs every hour with 16 ounces of energy drink or with a gel and water. And within 60 minutes of finishing your run, jump-start your recovery with a carb-and-protein snack (chocolate milk and a bagel, or a smoothie).
The runner pictured above is Nick Symmonds 24 Eugene, Oregon
Running since: age 13
Résumé: Seven-time NCAA Division III champion, 800 and 1500 meters; 800 meters in 1:44.54 (at 23); indoor mile in 3:56 (at 23)
What I’ve learned: “Last year, I traveled and raced too much. I was exhausted and couldn’t perform well. It showed me what is too much for my body. This year, my season will be less ambitious so I can be my best when it counts.”
What works for me: “I never lost an 800-meter race in college. After graduation, I dropped my PR by almost three seconds. I attribute it to better competition. If somebody is in front of me, I can easily find an extra gear.”