Disclaimer: Content herein does not constitute specific advice to the reader’s circumstance. It is only an opinion based on my perspective that others may learn from.
Anyone of any age who engages in running should be in tune with their body and seek medical advice before embarking on any intensive activity (including changes to said activity) that may unduly extend them. This is critical should the aspiring athlete have underlying medical conditions and/or ongoing health issues requiring medication.
‘There is a great deal of research indicating that by running regularly, a person can add some years and certainly “feeling-better-years” to his life, and I’m not going to dispute it. But neither am I going to claim “my sport” as the cure-all. All I’m suggesting is that you look into its potential benefits “FOR YOU”.’ (Bill Emmerton 1978) 1
‘Life is largely a process of adaptation to the circumstances in which we exist….. The secret of health and happiness lies in successful adjustment to the everchanging conditions on this globe; the penalties for failure in this great process of adaptation are disease and unhappiness.’ (Hans Selye 1976) 2
‘Just as 10 years or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice leads to excellence, so can consistent, healthy living habits keep you at your best at any age.’ (Cathy Utzschneider 2014) 3
Today’s article is about selfcare, an extensive topic that is central to our being as humans, never mind runners. For the mature competitive distance runner, when I think of selfcare, I divide it into two primary areas: general health and wellbeing and running specific injuries. Both have psychological components, and both often intersect. Either way, they affect your quality of life.
If you are reading this article, I assume you have an interest in this field, and are probably well-versed in the dearth of information available about well-being, as mature runners tend to be. There are a range of theories about aging that reflect the impact of lifestyle, environment and genetics. Today, I attempt to flesh out some practical issues that may be of significance to the mature distance runner’s health and well-being, excluding injuries. ‘Running specific injuries’ will be examined in a second article on self care.
I write about this topic with some trepidation for I have no medical or coaching qualifications. I am acutely aware of the armchair experts in this field who offer suggestions about longevity and healthy lives as though there exists a magic formula to follow. In the interests of writing responsibly, I have kept my comments and observations fairly general in nature, though no less informative I trust.
Content may resonate with the reader, or cause some self-reflection, paring away a mindset of denial or a casual approach to health of ‘she’ll be right’. Well, she
won’t be right if you don’t attend to your health and wellbeing needs in a practical and methodical way.
- Blasts from the Past
In first examining this topic I probed the writings of two learned ‘experts’ from decades ago, Harry Andrews and Arthur Newton. The former was a competitive athlete and trainer of men, including Alfred Shrubb, during the turn of the 20th century. The latter was a renowned ultra-distance runner during the first half of the 20th century and five-time winner of the Comrades Marathon during the 1920s when a veteran. Andrews hailed from England and Newton was a running product of South Africa, though English born. Their influence in their respective eras was significant. In their days, times were simpler but the human condition was no less complex, and the running human was an oddity that perplexed the established health authorities.
Andrew’s Training for Athletics and General Health, first published in 1903, provides a fascinating snapshot of views from Victorian and Edwardian England. Newton’s Commonsense Athletics, published in 1947, is no less informative, and much more progressive in its outlook about distance running. Though it was less so in some of its social commentary, given its inclusion of what my late father annotated on his copy as ‘typical racist crap of the 1930s’, a sentiment to which I agree.
Andrews and Newtons’ writings exhibit an early contest of ideas about the perceived health benefits of diet and exercise. Their writings are precursors to contemporary arguments that ebb and flow, even now, about the impact of diet and nutrition versus exercise on competitive performance, health and longevity. Andrews focused moreso on diet in the context of competitive performance. Newton, interested in competition and sport more generally, delved into the running lifestyle as a lifelong health journey and explored nutrition as opposed to diet per se. He was a forerunner to Lydiard in pushing the boundaries of exercise by experimenting through his own ultra-running experience. Tim Noakes credits Arthur Newton as ‘the first to describe in the English language a set of training ideas that modern experience has shown to be essentially correct.’4 High praise indeed.
Many modern societies promote walking as a valuable adjunct to a healthy lifestyle, along with suggested minimum standards for moderate and vigorous weekly and daily exercise. I note with interest that Andrews recommended regular walking exercise as beneficial for the health of the average person and included daily walking at a sharp pace in his competitive athlete’s training schedules. He included a small section in his book titled ‘Walking can Scarcely be Overdone.’5
While Newton acknowledged that walking will ‘keep a man in good health’ for the competitive athlete he considered that ‘long walks don’t help any athletes except walkers.’6 Newton was a ‘running is best for running’ disciple and considered that most training should involve running rather than walking or other exercise.7 He did have a minor exception to this. In an ultra-training context, he would revert to walking if for any reason he had to cease running for a few days. However, Newton found the lack of specificity in walking-training caused feelings of stiffness and clumsiness when returning to running.8
Andrews, a self-professed practical man, stated that ‘an ordinary plain meat diet is far superior to all nut eating or fasting plans’ and favoured additional staples of stewed fruit and green vegetables, eggs, fish and poultry but no cheese, bacon or butter. Three substantial meals a day were in order. Very rare or ‘quite raw’ meat was to be avoided due to difficulties of digestion.9 Though expressing no particular opinion about exercise and longevity, he made the astute observation (remembering this was 120 years ago) that training is good at all ages and a long-time athlete can continue training ‘with benefit to himself’ well into his sixties.10
Newton was strident in his views about food and nourishment.11 His basic premise was that a varied diet, everything in moderation, is best. He stated that an athlete’s consumption of certain types of food is driven by the body’s natural urges or desires (a crude way of saying nutritional deficiencies) that should be met, whatever that may be, and a direct result of the level of exercise output and the energy required. He saw no need for ‘vitamin’ supplements and whilst he appreciated natural plant-based foods he made no recommendation to consume these foods at the expense of others. Despite the many years that have passed, and modern research conducted I’d say that Newton was not far off the mark in his overall assessments of the need for a balanced diet.
In terms of exercise, even in 1947 Newton opined that modernisation had softened his generation and that ‘our forefathers were fit because their lives made them so without them having to think about it.’12 This is a catch cry that cascades from generation to generation. We have to make conscious decisions to keep active, modernisation – mechanisation then and technology now – creating barriers to physically healthy lifestyles. This is proving to be a challenge in today’s world as the most minimalist of walking exercise is either underdone or not achievable by a very large percentage of the Western world’s population.
- Healthspan and Longevity
Contemporary literature about longevity has introduced the concept of healthspan as opposed to lifespan, to emphasise the significance of a good quality of life, rather than just existing. In simple terms healthspan is ‘the number of years a person lives free of debilitating disease or illness.’13
Biological age is often talked about by the practical philosophers as an indicator of an extended healthspan for mature endurance athletes – as a means to ‘outrun’ the effect of aging, or at least mitigate the natural deterioration of the human body over time. Reaburn explains that biological age refers to our physical and physiological age. A person with many medical complications or conditions has a relatively poor biological age, whereas mature healthy athletes may have a biological age 10-15 years younger than their chronological age (years since birth).14
It is argued that a longer healthspan delivers a better quality of life and a higher likelihood of longevity and therefore the continued ability to exercise. It is also argued that healthspan is improved by exercise and physical activity by reducing incidence of disease and strengthening bones. No matter what causes what, it is clear that a relationship exists between exercise and healthspan.
There is no doubt that aging has an effect on immune function. As we age it is a finer line (than when we were younger) to balance health and competitive desire as our immune system experiences what some medical experts call a progressive occurrence of dysregulation. The latter is a mix of declining and increasing immune functions and responses that occur with advancing age. On a positive note, many decreased immune responses that are typically attributed to the aging process are actually caused by poor nutrition or underlying diseases not clinically apparent.15 That is, of itself, they are not caused by the aging process, and therefore I assume that appropriate medical treatment and intervention can be applied in such instances.
As an aside, in his seminal work Lore of Running, Noakes provides an insightful passage about hypotheses projecting longevity that use the rate of fall in VO2 max that occurs with aging. He cites studies that predict longevity of 100 to 125 years for athletes 20 years of age with VO2 max readings of 50 to 60 ml per kg per min. He states that despite assuming a maintenance in physical activity that ensures a constant rate of decline in VO2 max, such projections are overly optimistic because they fail to include the advent of disease in older athletes.16 Disease comes to us all eventually, non-runner and runner alike.
At this juncture, it’s worth defining a few core terms and providing explanatory comments that are crucial to this discussion:
Diet is the total amount of food consumed by individuals.17 A nutritionally sound diet comprises five characteristics: adequacy, balance, moderation, calorie control and variety.18
Nutrition is the process of utilising food for growth, metabolism and repair of tissues.19
Genetics is the scientific study of genes and hereditary, of how certain qualities or traits are passed from parents to offspring as a result of changes in DNA sequence.20
Metabolism is the chemical reactions in the body’s cells that change food to energy.21
Sarcopenia is the loss of muscle mass and strength. Described by many as the biggest danger to overall health in older age.22
Vitality is a concept that means different things to different people. Based on scientific literature and opinion it has three dimensions of energy, motivation and resilience.23
2.2 Longevity, Successful Aging and Biomarkers
Examining available information about longevity Reaburn has stated that dietary factors strongly affect longevity.24 He cites research conducted by the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine (A4M) that successful aging involves four strategies – diet, exercise, early detection of degenerative conditions, and pharmacological intervention.25
Further, 10 factors are cited as key to successful aging: sleep 7 to 8 hours per night, eat breakfast, control body weight, snack seldom, exercise regularly, become more educated, limit alcohol intake, stay socially connected, don’t smoke and maintain optimism and happiness.26 All more easily said than done.
For mature athletes wanting to prolong their vitality and competitiveness Reaburn references other research conducted by aging, exercise and sports scientists Dr Bill Evans and Irwin Rosenberg.27 In order of hierarchy, they identify 10 crucial biomarkers to maintain vitality as muscle mass, muscle strength, resting metabolic rate (RMR), percent body fat, aerobic capacity, blood sugar tolerance, cholesterol/high density lipo-protein (HDL) ratio, blood pressure, bone density and ability to regulate body temperature.
Reaburn advises that the resting metabolism rate (RMR) is the amount of energy (kilojoules or calories) used at rest just to function (breathe and pump blood, and maintain body temperature). He further states that RMR makes up 60% of our daily energy expenditure. It decreases 2% per decade. RMR is highly related to muscle mass which is the major user of our body’s energy at rest. As we know muscle mass also decreases with age. While the average 70 year old needs 500 calories less per day than a 20 year old ‘fewer older people slow down their food energy intake. Too much energy intake, with too little exercise, a reduced muscle mass and slower RMR, mean an increase in body fat’, something that can be countered by weight training.28
In explaining the biomarkers, Evans and Rosenberg assert that aging can be slowed by addressing the three main causes of aging: inactivity, poor nutrition and illness.29 Notably, all 10 biomarkers can be improved by changes in lifestyle. These researchers contend that while nutrition can make a difference, the more substantial improvements in all 10 biomarkers are obtained by exercise and strength training. And if you combine changes in nutrition with exercise that’s where the real gains lie.
While I acknowledge the above lists are daunting, I think it is worth putting them out there as reference points for us to manage into our mature years. They give us an anchor to monitor our health, both in a general wellbeing sense and within a sporting construct.
Despite all of our best efforts, we are not invincible. The frailties of the human body create barriers to longevity. As runners we are but a subset of our social and physical environments and affected by our ability to source and consume nutritious foodstuffs. As we fend off the onset of disease that arises via the aging process genes and luck can play a large part in where you end up. In terms of performance, where you sit on the healthspan continuum, at your stage in life, affects how competitive you are against others of the same age, or younger.
In my fifties and beyond I have concentrated on exercise, nutrition, strength and sleep as the essential components for my health and wellbeing, from which most other things flow. All of this is considered within a knowledge of family genetics and monitored by annual check-ups with my doctor. It’s a simple approach that has worked for me, at least up until now.
3.1 What to Do
Based on Evans and Rosenberg’s research it is preferred to concentrate on muscle mass and strength as the primary biomarkers that influence all other biomarkers within their hierarchy. Physiologically, muscle mass holds everything together as the single most important factor for good health and vitality, so strength training is more key than I may have realised. Despite maintaining an average of two ‘heavy’ weight sessions per week during my fifties and sixties some recalibration of my strength training regime ‘to do more’ could be warranted. Maybe the same applies to you?
Without good health, you will not be able to compete well for any sustained period. We are told that mature distance runners should concentrate on faster running to get the best out of themselves, and reduce the volume, yet there are many examples of mature runners into their late sixties and seventies running high intensity with high volumes and ‘racing’ marathons and beyond. As I have indicated in previous articles, I am more middle of the road, concentrating on regular speed endurance sessions, with a reasonable but not excessive volume. When I read more closely about these individuals there are sometimes subtle indications of an underlying health condition that is affecting their overall quality of life, and downplayed as the exceptional running performance outcomes are promoted. Something to guard against. It is not worth running in bad health as it will always come back to bite you.
That said, the case for vitality is to remain active. However, as we age, we are encouraged to slow down, enjoy life and relax. When underpinned by a societal bias against increased physical activity this may lead to a malaise in older people, a questioning of purpose, a disengagement from social participation and a poor state of mind. Concomitant anxiety or a mental health condition can result. Alternatively, just like younger persons, an elderly person may appear tired or suffer from excessive fatigue from time to time in response to the challenges of changing life circumstances. Such responses are normal and to be expected.
As a general tenet, health authorities warn that continuous tiredness and excessive fatigue over long periods (weeks) can be a sign of underlying conditions and/or health issues that require investigation. The need for mental rest from the pressures of life (including extreme stress invoked by major adverse events) is something that can be overlooked as a significant contributor to aging, eating into a person’s resilience and wellbeing. For a heavy training mature distance runner, it may be difficult to understand whether excessive and/or continuous fatigue is being caused by training, the emotional pressures of life or something else. In any event causes need to be addressed.
On a personal note, I have been fortunate to not experience any major health problems or reliance on medications. Some would say very lucky, and I accept that this is so, but I have made my own luck (within reason) by regular engagement with my general practitioner and allied health professionals over my life: a partnership, as it should be, to head off emerging health issues before they get traction. That’s not to say that things can’t be missed in diagnosis, or that my body will always respond as expected to any recommended medical intervention, but it is important to act in good faith, and not undermine the health advice that is core to your being, as a person, not a runner. You are a person first, a runner second. As a matter of first principles, take the professional health and medical advice seriously. And in other situations, seek the professional medical advice early when you notice something awry.
Of course, if you are a runner, seeking out a doctor with lived athletic experience and up to date knowledge of the physiological effect of exercise on the body is of immense benefit. For doctors, at least in my experience, often apply the knowledge set of the average ‘non-runners’ expected responses to treatment and medication. In other words, they tend to provide treatment and advice to the lowest common fitness denominator of patient presentation. A saving grace for many of us is the prevalence of running doctors in our communities, some who have competed at an elite level.
Keeping a health diary that tracks your general health and wellbeing can be of assistance. You can use this diary to record your vital signs, results of annual blood tests, health screening outcomes, medical tests, weight and blood pressure, intake of vitamins and minerals, changes in diet, fasting periods, arthritis and inflammation, osteoporosis, issues relating to any minor surgery, response to medication, progress of rehabilitation and psychological wellbeing. It doesn’t have to be ‘War and Peace’, just a one-line entry by exception will suffice. Keeping this diary separate from your running diary enables a clear picture of any positive and negative health developments. From time-to-time it is worth cross referencing this information against your training and racing diary to identify any relationships between health and performance.
I can’t speak for other countries, and some make argue the toss, but in Australia we have relatively easy, and comparatively low cost, access to health services and screening programs – heart, cancer(s), bone density, diabetes, dental, optical, audiology – but take-up can be poor. Take advantage of these programs and the expertise that sits behind them. Make the time, be proactive.
- Concluding Comments
Forgive me if I fell into preaching mode for that was not my intention. But you can’t run if you don’t exist. This is something that some of us conveniently forget, the overwhelming desire to get out and run overriding our common sense to look after ourselves. That’s not to say that you won’t be blindsided by a personal health issue that seemingly comes out of nowhere. Life can be random and we can only do what we can do to mitigate such a possibility, knowing that genetics is always at play. However, we owe it to ourselves and our family not to contribute to our own demise more quickly than need be.
I am not advocating the mindset of the worried well, a slang term used to describe those of us who are disproportionately concerned about our health so that we attempt self-diagnosis via internet platforms or visit the local doctor every five minutes for ailments that are obviously inconsequential. I am also not advocating that you cease pursuing an accurate medical diagnosis and accept being told that all is well, when you know that something is definitely awry. Only you know how your body feels.
In our modern society the argument continues about what has primacy in achieving the best health outcomes. Dietary and exercise fads come and go, as do their proponents. Many are lauded as providing the answer to good health, and maybe longevity. Ultimately the test is in the proven longevity and quality of life exhibited by such authoritative figures, at least those who practice what they preach. However, in many instances their personal report cards are unconvincing, longevity not achieved, the proponents having succumbed to illness and disease at earlier ages than you would expect based on their respective philosophies, systems and programs.
While such authoritative figures can sound convincing, if they don’t live particularly long and healthy lives why should we believe in their proclamations of what is right for us? Certainly, Harry Andrews and Arthur Newton avoided the prevalent dietary fads of their eras, favouring balance and moderation, within the framework of an active existence. As far as I can see there was nothing much wrong with their approaches. So, it seems clear to me, many decades later, there is no single answer. Rather it is a mix of all these factors – lifestyle (including strength training, exercise and nutrition), environment and genetics – tweaked by the individual’s biology (metabolism) and predispositions to infection, that appear to be most relevant.
All issues aside, effective management of your health and wellbeing can deliver many years of good quality living, first and foremost, and running. But to have a chance of living long and well you need to take responsibility to navigate through life based on the best professional health advice available. Listen to the health professionals, listen to your body.
Inform yourself and take charge.
- Emmerton, W & Gewecke, C, The Official Book of Running, 1978, p14
- Selye, H, The Stress of Life, revised edition 1976, paperback 1978, ppxv-xvi
- Utzschneider, C, Mastering Running, 2014, p33
- Noakes, T, Lore of Running, fourth edition, 2001, p275
- Andrews, H, Training for Athletics and General Health, originally published in various editions 1903 to 1911, reprinted 2005, p18 & p72
- Newton, A, Commonsense Athletics, 1947, p32
- Noakes, 2001, pp277-278
- Newton,1947, p64
- Andrews, 2005, pp32-35
- Andrews, 2005, p18
- Newton, 1947, pp60-63
- Newton, 1947, p6
- Brown, K J, Research says 150 Years is the Longest Possible Lifespan for Humans. Here are 8 Top Longevity Tips for Staying Healthy as you Age, Well + Good, 25 April 2023
- Reaburn, P, The Masters Athlete, 2009, pp7-8
- Spurway, N & MacLaren, D, Immune Function in Sport and Exercise, 2006, pp37-38
- Noakes, 2001, pp84-85
- Zohoori, F, Chapter 1: Nutrition and Diet, monographs in oral science, National Library of Medicine, USA, 2020,
- Wendtland, C, Five Characteristics of a sound diet, Democrat & Chronicle, 8 February 2019
- Zohoori, 2020
- What is Genetics?, fact sheet of The National Institute of General Medical Sciences, USA, current at 4 May 2022
- Hirsch, L, Metabolism, Kids Health, Nemours Teens Health, USA, medically reviewed July 2019
- Petermann-Rocha, F, Balntzi, V, Gray, S, Lara, J, Ho, F, Pell, J, & Celis-Morales, C, Global prevalence of sarcopenia and severe sarcopenia: a systematic review and meta-analysis, Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia and Muscle, Vol 13, Issue 1, pp86-99, first published 23 November 2021, available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jcsm.12783
- Van Steenbergen, E, Van Dongen, J, Wendel-Vos, G, Hildebrandt, & V, Strijk, E, Insights into the concept of vitality: associations with participation and societal costs, European Journal of Public Health, Viol 26, Iss 2, April 2016
- Reaburn, 2009, p14
- Reaburn, 2009, pp19-20
- Reaburn, 2009, p20
- Reaburn 2009, pp20-25
- Reaburn, 2009, p21
- Evans, W & Rosenberg, I, Biomarkers The 10 keys to Prolonging Vitality, 1991, relevant excerpts available at Click here!
Berry, S, The secret to living longer is already known and it’s not expensive, The Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April 2023
Friel, J, Fast After 50, 2015
Leach, N, Here’s how you can reverse your biological age, according to breakthrough new study, BBC Science Focus Magazine, 24 April 2023
Ralls, E, Eat well, live longer: a dash of protein could add years to your life, Earth.com, 1 June 2023, available at:
Scott, D & Daly, R, Am I too old to build muscle? What science says about sarcopenia and building strength later in life, The Conversation, 17 May 2923
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