by Shae Slater and Emma Barrett, HBF

Women running

A little over a year ago now, I turned the big three-oh! While friends around me panicked, madly embarking on 30-things-to-do-before-you’re-30 bucket lists, I remained un-phased by the unwelcome appearance of a number 3 where a 2 used to be. ‘You’re only ever a day older than you were yesterday’ I reasoned with my wrinkle cream frenzied friends, and took the extra candle in my stride.

That is, until recently. You see, I have been a passionate jogger for many years now, hitting the West Coast Highway in my running shoes – rain, hail, or blistering Perth shine! However over the past few months, I’ve been finding my runs are getting that little bit tougher.

The same distances I breezed through in my twenties are taking longer and a lot more out of me. I have even had the occasional twenty-something overtake me! “Wait! What? Come back!” I puff and pant after them trying to keep up the pace as they fade effortlessly into the distance. “Whatev’s”, I yell after them, “I needed to stop and stretch anyway”.

A frequent exerciser and in otherwise good health, could it be that I am not a bionic woman after all? Could it be that at 31, for the first time ever I am beginning to feel the (granted very early days) effects of (gulp), ‘middle age’?

To know for sure, I asked exercise physiologist and HBF fitness trainer, Emma Barrett, who (after a little chuckle), confirmed that I wasn’t (completely) crazy.

“Many of the first signs of ageing can be felt in our thirties, the effects of which increase with each passing decade”. Emma provided some good explanations for why my runs might be suffering and offered advice on things I could do to “slow the ageing process” and “keep feeling fitter and looking younger for longer.”

“The secret”, she said, “is understanding the changes that are happening, and then knowing the right exercises to overcome them.”

1. Your heart gets slower

When you run, your heart pumps faster to increase the supply of oxygen to the muscles. This oxygen is used to create the energy that propels your muscles forward. But due to a declining number of nerve receptors from about 30 onwards, your maximum heart rate starts to decline (by about one beat per minute every year). This reduces the rate at which oxygen is pumped to your muscles when you exercise and explains why you might feel more fatigued and breathe a little harder than you did in your twenties.

Solution: Strengthen your heart – adding interval (slow-fast-slow) training to your existing run regime will help improve your heart’s ability to beat at a high rate for longer periods – a real plus for your aerobic fitness. Try this:

  • Go to a nearby park or beach, find some clear space and put down a marker
  • Walk in a straight line and, taking long strides, count out 50-60 paces
  • Jog gently back and forth between the markers until you feel sufficiently warmed up
  • The next time you reach a marker, turn and sprint as hard as you physically can until you reach the second marker (imagine zombies chasing you)
  • Cut to a slow jog and catch your breath as you return to the first marker (zombies fell down a hole, but there may still be some lurking in the dunes)
  • Continue alternating back and forth until you have completed 5-10 sets
  • Finish with a cool down jog
  •  As your fitness improves, increase the distance between markers
  • Once you reach 100 paces, stop increasing the distance and focus on improving your time (think zombies from 28 Days Later instead of Walking Dead)

This style of high intensity interval training once or twice a week will strengthen your heart and help it to handle the pressure placed on it during longer distance runs. (Bonus: It is also a fabulous fat burner!)

2. Loss of flexibility

Tried touching your toes lately? With each passing decade those little piggies start to feel further and further away. This is because as you age the tendons in your arms, legs and core start to lose their elasticity. What this means for running is less propulsion in your stride, slowing your pace and increasing the level of physical exertion required to go the same distance.

Solution: Yoga – sign up to a yoga class and introduce your muscles and tendons to a range of movements they never experience when sitting at your desk or even when jogging. If you can’t find a class near you or the time to attend one, Google some beginner yoga stretches that you can try at home or a nearby park (the fresh air and change of scenery will be a bonus).

Just ten minutes a day can bring major improvements for your flexibility and help your body to bounce back faster after those tough running sessions.

3. Reduced muscle mass

Our muscles start to deteriorate from our thirties, weakening first in our lower limbs – bad news for running enthusiasts! Lower muscle mass also contributes to weight gain (which we’ll cover in a minute), so you can suddenly find yourself with a heavier body and weaker muscles to lift it. Yikes!

Solution: Variety – a balance of cardio and weight bearing exercise is key to burning fat while maintaining muscle mass. Compound exercises using only your bodyweight (lunges, squats, and push-ups) are best for beginners as they allow you to work out several muscles groups at once and reduce your risk of injury. As you get stronger, try adding some weights to make the exercise a little harder.

For best results, isolate your weight training and cardio sessions to separate days. If that’s not possible, lift weights first (when you have the most energy) and then do your cardio after. Aim for two or three weights sessions per week. This will not only help you to lose weight but also to build stronger leg muscles for your runs.

Did you know that if you don’t take steps to maintain your muscle mass now, you could lose almost three kilograms of muscle by the time you’re 40?

4. Reduced bone density

Bone density peaks at age 30. After that, bone resorption (when bone is broken down within the body) outpaces the formation of new bones, causing our bones to become thinner and more brittle. (This is also what causes us to shrink as we get older).

The physical activities you do in your thirties and forties lay the foundations for solid bone structure in your fifties and sixties, slowing the ageing process and preventing the pre-mature onset of conditions like osteoporosis. (Not so fun fact – more than half of Australian women over age 60 have osteoporosis!).

Solution: Resistance training – Resistance (weight-bearing) exercises stimulate bone formation, slowing the weakening process. A 15-minute dumbbell workout or exercises using your own weight as resistance (mentioned above), two or three times a week will put you on track for stronger, thicker bones as you age.

5. Weight gain

As bone and muscle loss take their toll on your metabolism, many of us will notice the scales tipping in the wrong direction. In fact, a recent HBF study found that one in two ‘normal’ sized Western Australians will become overweight or obese after age 34. Your heavier body will require more metabolic energy to move, making your run tougher and more tiring.

Solution: Reduce your calorie intake – our bodies generally need 12 fewer calories per day for each year after age 30. To keep the extra kilos at bay, you need to adjust your calorie intake accordingly.

Numerous studies have shown that people who keep food diaries are more successful managing their weight, and with the advent of smartphone apps, keeping track of what you eat is now easier than ever! That said, there are hundreds of health tools and apps out there, many of which are not worth the megabytes they take up on your phone’s hard drive. So, where to begin?

A recent survey by HBF revealed that MyFitnessPal is the health app of choice among Western Australians, regardless of age or gender, with four times more downloads than the next most popular health app. MyFitnessPal counts calories, makes personalised food recommendations, but my favourite feature has to be the way it scans food labels directly into your phone. That, and that it’s free. So I would start there.

For running and fitness tracking, women favoured RunKeeper, while men preferred Edmondo.

…and again, get lifting!

Cardio is not the best way to prevent the kilos piling on in our thirties. In fact, too much running can actually reduce muscle mass and speed the ageing process! A healthy balance of cardio and strength training (weights) will help you to lose weight while maintaining muscle mass, for a leaner and more athletic look.

Pro Tip: For best results, choose heavier weights with fewer repetitions. Aim for 3x sets of 8-12. You should really have to work hard to push through the last 2-3 reps. If you hit 12 repetitions and feel like you could keep going, pick up a heavier weight for your next set.

6. Slower recovery and healing

As we age, our cellular tissues don’t repair and regenerate as fast as they once did. Running puts the cells in our bones, joints, tendons and muscles under pressure, and in our thirties they take a little longer to get back to full strength. That’s why it’s so important to develop a running regime that suits your age and allows for cell recovery.

Solution: Rest days – in your twenties you had more margin for error – you could overdo it without paying so much for it afterwards. In your thirties, the best way to manage your body and keep it strong for future runs is to really take it easy on your ‘easy days’.

Rest days allow your body to fully absorb a recent hard session and prepare you for the next one. ‘Going easy’ may mean doing something low impact like walking instead of jogging, or no-impact like going for a swim.

Regardless of age, there are a few ‘always appropriate’ things that will minimise aches and pains and speed recovery after a run. These include: wearing supportive socks and running shoes; keeping well hydrated before and after a session; consuming fruits and veggies that replenish electrolytes; and ensuring your diet has a healthy balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats.

Tip: A good way to know how much water to drink is to weigh yourself before and after training. After your run, try to get back to your pre-run weight as soon as you can.

So there you have it. Finding running more difficult in your thirties is completely natural, but there is no need to hang up your running shoes. If you have exercised in your twenties you have laid solid foundations for continued health and fitness in your yonder years. Adjusting your routine after the big ‘three-oh’ to include a balance of cardio, strength, flexibility and rest will help those running legs go the distance both in your thirties and beyond.

The content of this article is not tailored for any particular individual’s circumstances. The author does not take into account your physical condition, medical history or any medication you may be taking. Any advice or information provided by the author cannot replace the advice of your health care professional. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent those of HBF unless clearly indicated.