What About Seniors Doing Endurance Sports?

I have written repeatedly about the value of exercise on these pages. Regular readers know that I am a senior citizen and I ride my bicycle nearly daily here on Chicago’s lakefront. As I have said, I am paying for my old age one bike ride at a time. Anything I read about senior endurance athletes hijacks my attention. That’s why One Running Shoe in the Grave in The Wall Street Journal really stuck in my eye.

Getty Image

Getty Image

The Journal‘s sports editor, Kevin Helliker, writes, “A fast-emerging body of scientific evidence points to a conclusion that’s unsettling, to say the least, for a lot of older athletes: Running can take a toll on the heart that essentially eliminates the benefits of exercise.”

Wait a minute. I ride my bike every day seeking the benefits of regular exercise – a strong heart, good cardio workout, larger oxygen flow to the brain, calorie burn, increased longevity. Now they are saying that exercise can “take a toll on the heart” that eliminates the benefits??!?!??

The next paragraph is helpful: “Running too fast, too far and for too many years may speed one’s progress toward the finish line of life,” concludes an editorial to be published next month in the British journal Heart.

Okay, that’s more like it. Overdoing it is the bad thing, not the exercise itself. As a senior I am all too aware of this. My first thought in every situation is that I am not the guy I was in my 30’s or 40’s.

After I started writing this blog I took a course in Lifelong Health from The Great Courses. On the subject of weight lifting, the teacher, Dr. Anthony Goodman, said that seniors should concentrate on using lower weights, but do higher repetitions because they want to strengthen their ligaments and tendons as well as their muscles. Those weaken in old age and lead to injuries that can slow you down. Strengthening ligaments can also protect you from common aging problems like Achilles tendon rupture, rotator cuff tears in the shoulder and hip and knee injuries.

I realize that the weight work above is not exactly the same as the endurance training of running or cycling, but I think the principle remains the same. You want to use the muscles in the activity, not abuse them. In lifting you don’t choose the heaviest weights and in biking you don’t try to speed to record times. So, by my reckoning, I am still safe.

The Journal continues, “What the new research suggests is that the benefits of running may come to a hard stop later in life. In a study involving 52,600 people followed for three decades, the runners in the group had a 19% lower death rate than non-runners, according to the Heart editorial. But among the running cohort, those who ran a lot—more than 20 to 25 miles a week—lost that mortality advantage.”

This part I am again taking to mean pushing to extremes. I ride daily and I ride fair distances. My average for this year exceeds 20 miles a day, all 365 days, for a total over 7,000 miles. I try to keep my heart rate in the target zone, but I slow down when I feel any pain from pedaling.

Don’t forget, I’m the guy who wrote on these pages Why You Shouldn’t Run a Marathon. That was meant for anyone, not just seniors. I think ego is the main reason folks do marathons. And, I think at the end of one, that is the only benefit. The person can say, “I finished a marathon.” But his/her body is worse off for the entire experience.

I think my attention to my condition while riding puts me into this Journal category: “Meanwhile, according to the Heart editorial, another large study found no mortality benefit for those who ran faster than 8 miles per hour, while those who ran slower reaped significant mortality benefits.”

There is a bit of toing and froing in the piece and I suggest you read it for yourself and draw your own conclusions. As you can see from the above, I think I am still riding my way into a long life with a brain that is still functioning at the finish line.

I stand by my mantra: Eat less; move more; live longer.

As always your comments are invited. There were some fascinating ones published after the Journal article.



Filed under aerobics, aging, biking, brain, calories, Exercise, life challenges, men's health, muscles, Weight

2 responses to “What About Seniors Doing Endurance Sports?

  1. As a senior I have competed in the National Senior Games and the Texas Senior Games in Cycling and was always amazed by those who were at least a decade older than I am and their overall healthiness. There are two good books by Joe Friel I would highly recommend. First is “Cycling Past 50” and “Running Past 50” from his Ageless Athlete Series. Also check out Jeff Galloway’s book “Running Until You’re 100”. Thanks for this great post. Be well!


    • Tony

      Wow, Dr. Bill! Thanks for your very helpful comment and congrats on competing in the Texas senior games. Way to go! Thanks also for the recommendations. I will definitely be checking out the Friel cycling book.

      Stay well!



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