As runners, we embrace change. We’re always looking to become faster, stronger, or healthier, especially as we age. So, it can be hard to grapple with the idea that as you get older, you start to lose muscle, or even become weaker. That’s especially true when you hear about Mariko Yugeta, the first woman over 60 to finish a marathon in under 3 hours, or Gene Dykes, world record holder for the fastest 50k in his age group.
You might think you’re covered, considering the many benefits of running, but the truth is everyone can develop age-related muscle loss—even those of us who clock countless miles on our feet. Plus, if you don’t do anything to counteract your muscle loss, then your condition can progress into a musculoskeletal condition known as sarcopenia.
For that reason, we spoke to experts and dug into the research to find out what runners need to know about age-related muscle loss, as well as how to prevent and reverse sarcopenia.
What is sarcopenia and how does it differ from age-related muscle loss?
To be considered sarcopenic, Mark Peterson, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., associate professor at the University of Michigan says someone must have declines in not only muscle mass, but also strength and function to the point that it is detrimental to one’s health. In fact, sarcopenia can be so detrimental that it can increase your risk of falls and fractures, and even can lead to functional decline, frailty, and mortality. “All of us will not experience sarcopenia, but we will experience a deceleration of muscle mass and strength with age,” Peterson adds.
How is sarcopenia diagnosed?
“Sarcopenia is defined as the loss of muscle function linked to a reduction in muscle mass,” Alfonso Cruz Jentoft, Ph.D., lead researcher for the European Working Group on Sarcopenia in Older People and director of the geriatric department of Ramón y Cajal University Hospital in Madrid tells Runner’s World. While in the past, experts said if you were older and had low muscle mass, then you also have sarcopenia, but now you have to show signs of decline in strength and function.
If you experience a loss in strength—which you might notice when it becomes difficult to lift items you normally could in the past—that’s the first sign of sarcopenia. There’s also a decline in muscle quality or quantity—which doctors measure through a DXA scan, CT, or MRI—and in severe cases, a decline in physical performance, which is assessed with a gait speed test or timed up-and-go test.
If you suspect you have sarcopenia, you can reach out to your primary care physician to test you for the condition. Despite how much experts and researchers understand about the sarcopenia, there isn’t a universal way to screen people for it and many cases go undetected, Jentoft writes in a research paper. This makes it hard to pinpoint if the condition adversely effects one group of people over another.
What runners should know about sarcopenia
Naturally, Jentoft says, “older adults are at higher risk for developing sarcopenia. Those who are physically inactive, do not exercise, or do not eat well—especially those who do not eat enough protein—are at the highest risk.” Jentoft defines enough protein as 1 to 1.2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight a day for older adults and 1.5 grams for older adults living with sarcopenia.
Also, people—young and old—living with other health conditions like osteoporosis, cerebral palsy, and some neurodevelopmental conditions can develop the condition as well, says Peterson.
While exercise is smart for the aging population at risk for sarcopenia, running won’t necessarily stave off the condition. “Aerobic-type exercise, like running, does not do much for counteracting sarcopenia and depending on your nutrition intake, it can actually exacerbate it, if you’re in a caloric deficit,” says Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., professor of exercise science at Lehman College and director of the graduate program in human performance and fitness. Long-distance runners who don’t strength train, he says, are just as prone to developing the sarcopenia as a sedentary individual.
Paterson agrees: “If a competitive runner in college or beyond, stops running as avidly as they did, they have a higher risk for potentially having sarcopenia and osteoporosis, if they don’t maintain some kind of fitness regimen that lends itself towards preservation of muscle and bone.”
How to prevent and reverse age-related muscle loss and sarcopenia
Nutrition and exercise are key factors in the solution to prevent age-related muscle loss and sarcopenia. “Movement is only one half of the equation, the other half is adequate nutrition,” says Peterson.
Research backs this up: One study published in the journal Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics in 2019, found that older adults who took a daily whey protein supplement and practiced regular resistance exercises for a 12-week period had greater improvements in hand grip strength when compared to those who only practiced resistance training.
Why? For starters, protein is a key component in building muscle. “The only way that you can have improvements and muscle synthesis is by replacing the amino acids and protein that you have taken from the muscle to repair and recover from that stimulus,” Peterson says.
Plus, he adds, “when somebody becomes malnutritional—whether that’s because they don’t take in anything or all they eat is garbage—they can become high risk for sarcopenia.” Research echos this too: A cohort study published in the journal Nutrients in 2019 found malnutrition is a strong predictor of the onset of sarcopenia, increasing risk four-fold.
What’s more: Other studies have found taking nutrition supplements like vitamin D can help improve muscle quality in older adults. Researchers of a randomized trail published in 2015 found after 12 weeks of resistance training, elderly men who also received a vitamin D supplement had greater improvements in muscle quality than the younger men who received the training regiment. (However, vitamin D didn’t have an effect on muscle hypertrophy or strength.)
Another study, published in the Geriatrics & Gerontology International journal in 2019, found that a 12-week program, which included bodyweight exercises, protein, and a vitamin D supplement was an effective way to improve muscle quality and strength in sarcopenic individuals.
While running might not protect you from the condition, other forms of exercise will offer some advantages for your muscles. “Sarcopenia reflects muscle atrophy, which is a loss of muscle. And hypertrophy is the gaining of muscle mass,” Schoenfeld says. To counteract sarcopenia, you need to focus on training for hypertrophy. And to do that, you need resistance exercises, like weight training.
Exactly how to train to reduce risk of age-related muscle loss and sarcopenia
Schoenfeld recommends regimented resistance exercises to stave off sarcopenia, and he suggests aiming for two to three strength sessions per week, working for 30 to 45 minutes. “You just have to lift hard,” he says, suggesting you lift close to failure.
Most importantly, you want to focus on progressive overload—gradually increasing the amount of weight you lift overtime. For beginners to master this technique, Schoenfeld suggests lifting about 65 to 75 percent of your one-rep max (the most you can lift for just one repetition) for 10 to 15 reps each set. That means that if your one-rep max is 100 pounds, then you should start out lifting anywhere between 65 to 75 pounds and progress the load from there.
Melissa Boyd, NASM-certified personal trainer, and Tempo coach says, “As you progress, the focus should be on slowly adding more weight while doing fewer reps and building full-body strength instead of just exhausting the body, which will affect your running.”
If you don’t know where to start, then try this basic workout designed by Boyd to help you build strength. Complete each move for the number of reps and sets listed below, resting for one to two minutes in between each set.
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Send hips back and down, and bend knees until thighs are parallel with the ground. Remember to keep knees and toes in line and chest lifted as you squat. Press through feet to stand back up. Repeat. Complete 3 sets of 10-12 reps.
Start in a high plank position and place your hands shoulder-width apart or slightly wider with shoulders stacked directly over wrists. Engage core and make sure body forms a straight line from head to heels. Inhale, then bend elbows to lower chest to the floor. Your elbows form a 45-degree angle with body. Then keep core engaged and hips in line with the rest of body, exhale, and push back up to plank. Repeat. Complete as many reps as you can.
Stand with feet hip-width apart. With a flat back and knees slightly bent, hinge at the hips, sending butt straight back and lowering torso until you feel a deep stretch in the hamstrings. Keep back flat. Engage glutes and drive feet into the floor to stand back up. Repeat. Complete 3 sets of 10-12 reps. To make it harder, step into a long resistance band, and loop it across upper back. Or hold a dumbbell across shoulders, behind your head.
Stand with feet hip-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand. Hinge at the hips, sending butt straight back, with back flat. Extend arms down in front of you, palms facing each other. Then, row weights to ribcage, keeping elbows close to sides. Straighten arms back down. Repeat. Complete 3 sets of 10-12 reps.
Lateral Band Walk
Place a resistance band around ankles. Start with feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent, then take two steps to the left, then two steps to the right. Complete 3 sets for 45 seconds each.
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