I ran most days for more than a decade from my early twenties. I started with weight loss and a healthier lifestyle in mind, but when neither stuck I kept up the running for the thrill and the adventure. I was hooked on the exhilaration of running up Primrose Hill five or six times before work, the permissiveness of tracing the streets of a new city at dusk, the challenge of beating my own personal bests.
The last thing on my mind was ageing. But my pavement pounding habit exacerbated a niggle in my lower back which ended in surgery to remove a disc. Six years on, I feel mostly healed if still in regular pain, but am I too old to revisit running?
Now 42, various bits of me creak and ache, and I wonder how the benefits of cardiovascular fitness and general wellbeing – from the fresh air, sunlight, early mornings and better diet – balance out against the stress running might put on my joints, not to mention other ills such as (whisper it) so-called runner’s face, and putting additional strain on a drooping décolletage.
At least I’m not a man. Surprising new research has found that long-distance running can add a whole decade to the vascular age of male athletes. Their major arteries were found to be far stiffer than expected, leaving them at greater risk of heart attack and stroke. The study looked at runners aged over 40, but the results for women among the more than 300 participants told a different story.
Endurance events such as marathons and triathlons were found to boost women’s health, reducing their vascular age by an average of six years.
72-year-old marathon runner Sharon Smith has been running competitively for 12 years without any sign of an injury save one sustained dancing with her dog. “I didn’t have any aches after my last marathon,” she says. “Not one. Probably because it was a long walk back to the hotel! But I do worry my heart might give out,” she admits.
In last October’s London marathon, Smith had hoped to win her age group but was beaten by Olympian and world record holder Yuko Gordon. She will try again. She has never run further than a marathon but has noticed many of the women at her running club, Running Somewhere Else in Cirencester, are now training for ultra events. “It would be interesting to know what the long-term effects are because the training is very wearing,” she says. “We all know that fast bursts of speed are good for you but I’m not sure about endless 12-minute miles.”
The new research into the vascular health of endurance athletes, funded by the British Heart Foundation and Cardiac Risk in the Young, is not yet peer-reviewed, and the discrepancy between men and women has not been explained.
“For athletes who train in endurance exercise, their hearts must work harder to pump blood around the body,” said Professor James Leiper, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation.
“Research has shown that in some cases, this can cause changes to the heart.” Leiper also said that more research is necessary and pointed out the benefits of running. “It is important to note that exercise is proven to reduce the risk of heart and circulatory diseases, helping to control weight and lower both blood pressure and cholesterol.”
Despite this reassurance, it is women who are typically framed as having something to lose from running or other high-impact exercise. We told to fear a saggy jaw line, wrinkles or liver spots from daring to spend hours outside running sweating off our sunscreen. It is the tender, elastic skin around our neck, chest and breasts most at risk of passing a point of no return, in perkiness terms, we are told.
“Never heard of it,” says British Athletics coach Jo Wilkinson, 49, a long-distance runner and former elite athlete who has competed in the Commonwealth Games and finished in the top 20 in the London Marathon. “It sounds like made up rubbish.” On closer inspection, it feels like “runners’ face”, which refers to the fat-free features of long-term runners, is more of a myth designed to make women feel bad about themselves whether they exercise and carry fat on their faces or not.
Wilkinson trains female marathon runners in their 40s and 50s. “Almost all of them come into running later in life,” she says, “often getting into it through the ‘Race for Life’ (a Cancer Research UK event) and to lose weight, then find they enjoy the competitive aspect of it and transition into serious runners.”
Is middle age the optimum time to pick up running? “I think it’s good to start at any age,” says Wilkinson. “And as running is a weight-bearing exercise, for women heading towards the menopause and coming out the other side, we know that bone health is critical and improved by weight-bearing exercise.”
Before the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 a survey found that one quarter of British athletes had taken medication for breast pain, and three quarters had never been fitted for a sports bra. Teenagers often avoid exercise because of pain and not knowing about supportive underwear.
As we age, the elasticity of the skin and muscle supporting our breasts decreases. What’s more, poorly-supported breasts can also lead to back and shoulder issues and even impact your stride. Research from Brooks Running and the University of Portsmouth found that running in a rubbish bra can shorten your stride by 4cm – that’s an extra mile over a whole marathon.
Our knees are most at risk of a running injury, says consultant orthopaedic knee surgeon Mr Khalid Al-Dadah, of London’s New Victoria Hospital. “The knee can take up to seven times your body weight during day to day activities, and this is amplified during running. Runners can develop “Runner’s Knee” which is an overload syndrome to the front of the knee joint, particularly the kneecap and surrounding tendons.”
Mr Al-Dadah points out that exercise is a friend not foe as we age and “vital to strengthening the bones and tissues within your joints”. If running is causing persistent pain he advises switching to something else, such as cycling.
“A sedentary lifestyle can cause weakness to these structures, making you much more susceptible to injuries from simple trauma,” he explains. “Regularly loading your joints with effective exercise stimulates remodelling and bone formation, making your joints stronger.”
Running reaches past our muscles and joints. Its cognitive and wellbeing effects are well documented and easy to unlock.
“It’s mentally stimulating, psychologically stimulating and there’s also the meditative aspect associated with good mood,” says Wilkinson.
All this makes me yearn to put my running shoes back on, if I can find them.
British Athletics coach Jo Wilkinson says there are two essential pieces of kit – decent running shoes and, for women, a good sports bra. Knee surgeon Mr Khalid Al-Dadah recommends proper technique and footwear and running on grass over concrete.
“Most of the injuries in running come from overdoing it,” says Wilkinson. “You have to do the basic conditioning and strengthening and build it progressively.” If you do get an injury, she says, do see a physio, don’t ask for advice on Facebook!
Sharon Smith, 72-year old marathon runner, says she has three golden rules.
“Don’t listen to your body until after three miles. By then you will be warm and feeling fine. Never take medication to mask an injury. Don’t ever stop on a run, just slow down if you are suffering.”