12/07/2011 08:29 am ET

Older Runners Slow Over Time But Stay Efficient, Study Says

Older athletes may never beat 20-year-olds in a 100-meter sprint, but a new, small study suggests that, in at least one way, they are just as efficient runners.

The study, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, examined a measure called running economy, which gauges how efficiently the body uses oxygen at a certain pace. Across the three age groupings of the study's 51 participants (18 to 39, 49 to 59, 60 and older), running economy was about the same.

Still, competing at the same pace as a younger runner will feel harder. "For the runners over age 60, it's physiologically more difficult to run at that speed, even though the absolute oxygen uptake value is the same as a younger runner," lead author Timothy Quinn, an associate professor of exercise science at the University of New Hampshire, said in a press release.

This difficulty may be explained by a series of additional tests conducted by Quinn and his co-authors. Older runners scored lower on measures of upper-body strength (crucial in powering runners up hills), muscle power (instrumental in changing speed or direction) and flexibility, according to They also had a lower VO2 max, reports, a measure of maximum oxygen consumption or aerobic capacity.

Speed is often chalked up to a runner's high VO2 max, reports Runner's World, but the best runners in any given race often don't have the highest aerobic capacities -- they have a high running economy, which bodes well for the over-60 crowd's continued expansion into the world of running.

By no means should older runners, the fastest growing age group in the sport, stop toeing starting lines. In fact, in October, a runner set a new Guiness World Record when he become the oldest person to complete a marathon. The runner, Fauja Singh, was 100.

Instead, older runners can take measures to boost the areas where they fall behind younger runners. "Strength declines with age, but you can minimize that if you do strength training. It doesn't take a lot to maintain strength," said Quinn. "We need to set up programs that enhance strength, especially upper-body strength, and power. They'll be better runners for it."