Our Aging Brains

Losing Brain Function
Image credit: ThinkStock.com

“[We] ought to know that from nothing else but the brain come joys, delights, laughter and sports, and sorrows, griefs, despondency, and lamentations. … And by the same organ we become mad and delirious, and fears and terrors assail us, some by night, and some by day, and dreams and untimely wanderings, and cares that are not suitable, and ignorance of present circumstances, desuetude, and unskillfulness. All these things we endure from the brain, when it is not healthy…”   — Hippocrates


The aging of the body is a familiar and compelling topic for older runners, and there’s no shortage of information in the running mags and the Health sections of the New York Times instructing us on how to postpone or at least slow the inevitable decline in our physical capabilities. We are advised to allow more time for recovery between hard efforts, spend more time at the gym maintaining our strength, diversify into other training activities that involve less impact stress and pounding.

But since those sensible steps don’t ever satisfy our secret desire, which is staying young forever, we turn to other articles and essays that counsel us to accept and accommodate our older bodies: to find happiness running eight-minute miles, or ten-minute miles, or however slow we’ll be running in a few years. Instead of mourning the loss of vigor and resilience of youth, we are urged to celebrate the fact that we are still out there plodding along when many of our contemporaries are sitting in front of TVs. “Be young at heart,” we are told, and who would argue with that?

The other day someone who didn’t know me well, told me that “Age is just a number!” Man, I hate it when people say that.

But anyway, what I’m trying to point out is that, as runners, we are so focused on the deterioration of our physical selves – muscles, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, bones, lungs, heart – that we never think to consider that there’s another organ that’s aging, and that the effect of that aging is profound, although perhaps subtle.

I’m talking about the brain.

Of course, there are a lot of things written about how exercise helps keep the brain fit. Almost without exception, these articles are targeted at people who would otherwise be inclined to be sedentary. But what if you are already highly motivated to run, but find that your brain is becoming an unwilling participant?

We often act as though running just happens, as though the marvelously complex sequence of bio-chemical and bio-mechanical events that results in rapid bipedal locomotion is the inevitable outcome of a little training. But none of that happens without the brain working behind the scenes to take care of all the details, making sure each body system that needs to be involved is playing its proper role at the proper time.

If we aspire to be competitive runners, our brains must also learn to negotiate the latter stages of racing – that wild country where fuel and oxygen are running low, where blood lactate is rising alarmingly, where outposts throughout the body are dispatching increasingly urgent distress signals – and judge how best to keep the wheels from falling off.

It is not their fault, but untrained runners quit way too early. They can’t help it; their brains are like strict parents who insist that their teenage kids be home and in bed by 10 p.m., and won’t tolerate any backtalk or foolishness. Just so, the brains of untrained runners shut down the muscles at the first sign of any significant distress.

I believe the process of becoming a successful runner depends on learning gradually how to tolerate greater levels of discomfort, to remain calm and determined in the face of apparent impending doom, or to remain focused on a distant goal through weeks and months and years of patient training.

As a runner’s physical abilities improve with proper training over many years, so, too, their mental abilities improve, at least that’s how it should be. Furthermore, I believe that a runner still competing in their thirties, forties, and fifties will probably retain peak brain function longer than peak physical function, leading to the common feeling that the spirit (or at least the brain) is willing but the flesh is weak.

But what I’ve begun to realize is that eventually, the brain begins to age, too. The long-developed habit of pushing through tough training sessions and challenging races begins to erode, and the brain becomes less willing to authorize extravagant and wasteful uses of energy. The brain begins to suggest more moderate paces, more days off, more frequent naps. Then when race day comes, the aging runner’s brain reverts to its conservative roots, and refuses service to the heart, lungs, and muscles that are clamoring for more resources.

I’ll go further than that: I think that as we get older, we develop a very natural fear of the future in which we must, perhaps sooner than later, cease running altogether. Fear of the inevitable end is not conducive to taking the risk of testing the limits by running really hard. I suspect that our brains are already calculating that it’s more sensible to ease up on the throttle to prolong the ride.

Maybe it’s as simple as the proposition that all fitness, including brain fitness, must be maintained through rigorous training. If brain training is lacking, then brain performance suffers. But I feel this is a circular observation. Our bodies age more quickly without vigorous training; it’s harder to convince the brain to enable that training as the body ages; feelings of fragility and fatigue are felt more deeply, further encouraging the brain’s instinct for self-preservation. You want to run faster, but you know, somehow you don’t want it as much as you once did.

I’ve always felt that running offered abundant opportunities for learning, and as I age up into my sixties, I feel that the brain-body connection will be my great learning opportunity for the next decade. How does the brain regulate effort based on the signals it receives from the body? Is it possible to adjust the brain’s regulatory function to account for new patterns from an aging infrastructure? Is there a better way to train the brain of an aging runner, one that preserves more of its “competitiveness,” as everything else slows?

And the most important question for the moment: are naps a bad thing or the secret to racing well into old age?

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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5 Responses to Our Aging Brains

  1. Kevin says:

    Naps are the secret. Maybe it’s just that as part of my personal decathlon, one of my skills is being lazy. Other people tell me they aren’t able to turn the brain off to take 15 minutes of a lunch hour to sleep. My problem with running is that I don’t feel good about 75% of the time during warm temperatures (June-September). So I run less mileage to let my legs recover but then that means my race times slow because I’m not training as hard. It’s all a frustrating puzzle at times.

  2. This is one of those conundrums that there is no real answer for, but I know I am deep in the middle of it. That old well I don’t have to worry as much about doing that hard workout today, I will get to it tormorrow seems like a real problem nowadays, when in the past it wasn’t. However, on the flip side I have noticed that a lot of the anxiety I used to have around races is not the issue it was. Now I actually am looking forward to racing a little more – a different perspective.

  3. Marcia Boyle says:

    You’ve summed it up perfectly, as usual.

  4. Terry says:

    Like Kevin said, training well is a puzzle. A puzzle at any age, but especially cryptic while navigating the shifting sands of aging. Bringing the same motivation to training is extra hard when the PR’s and race wins have mostly faded behind you on the long trip to the present. I find fitting the training pieces together, both physical and mental, is challenging, interesting and motivating regardless of the numbers on the clock at the finish line. It also helps to have a group of like minded friends to train with, pushing their own personal envelope.

  5. Tyler says:

    As Kevin said, Naps are the secret. People talk about how the Kenyans train with so little distractions but all that really means is that they sleep a lot. Live like a cat!

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