Who, What, Why: How can a 100-year-old run a marathon?

Fauja Singh crosses the finishing line in Toronto

Fauja Singh has astonished the world by running a marathon at the age of 100. The British runner completed the 26.2-mile Toronto Waterfront course in eight hours, 25 minutes and 16 seconds. So how was this feat of age-defying stamina possible?

Most of us would be grateful - and more than a little surprised - to be still breathing at 100. The idea of running a marathon at that age seems like something out of science fiction.

Mr Singh, who came 3,850th, but still finished ahead of five other competitors, puts his success down to not smoking or drinking alcohol, staying positive - and eating ginger curry.

But if that really was all there is to it, the streets would be filled with centenarian athletes and every retirement home would have its own athletics team.

Experts in geriatric medicine believe Mr Singh's record could stand for a long time.

Key to longer life?

Long-distance running is hard on the body - and the older you get the greater the toll it takes.

The heart becomes less efficient at circulating oxygen - an average 60-year-old pumps 20% less oxygenated blood than a 20-year-old.

Muscle strength also declines sharply once you pass 70, at a rate of about 30% per decade, according to some studies.

The answer

  • Slowly and with plenty of walking breaks
  • If you are in good health you can, in theory, run a marathon at any age
  • But the chances of staying fit enough to complete 26.2 miles at the age of 100 are very slim indeed

Your ligaments and tendons become more brittle, making you more prone to injuries, and your lung tissue becomes stiffer and less efficient.

But if you are in good health and used to training, some of these ravages of age can be slowed down.

And there is a growing band of people who find they can continue to pound the pavements into their eighties and even nineties, if they look after themselves properly.

To them - and younger people who believe marathon-running is the key to a longer life - Mr Singh is a hero.

"What he is saying is 'I am not going to allow the world's norms to tell me what is possible,'" says Chris Twigg, national programme director of Galloway Training, of Atlanta, Georgia.

"Time has its effect on us all but as long as we are cautious in the way we go about our training, we are able to accomplish things average people wouldn't think possible.

"Anyone who is in reasonably good health can finish a marathon as long as you go slow enough.

"The key is to take a lot of walk breaks to avoid building up fatigue in your legs."

'Use it or lose it'

Mr Twigg advises runners approaching their second century to reduce the number of days a week they train - and allow more time between runs for their bodies to recover.

Fauja Singh's translator and coach Harmandar Singh: ''Running has given him a new focus in life''

But he adds: "I think the biggest obstacle to someone running a marathon, at any age, is mental. That is why Faulja Singh is so inspirational."

His boss, former Olympic athlete Jeff Galloway, author of Running Until You're 100, says: "My goal is to run until I am 100 plus, and then I can write the sequel."

The 67-year-old says he has trained people who have taken up running in their seventies and have gone on to complete marathons.

But he concedes that the chances of making it to 100 without succumbing to disease, while remaining fit enough to complete long distances, are extremely slim.

"The message that has come out of our research is 'use it or lose it,'" he says, advising those who already run to do so for as long as they can for the added "mental sharpness" and sense of well being it brings, if nothing else.

Dr Sharon Brangman, chair of the American Geriatric Society, believes Mr Singh may be a one-off, "one of those extraordinary older people that appear from time to time".

'Heart attack' risk

"He is obviously a highly exceptional person. Marathons are a major stresser on your body. At the age of 100 most people are concentrating on 10 yards rather than a marathon.


Question mark

A part of BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer questions behind the headlines

"He is definitely a unique individual - not like any patient I have ever taken," says Dr Brangman, who is chief of geriatric medicine at Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, New York.

Even in younger runners, marathons can "put as much stress on your heart as a heart attack", she says, and they often find themselves in physical pain "before those endorphins start working".

It is vitally important for older people to remain physically active, stresses Dr Brangman - she recommends daily walking and light weight training, arguing that it can help combat a whole range of conditions from arthritis to heart disease, as well as reducing the risk of falls.

"I give this guy a lot of respect that he could do this at 100.

"I also don't want to discourage people into thinking there is no way they could ever run a marathon so they are not even going to try."

But most centenarians should give up any dreams of becoming the next Fauja Singh, she says, and concentrate instead on more achievable goals.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    @ 4. L A Odicean
    ". . .he is sure to be building up problems which will manifest themselves in years to come"

    Yeah. I bet when he's 120 he'll look back and wish he'd never run that marathon!

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    “Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.” -Dalai Lama

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I hope Mr Singh's extraordinary and unprecedented achievement will be recognised by HM the Queen in some form, perhaps even a knighthood. In a few hours of intense effort this gentleman has both rocked the normal assumptions about the limits of sport and provided a gold-plated PR coup to the case for involving the wisdom and experience of older people in civil society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    I think luck has a great deal to do with it. I'm planning to run London in April and had 2 major injuries in the last 2 years (my right knee ligaments went and my left tib and fib were fractured along with a dislocation). I try to run but every time I do my knee or ankle goes so Mr Singh has been very lucky to avoid serious injury in that respect. That said, I wish him all the luck in carrying on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    L A Odicean, I don't know Fauja Singh personally but he has been well known our my town (Ilford, East London) for many years because he's been running marathons since he was in his 80's. His story goes that his wife and son died when he was in his 80's, and since then has vowed to kept himself healthy. Since then he runs a lot every day and so far he has had no problems. I think he'll be fine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    has anyone actually verified his age? I notice there's no mention of that in the various articles about him.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    we are on this planet to live and experience not to just exist, so the man might get issues later in life at say 115? but im sure he will handle them with a positive mind and will continue on with a amazing life

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    LA Odicean, you should be ashamed of yourself, this man is a true inspiration and your on about getting a dodgy knee when hes older?!!!! Marathons are not bad for you if you train properly and take care of your body

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    dr brangman should be ashamed at saying "But most centenarians should give up any dreams of becoming the next Fauja Singh, she says, and concentrate instead on more achievable goals."

    who is she to say what someone can achieve if they have a goal ! who are we to judge anothers dreams mr singh awesome achievement!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    "The key is to take a lot of walk breaks to avoid building up fatigue in your legs."

    Bearing in mind that Mr Singh's average speed was 3 mph, a moderate walking pace, this is probably what he did. The article is somewhat misleading in making us believe he ran the distance. Still, quite an achievement for his age.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    LA Odicean - very amusing! He's already 100 - when is his "later life" going to be??

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    4. L A Odicean
    Whoever encouraged this man to run a marathon is irresponsible as he is sure to be building up problems which will manifest themselves in years to come.
    How long do you think he'll live for! 'Years to come'? The guy is 100 and running marathons! He's fitter than me and 70 years older.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Why is it we never see a member of the Caucasian race that does this?

    Clearly having a darker coloured skin has its added benefits as well as the type of lifestyle, different diet even religious beliefs couild have a lot to do with this?

    All down to personal choice though - how you decide your life will run...

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    It just shows how determination, perseverance and a positive attitude is key to both physical and mental health.

    I have never been good at it, but have always had a passion for playing sports. It is not too late for anyone to try whatever physical activity they can.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Running marathons is very stressful on the body and can cause all sorts of trouble later in life, especially in the knees. Whoever encouraged this man to run a marathon is irresponsible as he is sure to be building up problems which will manifest themselves in years to come.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Even at a young age you can become incredibly unfit remarkably quickly. The trick is to maintain an active lifestyle, keep your fitness levels good & don't get into a rut. After getting married I DID get into a rut, stopped going to the gym & piled on weight. Its taken nearly two years (in my early 30's) to get it back. Use it or lose it is very true...

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    What an inspiration this man is. An shining example of what positive attitude, self-discipline and mind over matter can achieve. He puts much of our younger generation to shame! I wish Fauja many more such achievements.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    How can this amazing man do this at his age? Presumably by not doing what I've done in my life and smoking......He's a legend in his own life time & an inspiration


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