We’re all familiar with the saying “40 is the new 30.”Runners are a perfect example of the truth of that.
The age of 30 used to be seen as the beginning of the end, when people were on the decline and heading downhill fast. Now, however, we’re seeing unprecedented numbers of older runners not just running well, but running faster than ever.
- Deena Kastor set a Masters world record of 1:09 in the half marathon aged 41
- Pete Magill broke 15:00 for 5K at age 49
- Meb Keflezighi ran 1:02 in a half marathon a few weeks after his 40th birthday
- Joan Benoit Samuelson ran a 3:04 in the marathon aged 61
Of course these are top-level runners, and you may believe that those kind of times were never on the cards for you, regardless of your age. But then there are other examples, like Michael Capiraso, the CEO and President of the New York Road Runners, who ran a PR of 3:48 in the New York City Marathon at age 56. Or the legendary Ed Whitlock running a 3:56 marathon aged 85 or Jeannie Rice running 3:35 at age 71.
Running a PR is something to celebrate at any age, but that doesn’t always have to be your goal. The reality is that at some point, our bodies WILL slow down or be able to handle less.
So what can you do as you invariably get older? The answer may surprise you. There really isn’t as much that you need to change as you may think.
Of course, every person is different, and you still have to learn to listen to your body to find the mix that’s right for you. There’s no one best training program for masters runners. One older runner may be able to handle training that another runner in their 20s is unable to do.
A lot of it will depend on your past running experiences (and this is where sometimes starting later in life can actually be a major advantage!), running form, and generally how you’ve treated your body up to this point.
So let’s break this down.
How to train competitively
Your VO2 max declines by about 10% every decade after age 30, which means that your body isn’t able to use oxygen as effectively. Your heart is unable to pump blood as efficiently, so maximal heart rate also declines every year, again contributing to that lower VO2 max. And a lower VO2 max means that less oxygen gets to your muscles. BUT, despite that, the efficiency of your muscles to use the oxygen that does go there continues to be maintained into your 60s and 70s. If you maintain some intensity in your training, you can minimize that efficiency loss.
With that being said, there are some physical declines that are going to be impossible to prevent. How can you give yourself the best chance of running well, of feeling good in your running?
A simple one to begin with: start your runs slower.
You may have once been able to wake up, change, and burst out the door, running your regular pace without too much problem. But now, your body needs longer to work into that pace.
Don’t see that as a negative. Many of the fastest runners in the world begin their runs slowly. The best Kenyan runners start their runs at around a 10-12 minute pace, and increase it gradually. You may have to check your ego, and not look at your pace for a few miles , but it will help to reduce the likelihood of injury. In the past, you may have felt relaxed and in your rhythm within 3-4 minutes; now it may take you more like 15. Give it time.
In the same vein, you also want to build up your mileage more slowly than you have in the past. Maybe in your younger years you could get away with jumping from 20 miles a week in week one to 60 miles a week three weeks later, but now you need to give yourself months rather than weeks to build it up.
When it comes to the type of training, knowing yourself will be key here. By now, you should have a pretty good understanding of your body and its warning signs, that gut feeling that you’repushing yourself too far. When in doubt, back off, slow down, or skip your run altogether. One extra day of recovery will always be preferable to injury.
For the most part, older runners tend to respond best to high quality, shorter intervals, with longer recoveries in between. A lower volume of training overall will suit older runners, especially to allow for enough recovery time between hard days.
One to three minute intervals work well, giving you enough time to really catch your breath and feel ready for the next one. Another change that comes from the decline in VO2 max is that you’ll find it takes longer for your breath to come back. Give it that recovery time. You won’t do yourself any favors by forcing yourself into the next repetition when you’re still struggling to catch your breath.
High quality is the key here.
Another high quality workout to use: hills. This gives you the speed work and power development without the impact of running faster on flat ground. Adding some short (30 seconds or less) uphill strides to your runs a few days a week is a great way to get that high quality without pounding the pavement and risking injury.
For most older runners, one day with hard efforts per week, in addition to a longer run to build endurance, is enough. As you’re doing less volume overall than you may have done in the past, adding a run of 60 minutes or more once a week will go a long way.
Now, something very important.
On the days when you’re doing recovery/easy runs, it is absolutely CRITICAL to take it very easy. This is where the difference comes in, as your body cherishes those recovery days, and you need to listen to it.
Yes, even if that means running the same speed you could walk, or yes, even walking instead of running. Taking those easy days very easy is going to be a fundamental part of being able to stay healthy.
Active recovery days are also fantastic for an older runner, even if that means that you only run three days per week. If you cross train on the other days through walking, swimming, or biking, you are increasing your likelihood of being able to continue running without injury or long-term damage.
Pete Magill has a wealth of valuable advice for masters runners. You can hear his recommendations for training and recovery here.
The most important piece of advice for masters runners
You know that the key to longevity as a runner is to stay healthy and injury-free, but how are you going to give yourself the best chance of that?
Older distance runners lose significant leg strength each year (yes, even if you can’t see it), which becomes a major limiting factor. Strength training is going to be key to reduce the decline in your muscle fibers. Strength training and its weight bearing has been proven by many studies to reduce the risk of osteoporosis, another benefit for older runners.
So how do you go about strength training?
Well, first what not to do.
Don’t purchase a fitness DVD and follow that, or use the 8 exercises that Runner’s World insists are the best.
If possible, try to find a strength coach or personal trainer who has experience with runners. Before you sign up for 12 lessons costing $200 each, ask that trainer about their philosophies, what they think training in the gym will look like for you.
Ask them if you’ll be doing ab work. If they mention sit-ups, crunches, or ab exercises to you, they’re probably not the right choice. If they explain to you that your abs are just part of your core, and that you have to work the entire core, the entire body together, this is a person to move forward with.
If you can’t find someone who feels right to you or simply can’t afford a trainer, try out McMillan Running’s Strength Project or Strength Running High Performance Lifting. Both of these coaches know what they’re doing, and have online programs to suit.
Managing expectations as you get older
Okay, so that’s the physical side, but what about the mental one?
You may be able to physically change your training, and because you’re still feeling the intensity, not notice too much of a difference, but what about the psychological changes? How do you handle the frustration of knowing that you’re going to get slower every year, have to do less, and be okay with it?
Stop comparing to your younger self!!
If you want to manage your expectations as an aging runner, this is essential. Especially if you’ve been running for many years, it can be hard to see your previous recovery pace gradually turning into your race pace.
But remind yourself that you are still out there running. Look at friends or family members your age, are they even feeling good at all?
It can be tempting as you age to take the easy way out and sit down, conclude that you “had a good run” (no pun intended), and just let your body decline. Although it may feel good to let your body rest, it will soon adapt to this sedentary lifestyle, and you’ll notice how much worse it feels.
Running is a great way to keep that lifeline of health to your body, but many people are unwilling or unable to do so. Give yourself some kudos that you’re still out there, running. Be thankful that you have a body that can do so, and also that you have the determination and drive to do so.
If you’re struggling to see this, find a way to give back to the sport you love so much. Could you sign up at United In Stride as a guide for a visually impaired athlete, or join your local Achilles International Chapter to support an athlete with a disability? If you’re curious as to what that might be like, you can learn more from the podcast episode with Kyle Robidoux.
You could volunteer at a local race, or set up a fundraiser for something you’re passionate about. Could you mentor a younger runner or coach someone with what you’ve learned? Giving back is a great way to gain perspective.
You also have perspective on yourself. You’ve been through a lot, made it through some really hard times, and yes, it is difficult to see your body slowing down. BUT you can also see what running has given you, what life has given you, and be thankful that you are able to go out there and do what you love.
And yes, while in a race, it does feel good to look around at younger runners struggling to keep up with you.
Finally, one way to handle the mental struggle of losing mileage as you age is to measure your runs by minutes rather than distance. It’s a small change that makes a big difference mentally.
Keeping healthy as an aging runner
Okay, so what if competitive running isn’t your goal. You simply want to remain active and healthy. How can you maintain your running that way?
Many of the tips from above still apply. You should still be starting your runs slower and working into them, running less mileage overall, adding short hill sprints in if you want to maintain your speed, and yes, strength training.
Sorry, that’s a must for every older runner…actually, for every runner, period.
You, though, have a nice advantage. When it comes to quality workouts, the hard days, if you don’t have any goals or expectations, you can just do those when you feel good, rather than thinking that you have to do one as it has been too long since the last. If you’re feeling extra tired, do a week of just easy running or even cross training.
If you start a run and really just do not feel good, slow it to a walk. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, and again, just appreciate the fact that you’re able to get out there and exercise, and that you’re looking after your health and your body.
Another thing to note, when it comes to maintaining health as an older runner, you have nothing to gain from running through pain. The risk is a long-term injury that takes the thing you love away from you for weeks or months, and if you’re not committed to a goal, you shouldn’t have any pressure to force it.
And if something does turn into an injury, see a sports medicine doctor, physiotherapist or physical therapist. Most injuries don’t just go away on their own. They came up for a reason, and unless you fix the source, you’ll continue to have trouble with it. Older runners are at an increased risk of it turning something chronic. Don’t take that risk. Go get it looked at by an expert and work on what they tell you needs to be done.
If you love to run, it’s worth the time and money.
Starting running later in life
It’s not uncommon for runners to start running later in life, which is absolutely wonderful. Runners who take up running in their 50s, 60s and beyond are an inspiration.
If you’ve never run before, though, it can be a scary new world to enter, full of strange words and things to remember. Not to mention those things that you’ve been told your entire life that turn out to be false (running is bad for your knees, anyone?).
If this is you, first, before you do anything else, think about how EMPOWERING it feels to be doing this, going against the messages and media telling you to sit down and rest, and instead taking control of your own life, your own future.
Now, if you’re starting to run for the first time as an older runner, many articles that you read about starting running may have advice that doesn’t apply to you, because your body is likely going to rebel against intense programs. You simply can’t get away with as much as you could have when you were younger. That means being conservative, conservative, conservative.
However, the starting running advice generally will still work for you. You still need to build up slowly, give yourself lots of recovery days, and by now, you should know your body well enough to know what is too much for you.
It’s best to get some kind of training plan, or work with a coach like Pete Magill, someone who has worked with a lot of older runners.
You may find that you start running just for health and wellness, but that it develops into wanting to challenge yourself. Check in with your doctor from time to time to make sure that your body is responding well to training, but for the most part, you can still push yourself a little, especially in races. And you will see improvement as your body gets used to this new sport.
The biggest thing though, is that you need to remind yourself that the goal is to keep doing it. Many new runners, regardless of age, find that they get excited with the new sport, get carried away, and end up injured. If in doubt, back off.
Finally, most of all, remind yourself often of how good it feels to be keeping your body healthy, and that your body has the ability to do this. No matter how fast or how slow you are going, you are out there doing this, and are probably inspiring a lot of people, even if they don’t show it or are even making negative remarks. You know your body best, and the runners mentioned at the beginning should show you that your age doesn’t determine what you’re able to do as a runner. Just because other people haven’t changed their mindsets, that doesn’t mean that you have to stay in the past. Allow yourself to grow. Other people’s negative thoughts belong only to them.