I may only be in my 30s, and yes, that does mean I am not yet at the stage where I am having to experience a lot of the protests from my body that will come with age, or changes that occur in the fourth decade and beyond, but I have learned a lot from other friends who are masters runners through the podcast, and just general conversation to learn. Amanda Loudin, Jonathan Beverly, and Alex Hutchinson all gave helpful advice, and I want to thank them for their time.
I also do have a few things to say before we get on to the actual advice here. First being, that the rules are changing around masters running. We are seeing unprecedented numbers of older runners not just running well, but running faster than ever. Before these men and women started to break down barriers, the age of 30 was seen as the beginning of the end, when things were on the decline, and fast.
These runners have since proved otherwise:
- Multiple women in their 40s running under 2:30 for a marathon
- Deena Kastor running a masters world record in the half marathon of 1:09
- Roberta Groner finished 6th in the marathon world championships aged 41
- Malindi Elmore ran a 2:24 (aged 39)
- Krista Duchene finished 3rd at Boston in 2018
- Sinead Diver ran 2:24 aged 41
- Pete Magill became the oldest American to break 15:00 for 5K at age 49
- Bernard Lagat has broken multiple masters world records since turning 40
- Meb Keflezighi running 1:02 for a half marathon a few weeks after his 40th birthday
- Joan Benoit Samuelson running a 3:04 in the marathon aged 61
- Bill Rogers still winning age group awards well into his 70s
And many many more.
There are so many examples of this, and of course here, most of what I have shared is at the top level, and you may believe that for you, those kind of times were never really on the cards, at your peak or not. 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 Marathon (while handling the stress of organizing the event!) at age 56. Or the legendary Ed Whitlock running a 3:56 aged 85 or Jeannie Rice running 3:35 aged 71.
It doesn’t even have to be about running your best time ever, either. Yes, of course these are fantastic things to celebrate and possibly achieve, but does it have to be about being the fastest you have ever been? The reality is, at some point our bodies WILL slow down or be able to handle less.
A 3:04 in the marathon aged 62 may be an incredible feat for Joan Benoit Samuelson, but it is a long way from her personal best of 2:21.
So what can you do then?
Well, let’s break masters running down a little bit. As with runners of every stage of life, there are different goals. We all go through waves of wanting to take it serious, give it our best, and see what we are capable of, and other periods where we just want to be out there for the joy of it, the stress relief, the friendships.
And those require different approaches.
Regardless of what the goals are for your running, there is one question that comes up over and over.
Every time I have an older runner on my podcast this comes up, and every time I hear a version of the same answer.
Ready for the big one?
There really isn’t as much that you need to change as you might think.
I will go into what does need changing in just a bit, but for now, keep that in mind. At the end of the day, every single person is different, and you still have to learn to listen to your body to find the mix that is best for you. There is no one best training program for older 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 just how you have treated your body up to this point.
So let’s break this down.
Keeping a performance edge as you age
You may be getting older, and at an age where people are not expecting you to do anything spectacular, but you feel GOOD. You have a drive, a fire in your belly to go for it.
That may or may not be pushing you towards a fastest time ever, but you can still push yourself, especially as you have the wisdom and strength of more years on this earth.
But is it still possible to run fast for where you are at, without the fear of breaking something removing all the fun from the sport?
Yes and no.
Your VO2 max declines by about 10% every decade after age 30, which will mean your body is not 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 less oxygen gets to your muscles. BUT, despite that, your 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.
How to train competitively
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 start; 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 do this. Kenyan athletes (who have many world records) start their runs around a 10-12 minute pace, and work into their pace. You may have to check your ego, and not look at your pace for a few miles (although I recommend not at all!), but it will help to reduce the likelihood of injury, and I would say that is reason enough in itself. 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 slower 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 itself, knowing yourself will be key here. By now, you should have a pretty good understanding of your body and it’s warning signs, that gut feeling that you are pushing yourself too far. If in doubt, back off, slow down, or skip altogether. One extra day of recovery will always be preferable to injury.
For the most part, older runners tend to respond better to high quality, shorter intervals, with longer recoveries in between. A lower volume of training overall will suit older runners better, especially to allow for enough recovery days between hard days.
One to three minute intervals works well, giving yourself enough time to really catch your breath and feel ready to go for the next one. Another change that comes from the decline in VO2 max is you will find it takes longer for your breath to come back. Give it that recovery. You will not do yourself any favors by forcing yourself into the next repetition when you are 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 the flat ground from running faster. 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 hard day with hard efforts per week is enough, in addition to a longer run to build endurance. As you are doing less volume overall and less volume in your workout than you may be used to doing in the past, adding in a run of 60 minutes or over once a week will go a long way.
Now, something very important.
On the days, the moments you are 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 itself 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 as an older runner. Even if that means you only run three days per week, but 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
The most important piece of advice for masters runners
I saved the best for last.
Sure, could have added this first, as the critical one to follow through on, but I wanted to give you the things you wanted to hear on how to train competitively as an older runner, and I did, but you know the key is to stay healthy and injury free.
How are you going to give yourself the best chance of avoiding injuries and running well as an older runner?
Older distance runners lose significant amounts of leg strength each year (yes, even if you cannot see it), which becomes a major limiting factor for older runners. 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 runners world insists are the best exercises.
I know that is not the answer you want to hear, but unfortunately, it is the only one I am comfortable giving. Anyone who tells you otherwise, you may want to question their intentions.
If possible, try to find yourself 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.
And my little secret (as a test), ask them if you will include ab work. If they mention sit ups, crunches, or ab exercises to you, they are probably not going to be a great fit. If they explain to you that your abs are just part of your core, and you have to work the entire core, the entire body together, this is a person to move forward with.
I would suggest working with someone for just a few sessions to get an understanding of what you should be doing.
If you cannot find someone who feels right to you or simply cannot afford, try out McMillan Running’s Strength Project or Strength Running High Performance Lifting. Both of these coaches know what they are doing, and have online programs to suit.
Managing expectations as you get older
Okay, so that is the physical side, but what about the mental side?
You may be able to physically change your training, and because you are 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 every year you are going to get slower, have to do less, and be okay with it?
Well, the first thing I am going to say, you know is coming; stop comparing to your younger self!!
If you want to manage your expectations as an aging runner, this is going to be absolutely key. Especially if you have been running for many years, it can be hard to see your previous recovery pace slowly turning into your race pace.
But remind yourself that you are still out there running. Look at other friends, family members your age, are they even feeling good at all?
It is very easy as you age to take the way out to just sit down and 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 will notice how much worse your body feels.
Running is a great way to keep that lifeline of health to your body, but many are unable or unwilling to do so. Give yourself some kudos for that. You are out there running, and should be thankful that you have a body that can do so. Also that you have the determination and drive to do so. Many of your friends may look up to you for still having that grit, and watching it translate to other areas of your life.
If you are 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? You could volunteer at your local race, or set up a fundraiser for something you are passionate about. Could you mentor a younger runner or coach someone with what you have learned?
Giving back is a great way to bring perspective, to remind yourself of what running brings the world, beyond just the act of running itself.
You also have perspective of your own. You have been through a lot, made it through some really hard times, and yes, it is difficult to see your body slowing down, yet another example of the best days being behind you. BUT you can also see what running has given you, what life has given you, and be thankful you are able to go out there and do what you love with the perspective and wisdom you have gained.
And yes, while in a race, it does feel good to look around at the younger runners, at peak physical fitness struggling to keep up with you. There might be a little satisfaction in there of you too.
Finally, one way to handle the mental struggle of losing mileage as you age is to measure your runs by minutes over distance. I have actually been doing this for a few years now, and I have to say, a small change that makes a big difference mentally.
Finding training programs
I know what I have given you here is just the basics, the overall reminders for an older runner, but if you are looking for a coach or someone to learn more specifics from, Pete Magill has coached hundreds of masters runners to new highs, and would be a great resource to go find and learn from.
Keeping healthy as an aging runner
Okay, so what if competitive running isn’t the goal. You simply want to remain active and healthy. How can you maintain your running that way?
If you just want to be able to run for the sheer joy of it, the health benefits it brings you, fantastic. I am also in that stage right now, and I have to say, it does feel good. It brings freedom and a lack of expectations that is really nice after many years of schedules, goals, and pushing.
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 is a must for every older runner…and I would argue 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 put those in where you feel good, rather than feeling you have to get it in as it has been too long since the last. If you are feeling extra tired, take 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, there is nothing to be ashamed of there, and again, just appreciate the fact that you are bale to get out there and exercise. That you re looking after your health and your body.
One thing to note though, when it comes to maintaining health as an older runner, you have nothing to gain from running through pain of injury. The risk is a long term injury that does take the thing you love away from you for weeks or months, and if you are not committed to a goal, you shouldn’t have any pressure to force it.
If you need to slow down, back off, or skip a few days, do it.
And if something does turn into an injury, book in to see a sports medicine doctor, physiotherapist or physical therapist. Most injuries do not just go away on their own. They came up for a reason, and unless you fix the source, you will continue to have trouble with that. In older runners, you are at an increased risk of turning something chronic (will last for a long time). Don’t take the 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, I would say it is worth the time and money.
Want to just be able to run
Staying healthy is obviously a goal for every runner, and becomes especially true as you age, but what about if you just want to be able to run. You don’t need to be doing it for a race or for any recognition. And for you, it isn’t even about your long term health. You know it is only a benefit that you will be healthy and strong to watch your grandchildren grow, however, that doesn’t motivate you.
You just love to do it.
And you are scared of it being taken away from you. Either you have had lots of injuries in the past, or heard many others who have struggled with injuries as they age, and you don’t want to become one of them.
The first thing you need to do is figure out your why. WHY do you love to run, what does it bring you?
I have created a worksheet for this. It is actually one of the 23 worksheets in my mental training course, but I snuck it out of there for you to use. Put your email in below and I will send it to you within an hour.
Filling this sheet out will get you find to the source of what running means to you. Once you know your deep, personal reason for running, you will be able to figure out how to protect it for you, how to keep that feeling in your life, even if the volume or duration you run goes down over the years.
Another way to just enjoy the sport is to give back. I mentioned some ideas above in the managing expectations section. Volunteering, being a guide, giving back to the community in a way that feels right to you, will keep you connected to the community. Feeling like you still belong and that you are a part of something is still a big part of enjoying running. The Running For Real Superstars community has many older runners, and I love to learn from the wisdom of the masters runners in there (even if they don’t see themselves as anything special). Come join us if you want to.
One note for the women reading:
Thermoregulation can get tricky, especially after menopause. This means it can be tougher to stay cool in hot weather. If you find this is your situation, take a look at your racing schedule and opt for events in the cooler months.
Thanks to my friend Amanda Loudin for that piece of advice there. Something I would have not considered, but very important to know. I also have a podcast episode on menopause if this applies to you.
Starting running late in life
It is not uncommon for runners to come into running later in life, which is absolutely wonderful.
I LOVE that we can approach getting older in a different way, and those runners who take up running in their 50’s, 60’s and beyond are SO inspiring to me. I love to hear stories about your decision to begin, so if this is you, send me an email and share your story!
It’s all very well to want to start running, or even to begin on your own without guidance, but if you have never run before, it can be a scary new world to enter, full of strange words and things to remember. Not even to mention those things you have been told (or telling others!) your whole life that turn out to be false (running is bad for your knees anyone?).
If this is you, firstly, before you do anything, sit back and think about how EMPOWERING it feels to be doing this. That YOU have decided to go against the messages and media telling you to sit down and rest, and instead are taking control of your own life, own future.
You deserve a massive pat on the back, and I am so excited for this future as a runner.
Now, if you are starting running for the first time as an older runner, many articles you read about starting running may have advice that does not apply to you, because your body is likely going to rebel against intense programs. You simply cannot get away with as much as you could when you were younger. That means 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 in between, and by now, you should know your body well enough to know what is too much for you.
I would recommend getting some kind of training plan or working with a coach like Pete Magill, someone who has worked with a lot of older runners. there is also a fantastic book by Margaret Webb written specifically for older runners. I would suggest getting a copy of that. I am not a coach, so not comfortable with prescribing you training, but the advice I suggested in the performance section above will still be helpful for you.
You may find you start out running just for health and wellness, but it develops into something you want to challenge yourself. Check in with your doctor from time to time to make sure your body is responding well to the 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. Your body may not be as forgiving with that. 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 slow you are going, you are out there doing this, and I am willing to bet, you are inspiring a lot of people. Even if they are not showing it (or even giving you negative remarks). Only you know your body best, and the runners I mentioned at the beginning should show you that your age should not determine what you are able to do as a runner. Just because people have not changed their own mindsets, does not mean you have to stay in the past. Allow yourself to grow. Other people’s negative thoughts belong only to them.
Keep going my friend, you are an inspiration!