Run for Your Life!
Aging Is Not the Enemy of the Runner as Long as the Running Can Be Kept Fresh
There’s a lot of truth in the old saying, “Age slows running, but running slows aging.” Age does take an inevitable toll on the body. Runners who ignore the aging process and press on with the their workouts and racing goals unchanged from younger days are very likely to find themselves “running” into trouble. But the flip side to that dilemma is that runners who adjust their running to take account of the changes in their bodies can find running to be something of a fountain of youth. Active runners in their forties, fifties, and beyond manage to stay trim, fit, and energetic while the non-runners around them are turning into couch potatoes.
What separates runners who tap into long and satisfying second running lives after fifty from those who develop one career threatening injury after another until they give up on running altogether? Chances are the successful runners have made some key physical and mental adjustments along the way. The precise adjustments for coping with age vary from runner to runner. Nonetheless, common themes do emerge when the practices of many successful older runners are examined. Strength training and cross training are two major components of many older runners’ routines. Shifting from shorter, faster races to longer slower races is another common practice, as well as moving from road running to trail running. Finally, most runners have a story about a significant adjustment to their attitude or the way they perceive running that they believe has kept their enjoyment of running alive.
Dr. James Vawter, past medical director of the Big Sur International Marathon and someone with years of experience treating aging runners, has some standard advice when 40- and 50-something runners come in complaining about newly acquired aches and pains. “You need to get stronger,” he says. Aging brings with it a natural tendency to lose muscle tone and strength. Older runners tend to develop imbalances as their running related muscles stay strong and overwhelm their non running related muscles. Upper body strength, especially, tends to fade with age.
Vawter has found that introducing a resistance or strength training regimen can offset this process and preserve the balance of muscle mass needed for efficient and proper running mechanics. Strengthening muscles around the knee joint and the trunk area is particularly beneficial for runners as the stabilization lessens the stress on tendons and other connective tissues.
Another advocate of strength training is the United Kingdom’s running expert Dr. Sylvester Stein who says, “It is necessary…to become less of a specialist in order to maintain…fitness. The runner should spend more time on upper body training and flexibility exercises…” Many runners choose free weights for their strength routines as they provide an inexpensive and flexible means to work all the key muscle groups. Two or three strength training sessions a week is all that is needed to make a difference. Runners should concentrate on greater numbers of repetitions done with good form rather than piling on additional weight since a runner is trying to develop increased stamina in the muscle rather than excess bulk.
In addition to offsetting diminished muscle strength, weight training will boost a runner’s power on the uphills, replace fat with efficient calorie burning muscle mass, and reduce the likelihood of overuse and stress injuries. Strength training also promotes a host of other benefits of interest to aging runners such as lowered blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, and deterring the onset of osteoporosis.
Hand in glove with muscle strengthening is muscle stretching. Stein cautions that “flexibility and mobility cannot be taken for granted.” Runners who have gotten by for years without stretching would be well advised to change that habit. Gently stretching after an initial warm up, especially the calves and Achilles tendons, can do much to ward off muscle pulls and tears, which tend to get more common with age and take longer to heal than when a runner is younger.
Cross-training, that is, supplementing running with a non-running activity, is well suited to older runners since activities like swimming or bicycling are low impact and reduce the wear and tear on joints and connective tissue. Substituting a cross training session for one or two weekly runs can make a world of difference. The body will get a break from the relatively high impact of running, and at the same time, muscle imbalances that can result from a running only routine will be addressed. Many runners choose swimming for their cross training as it offers excellent overall strength and aerobic training with zero impact on the joints that take the worst pounding in running: the ankles, knees, and hips. Runners new to exercise swimming should seriously consider taking lessons. Learning proper technique will lead to getting the most out of time spent in the pool.
Bicycling is another popular, low impact cross-training activity. It can be worked into a busy schedule by using the bike to commute or to run errands. Road cycling strengthens primarily the leg muscles, especially the upper leg. Mountain biking offers a more overall body workout and promotes the development of tremendous dexterity in steering the bike, balancing, shifting, and braking. Biking offers lots of opportunities for racing or participating in organized rides. It allows taking a break from a constant series of runs yet provides the same chance to socialize and compete. Both road cycling and mountain biking, however, involve exposure to some considerable hazards so it is important to develop skills slowly and carefully. An expert should be enlisted to help pick out equipment and set the bike up properly. Helmets are a must at all times on a bike.
Swimming and biking are the traditional cross training sports but there are many other possibilities. Dave Kim, a longtime fixture in the Northern California running community who has completed well over 200 marathons and ultras, is an avid kayaker. In fact he says, “I’ve been a whitewater kayaker for the past thirty years and I’ve always said that I’m a kayaker who runs a little.” Veteran runner Heidi Schutt dabbles in several activities to support her running, including swimming, biking, weight-lifting, Yoga, Pilates, and long hikes. Beryl Bender Birch, wellness director of the New York Road Runners Club, has long advocated Yoga as a supplement to running. Yoga not only stretches and lengthens muscles, but assuming and holding the different positions strengthens muscles as well. “Power yoga is a real sweat-producing workout,” says Birch. “Many people who attend power yoga classes are…runners…who come for injury prevention or injury rehabilitation.”
Many runners follow their initial interest in a cross training sport into the very popular world of biathlons and triathlons. Pursuing the variety of workouts, learning the added complexities of competing in a triathlon, and making new social contacts can rejuvenate an all-running routine that has gotten stale. It is also a wonderful feeling to complete the swim and bike legs of a triathlon and then run away from the other competitors who don’t have the great stamina and running strength of a long distance runner.
Cross training offers another benefit to the older runner. When injuries do occur that require laying off of running for various lengths of time, the runner can use the alternate sport to keep up a high level of fitness. Low impact activities like swimming, aquajogging, or biking can often be practiced safely while a running related injury is being rehabilitated. The loss of fitness that results from being completely inactive can be avoided and with it that long and frustrating climb back to a former fitness level.
Adjusting Your Running Habits
It makes sense as runners get older and want to continue racing to gravitate toward slower-paced events that cover longer distances. Many runners move from 10Ks to marathons and from marathons to ultramarathons as they get older. The speed training required to do well at the shorter distances can spell trouble for older runners whose muscles and connective tissues have become less supple and flexible and less able to hold up under intense interval training. The LSD (long slow distance) workouts suitable for preparing for a marathon or ultramarathon are generally just the type of training that older runners tolerate well and enjoy. Remember though that it is important to increase weekly mileage slowly when first training for longer events. Mileage should only be increased about five percent a week or less. A too rapid increase in weekly mileage can result in an injury to runners of any age. Older runners should also plan on longer recovery periods following races and hard workouts. Yet another pattern to keep in mind is the number of days of consecutive training. Older runners should break up their training days with more rest days to avoid the injuries that occur from insufficient rest.
Another shift that is common is from road racing to trail running. Trails are much easier on the runner’s skeleton than unforgiving road surfaces. Many injuries can be avoided by simply shifting a large percentage of miles logged onto softer surfaces without changing anything else about the running routine. Running on uneven trails provides an excellent workout and is terrific for building up the muscles that stabilize the ankle. More muscles are engaged in running when the runner must constantly adjust to the changing camber of the trail, and muscles are put through a greater range of motion than if the runner remained on a flat road. First time trail runners will need to learn to watch their footing. Twisting or rolling an ankle is the number one injury associated with trail running.
As runners approach fifty, they should be concerned about running related health issues, but it is also an excellent time to take stock of their health in general. Fifty is a good time to pass through a regimen of screening tests for problems that sometimes crop up unexpectedly at about this age. Even very fit runners may be surprised to find that areas of no concern before have become problematic, such as elevated cholesterol levels or high blood pressure. Screening for colon cancer has become a common practice for many as they pass their fiftieth birthday with physicians in general agreement that everyone can benefit from the procedure. There is less agreement on screening all adults older than 45 for diabetes, although some risk factors, such as a family history of the disease, definitely call for screening.
Diet is another area that may need some adjustment as a runner grows older and continues an active running routine. Shifting the diet to more vegetables and fruits and away from fats may be advantageous. Adding supplements might also be called for. Studies have shown the beneficial effects of taking vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene to enhance the levels of antioxidants produced by the body. Runners should seek out a doctor who has worked with runners and will be able to not only diagnose problems caused by running but will also have good advice to share on such supplements as glucosamine and chondroitin.
The Mind Games
While adjusting to the physical realities of aging is important, perhaps the most essential aspect of remaining a healthy and enthusiastic runner after age fifty is the mental adjustment that is required. Talk to older long distance runners and almost all of them will have a story to tell about some significant change they made in the way they approach running. Here is how Heidi Schutt, for example, responds to questions from people about her goal for a race, “I tell them I have an escape and adventure planned—but no goal!” Dave Olney, veteran of many 100 mile runs, tells how his whole outlook on participating in long races changed when he discovered his strong walking pace would get him to the finish. “Instead of feeling like I had to run, run, run and feeling guilty every time I was reduced to a walk, I assumed an almost Taoist state of calm. I realized that I could walk the hundred miles at a good clip and whenever I felt like running I could put a little extra time in the bank.”
Similarly, many runners have gone through a process of shifting their focus during training and in races. Instead of caring only about the competition and the finishing time, they pay attention to what has always made running enjoyable to them, the many stimulating sensations of running in beautiful locations and the social communion with like minded friends. Sports psychologist guru, Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter, in her book Your Performing Edge, talks about a way to perceive the slowing process. “The slowdown in performances with age exists only on the stopwatch. The physical action, the breathing, and the sense of intensity in racing feel the same…Times change, but feelings do not.” She encourages runners to take satisfaction from their effort and their enthusiasm to keep competing, rather than from the times they run. She adds, “Rather than comparing current performances to your all-time personal records, look toward setting new PR’s for each season, for each single age, and each five-year age group.”
Setting and meeting goals, even if those goals are less lofty than in the past, is another key element in continuing to enjoy running. Instead of attempting to break a past record on a familiar course, set the goal of completing a race never tried before, or completing a new distance. Some runners point out that being older and reaching a more settled stage of life has given them the freedom to travel around the country competing wherever they like. Using running as the rationale for travel to other parts of the country can be a goal in itself. Putting in a good effort during a workout can be a goal rather than trying to meet a certain time or cover a certain distance. Meeting goals brings satisfaction and helps to redefine what constitutes success.
A Fiftieth Birthday to Remember
By the time David Nakashima turned fifty, his competitive running career included such highlights as several sub forty minute 10Ks, a win at a trail half marathon, several Big Sur International Marathon finishes, the Boston Marathon, age group awards at various ultras, two finishes at the Western States 100 Mile Endurance run, and running in a relay team across the entire United States. With that kind of running background, it’s not surprising that he felt like celebrating his fiftieth birthday by running fifty miles. Northern California, where Nakashima resides, offered several possible 50 mile races near the key date, but he chose to stage his own fifty mile run.
Before the big day, he sent maps and schedules around to all his friends with an invitation to join him in the celebration. On run day, he filled his car trunk with ice chests full of sports drinks, sandwiches, potato chips, power bars, cut up fruits and vegetables, and other snacks and parked the car at a central location in a Monterey city park. The fifty mile route consisted of several loops of varying difficulty radiating out from the park. Some loops were demanding fifteen mile treks over hills and through forests. Other loops were two mile walking breaks around the lake in the park. Between loops, there was the trunk full of goodies to keep people well fortified. The idea was that runners of all abilities–even non-runners–could come and run or walk some of the miles with him. A few stalwart ultra-buddies even went the whole distance with him.
The event was so compelling the local newspaper sent a reporter and photographer. People came and went as the day progressed from early morning into the late afternoon. Some came only to walk the “rest” loops. Others came early to run along the beach and then were on there way. Many people showed up to run the final loop that passed through Monterey’s famous Cannery Row and extended out to the edge of Pebble Beach. As the runners swept through the last of the fifty miles, friends and family members were gathering at the park to set up a huge picnic barbecue. The day ended with tired runners, excited kids, and a big birthday feast.
The event epitomized so many good practices for the aging runner. Nakashima could have just entered another race. Instead he focused on what for him remained very positive about running. He surrounded himself with his running friends. He created a course that was a new and enjoyable adventure to run. He set himself a challenging yet manageable goal. He included his family in a very positive way and merged the celebration of a significant milestone in his life with his running life. Ten years later, he and his running friends still look back on that as one of the greatest running days of their lives. Had Nakashima simply gone out and ran a race that day, it would have been long forgotten!
Recommendations for Older Runners in a Nutshell:
- Add a couple of weight lifting sessions to your routine each week
- Substitute a cross training activity for one or two of your runs each week
- Shift the bulk of your running from hard surfaces (road) to soft surfaces (trail)
- Shift the bulk of your races from short, fast events to long, slow events
- Go in for a complete physical work up with a physician who knows running related health issues
- Focus on enjoying the process of running and the community of runners rather than on times and records
Set goals that broaden your running experiences, such as, new distances, new places, new events.