I have to say it right off the bat, this isn’t a post about starting running later in life. There’s already some really great information out there regarding that. No need for me to rehash. However, I was recently asked about those who have run for a long time and are now approaching their 50’s and 60’s (and beyond). How can they stay competitive, but adapt to age-related declines in performance? It was a great question, but one I hadn’t really thought a lot about.
Personally, I think we are capable of much more than we think we are. From my experience, it’s not the ability that holds the person back, but rather things like time and motivation. Those aren’t bad- we just lose interest sometimes. We move on to new challenges, or our priorities change. For those who are running veterans, I put together a list of things that will help you stay competitive and run high quality age equivalent performances. Even if you are a younger runner, take these things to heart. Starting some of these habits now will make the aging process go a lot smoother!
- Don’t stop. You know the saying- If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. The easiest way to maintain your fitness is to not allow yourself to go too far back down the ladder. What I see is that a lot of runners will go by the adage, “if you can’t run faster, you run farther.” By that I mean, if a person loses what they deem to be, their competitive edge, they move up in distance. So, a person who used to race all distances might move up to the half or full marathon just because they can be more competitive there. the declines are not as much. Heck, now people are moving up to the 50 mile, 100 mile, and 24-hour challenges because it becomes a true test of endurance and that can be maintained for decades! Or, they’ll abandon “training” for running because you can go out and run the miles and be competitive in those longer distances. It may not be your wheelhouse anymore, but train, don’t just run.
- To piggyback on that, doing speedwork is key. The beauty of speedwork is that it comes in a lot of forms. This can be fartleks, hills, done on the roads, and spaced out more. We don’t have to hit the track every week. At this stage, a little bit will go a long way. Speed keeps all muscle fibers engaged, keep your running economy higher, keep your VO2 higher, and keep your ability to run at higher percentages of your LT. All these things are important, even if all you do is want to run halves and fulls. You don’t need to do these every week and you can have fun with it. I would encourage you to do dedicated speed segments, but even if you just sprinkle these in along the way, it will be a big help.
- Stay strong. After the age of 30, the average person loses 3-8% of their muscle mass! Yikes!! Once you hit 60, that can be even more. Losing muscle mass is detrimental for a number of reasons. For one, you lose your ability to maintain performance. Second, most people replace that lost muscle with gained fat. Third, metabolism slows. That’s a lot of stuff that can impact you! If you can engage in strength training via core, bodyweight, and basic moves, you can preserve this muscle mass. If you already do these things, then keep at it and think about incorporating heavy lifting like squats and deadlifts. These can help with bone density, too.
- Be flexible. Loss of range of motion will inhibit stride length. Keeping muscles and tendons supple will help reduce the risk of injury. You’ll recover better, and you’ll feel better. I encourage doing either some foam rolling on the achilles, quads, hamstrings and IT band before running or doing a dynamic workout routine. Taking 2-3 minutes before a run can go a long way. It can also help reduce the risk of injury by helping you bridge the gap from going zero to running in a few seconds.
- Spread it out. I encourage a 9-day cycle or an alternator type of setup. If you are going to keep your intensity high (which I think you should), then recovering from that work is key. Now, I feel like if you do the things I have already discussed, you can keep your mileage pretty high. However, giving yourself a couple of days between efforts can go a long way. This also allows you to replace a day a week to cross-train instead. Now, given this- doing fewer workouts per week and potentially fewer miles, then segment length might need to be longer. Instead of a 14-16 week buildup, you might find that you need 18+ weeks to build that fitness level back up.
- Know your numbers. As with any high-level performer, regardless of age, knowing your blood work numbers can help you keep your health optimal. We know as we age that things like calcium are critical for bone mass, but knowing things like iron/ferritin, free testosterone, vitamin d, cortisol, and electrolyte levels can help you stay on top of any potential deficiencies that could occur through heavy training. I encourage quarterly to every 6 months to get your blood work done and have a physician who works with endurance athletes give you the readings.
I have been running and competing for over 25 years. I can’t wait for another 25 years. Sure, the scope of that competition will probably change, but racing is fun. Challenging yourself is awesome. I’m already implementing most of these bullet points and will be implementing them all over the course of the year. I wish you a lifetime of competing!