How experts and masters runners stay fit and avoid injury--and how you can, tooBy: Dimity McDowell
As You Get Older, You Will Slow Down. You will probably run less--and ache more. You might get frustrated, especially since you remember the glory days when you could rip off a PR by merely adding a few 800s to your workouts. Now, the much better news: A slew of masters runners (a.k.a. the over-40 crowd) have been exploding age-group records in recent years, proving that with continued smart training and sharpened goals, you don't have to slow down as much as you suspect. (More: Get Fit and Lose Weight After 40)
"Anyone who thinks you have to be younger than 30 to do something in this sport is simply not paying attention," says running coach Greg McMillan. "The more you continue to run, the longer you'll be able to run. Sure, you might have to work harder and pay more attention to what your body's telling you, but it shouldn't be surprising to see individuals become better runners--I didn't say faster--as they get older."
To that end, we gathered the stories of everyday runners--who happen to be over 40 but who grapple with concerns that even younger runners will find familiar--as well as some scientific data and tips from top training and injury-prevention experts to keep you, on both a practical and inspirational level, running strong no matter how many candles you will be lighting on your next birthday cake.
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Jane Espy, 65, Sanibel Island, Florida
Jane Espy started running when she was 29. “During winter in Chicago, my neighbor and I would do laps up and down the block in our snow boots," says Espy. "When three miles became easy, we bought real running shoes, and did a Bonne Bell 10-K in 1977." Today, Espy typically logs about 30 miles each week. She also makes time for one long bike ride, two strength-training sessions, and a little canoeing. She's been competing since her 40s, when she filled her weekends with 5-Ks and 10-Ks. She's also finished four marathons. (Train For Your Own Marathon: Ultimate Training Guide)
Biggest concern: Maintaining fitness level. "I used to focus on getting fast, but now I just want to be able to run for as many years as possible," says Espy who admits to being "a little bummed" about finishing the 2008 Big Sur Marathon in 5:03. "I love to run, and I'm miserable if I can't for some reason."
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Train by time, not miles: As you age, your miles obviously tick off a little more slowly than they used to. "If your mile pace slows by a minute and you're used to doing 40 miles a week, that's a lot of extra time training that your body might not handle well," says McMillan, of Flagstaff, Arizona.
Realize rest is not a four-letter word: Espy is good at taking a rest day, but not all lifelong runners are. "You won't lose fitness when you take a day or two off," says Sage Rountree, Ph.D., author of The Athlete's Guide to Recovery, who recommends alternating long-and-slow workouts with short-and-fast ones for most masters athletes, and at least one recovery day for those in their 20s. "You'll actually regain some pep." Most important, even if the schedule says go, but your body says no, respect the latter.
Hit the mat: Yoga puts your muscles through their full range of motion, helping them stay elastic and flexible so you minimize your injury risk (a key as the calendar moves forward). "Injuries can come more often and last longer as runners get older," says Rountree, who is also a yoga instructor and running coach. She recommends taking one class a week, and then doing a few 15-minute mini sessions on your own. "Do the poses that were frustrating to you in class," she says, adding that tight hamstrings and hip flexors are usually problematic for runners over the age of 35. Saying om at least once a week also has been shown to help athletes improve their balance and get a better night's rest.
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Espy’s Success Secrets
1. Plan Carefully
She runs 30 miles a week for three weeks, then gives her body a break with a 15-to 20-mile week.
2. Practice Restraint
"I don't do speedwork anymore, but I'll pick it up if I feel good."
3. Add Strength Training
It's something she didn't do early on but says, "My joints feel more supported now."
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Mark Meyers, 49, Pewaukee, Wisconsin
Mark Meyers has been running for as long as he can remember. "I grew up on a farm and ran to get tools to repair machinery, to get the livestock for milking, and just because I loved the feeling it gave me," he says. When he wasn't on the farm, he was competing: Meyers ran track and cross-country in high school and college, ran his first marathon in 1981, and competed in the 1984 Division III Track & Field Championships in the 10-K. He went on to win the St. Louis Marathon twice and set a marathon PR of 2:25:09 there in 1985. His weekly routine consists of 50 to 60 miles, which includes track work, tempo runs, hill work, and two sessions of core-strength training. "I don't keep times at the forefront of my training," he says. Even so, his recent marathon PR is 2:47:31, and his 5-K PR is 17:13.
Biggest concern: Keeping things challenging while continuing to run smart. "My mind still thinks like a 20-year-old, and it's tempting to listen to my mind and ignore my body."
A Pain-Free Way to Mix Up Your Workout Routine
Keep your body guessing: "Competitive older runners often fall into a rut," says McMillan. "They know the workouts they like and what has made them successful, and they don't want to change anything." Speed up, slow down, hit the hills, hit the trails, do anything that feels slightly out of your comfort zone. Meyers's coach regularly has him do runs where he has to stop midrun and do sets of push-ups, planks, lunges, or squats, which help simulate muscle fatigue that is comparable to races and boost functional strength.
Go for quality: Most veteran runners likely know by now that many issues can eat away at your running time. Instead of getting frustrated, downsize your schedule, especially if you're working full-time. McMillan recommends going for six to 12 quality workouts [speedwork, tempo, hill repeats, long runs) a month, filling in with less intense workouts.
Focus on recovery: "The most important part of my routine is the first 15 minutes after I finish the actual run," says Pete Magill, a Compex Racing coach who has led masters teams to 13 national titles. (Search: What to do after a run) "That's when I rehydrate, replenish, and stretch. If I couldn't start tomorrow's workout when I'm done with today's, then I didn't do the proper postrun work."
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Meyers's Success Secrets
1. Eye the Competition
"I'm a tactical runner. If I see somebody ahead of me whose shoulders are hunched, I know he's mine. Especially in the last stretch, I'll push it and see how many people I can pick off."
2. Use Perceived Effort
"I rarely clock splits, but I'm honest with how hard I'm working. I like running to the edge and pushing past discomfort."
3. Enjoy the Ride
"I love running more than I ever have. Now my competition is from within, which is a more difficult foe than any extrinsic goal."
Janet Sherman, 50, Cheyenne, Wyoming
The very first time I ever ran was a 5-K race,” says Janet Sherman, recalling a day she'll never forget when she was 35. "I looked back and thought I was last. I was actually the first woman." The runner, who recently clocked a 23:33 5-K, works out daily, alternating running with strength training, kickboxing, and Spinning. She enjoys competing in local 5-Ks and 10-Ks, where she often wins or places in her age group, but she's also finished one marathon and three half-marathons.
Biggest concern: Her slowing times. "I need to come to terms with where I am now, rather than working off of where I was 10 years ago."
Keep pinning on bibs: In a study that looked at how highly competitive exercise affects muscle strength in seniors, researchers found that athletes who compete have greater strength than healthy aged-matched individuals who don't race, but who do exercise regularly. "Racing keeps you accountable," McMillan says.
Rely on your experience: It's one of the biggest strengths older runners have. "Don't discount that," says McMillan. If you're at a starting line, your confidence can carry you, even if your interval times haven't been ideal.
Slow down: If most runs are about squeezing every last bit from your legs, they'll never have a chance to reap the benefits of your hard work. Make sure you have two slow recovery runs a week, says coach Brianna Boehmer, of Delafield, Wisconsin.
Mentally zoom out: Remind yourself of all the reasons why you run. Aim to become less competitively focused and more motivated by the sheer enjoyment of running.
Boost the Fun and Motivation With Every Run
Sherman’s Success Secrets
1. Pace Like a Pro
"In races, I start out slowly and increase my pace until I'm at, or pass, my goal. I tend to pass a lot of runners at the end. My favorite training tool is goal-pace intervals--either 400s for a 5-K or 800s for a 10-K."
2. Roll in the Foam
"My foam roller is one of my best friends," she says. "After every run, I roll out my IT bands, and hit my calves and hamstrings, too, if they're feeling tight."
3. Finish What You Start
"If I plan on eight speed intervals, I don't stop at seven," says Sherman.
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Darnell Crawley, 44, Atlanta
When he was 38, Darnell Crawley weighed about 200 pounds and had high blood pressure. "The doctor said if I didn't change my exercise and diet habits, I'd need to go on medication." He started running shortly thereafter. These days, Crawley faithfully fits in four, 3.1-mile sessions each week. He also charts one 10-mile run on the weekend and does strength training, primarily for his upper body, every other day. "A morning run gets my metabolism going and my energy up," he says. "Some people need coffee; I need my run." That routine helps him maintain a regular presence on the race circuit--he's raced every distance from 5-K to 26.2.
Biggest concern: The state of his knees; injuries from playing football and basketball have morphed into a significant case of patellar tendinitis. "If I try to run fast, my knees complain."
The 10 Laws of Injury Prevention
Crawley’s Success Secrets
1. Hit the Treadmill
To minimize impact on his knees, he does his shorter runs on the treadmill. "I'll do intervals, change the incline, or do a tempo run. I keep it interesting so I don't plateau mentally or physically."
2. Have Realistic Expectations
"My race goals are to enjoy the run and finish below a 10-minute-per-mile average pace."
3. Be Diligent About Prehab and Rehab
He stretches and ices religiously, wears heavily cushioned shoes, and shortens his stride on downhills.
Free! Your Ultimate Injury Prevention Guide
Lower the impact: Masters runners should definitely integrate cross-training, which minimizes the pounding on their bodies without sacrificing their cardiovascular fitness. Crawley is contemplating a sprint triathlon, which would be a smart choice, as the swimming and biking required will give his knees a break. Similarly, when you do run, pick soft surfaces such as well-groomed trails and gravel paths.
Strengthen the lower half: The natural loss of muscle mass and the muscular imbalances that running can cause make strength training non-negotiable for masters. Angela Horswill, a certified coach in Chico, California, recommends a simple body-weight circuit of planks, side planks, bridges, squats, and lunges.
Emphasize the warmup: Muscles start to lose their "give" with each passing year. The added stiffness limits range of motion, which in turn increases the risk of injury. Horswill suggests a circuit of leg circles, grape vines, and toe walks. Afterward, stretch copiously to limit age-related stiffness.
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