I’m a veteran of 15 marathons and hundreds of other running races, and have been in the sport for more than 20 years. At 53, I’m faced with a reality: I’m not getting any faster. I’m okay with that and I’d argue I enjoy the sport now more than ever.
Not everyone is in my situation. Some aging runners are injured more often than not. For others, the inevitable slowdown is a bitter pill to swallow. There are also masters (over 40) runners on the other end of the spectrum who still want to work on quick times or other race-related goals, and are doing so successfully. But with each passing decade, they become the outliers rather than the norm.
For those of us who are no longer speed motivated but who cannot imagine a life without running, there is a path. Here’s what’s worked for me, both physically and mentally:
● Embrace strength training under the guidance of a pro. Physiologically, we all begin to lose muscle mass at a rate of 1 percent per year beginning at age 28. Chris Johnson, a performance coach and physical therapist, says the imminent loss of muscle mass makes strength training all the more critical for runners in their third, fourth and fifth decades.
“You’re dealing with capacity loss in your tissues, along with a loss of function and power output,” he says. “That can manifest in injury if you don’t address it.”
To fight back and stay healthy, Johnson recommends two strength sessions per week with heavy loads. “Aim for five to nine reps of a weight 70 percent to 80 percent of your one-rep max,” he says. “You can break this down into several key moves: slow farmer’s carries, dead lifts, squats and step-ups, and you’ll cover the bases.”
Find a certified trainer, preferably one who has a good understanding of running, and ask them for help getting started. Check back now and again for reassessments and adjustments.
● Mix it up. In my quest to find a solid strength-training program, I discovered a local CrossFit gym. Endurance sports and CrossFit are often considered vinegar and water, but for me, the fresh approach has been fun. I may never complete a box jump or an honest pull-up, but the gym’s coaches have the know-how to give me modifications. I also get in a pool once or twice per week and take frequent walks with my dog.
Take a look around and see what other physical activities might pique your interest — cycling, hiking, barre class, yoga — and devote some time to trying something new. “We all crave novelty in some way,” says Denver-based sports psychologist Justin Ross, “so try a new sport. Try to connect with what it’s providing you.”
● Don’t be afraid to take off a day — or more. Runners are a devoted bunch and are loathe to miss a scheduled run, even if it means pushing through some pain. I’ve learned over the years that if I have a specific ache beyond normal, overall soreness, skipping a run is the best move.
Catching things early and allowing them a couple of days’ rest is often all it takes to nip something in the bud. If you’re itching to move, there’s usually another activity you can do in the meantime that won’t aggravate the irritated area.
While time off running sometimes makes us panic, I know that if it’s only for a couple of days, I won’t lose any fitness. Well-trained athletes don’t experience any significant deconditioning until after about two weeks. In addition to all that, I have long been in the habit of taking a full day’s rest from any activity, each and every week. I appreciate the break physically and mentally.
● Drop the schedule, if you’re so inclined. When I was racing and training for marathons, in particular, I was a stickler for a training plan. These often encompassed months of runs at prescribed paces and distances. I was dedicated to these maps to success and rarely deviated.
Now? I’d make a poor client for a coach. I still have a basic mental framework of how my running week will look, but it’s a malleable framework, one I tweak as life unfolds. I never look at my paces, and I use a GPS watch only if I’m running a new route and want a rough idea of how far I’m going or when I should turn around. The freedom is luxurious.
“Your spirit can get lost when you’re on a schedule,” Ross says. “When you give yourself permission to cut loose, you can find joy again.”
● Establish a prehab routine. That’s not a typo. I have a quick set of exercises I do just about every day aimed to keep rehab at bay, thus, prehab. The routine originated with a physical therapist I saw years ago when working to overcome an injury, and the moves are designed to improve coordination and stability.
“Runners need strength and control in each leg,” Johnson says. “Rhythm, timing and coordination are often underappreciated aspects of the sport.”
My set of exercises takes just a few minutes. To ensure I don’t skip them, I do them as soon as I rise. Because I run in the morning, the moves also serve as a warmup just before I head out. Single-leg dead lifts, variations of hip bridges, and “skaters” are among my repertoire. Johnson’s Instagram account is a rich source of exercises like these, complete with video.
● Change up your running. When I look back over my past year of running, I realize that the few races I’ve completed have all been on trails. While I no longer care about my finish times at road races, I do enjoy the new challenge of trail running. Ross says this is right on the mark.
“This is a values shift and that’s healthy,” he says. “At some point, we all started in this sport because we enjoyed it and changing things up is a good way to return to that place.”
I dedicate at least one day a week to getting out in the woods. When I see a local trail race that fits into my schedule, I sign up. It keeps me in the game and the change in ethos from road to trail makes it fresh and fun.
This fall, I convinced two friends to join me at Cunningham Falls State Park in Thurmont, Md., for an 11-mile race. We got lost, tripped over rocks and came back a muddy, scratched-up mess. I can’t think of a better way for a group of 50-something women to spend a Saturday.