Keeping the Fire of Youth
New ideas for older runners
By Roger RobinsonAn ancient French book describes a foot race for older runners, and enthuses, "How good it is to see they have kept the fire of youth under the creases of age. As they run, they look like a sunny day in winter."
As featured in the FebMarch 2012 issue of Running Times Magazine
As featured in the FebMarch 2012 issue of Running Times Magazine
Nice image, a sunny day in winter--Ed Whitlock to the life. For the aging runner (and, to state the obvious, we are all aging), the issue is how to stay sunny as the winter of life advances. What kinds of running, exactly, will best keep the fire of youth burning?
I sought the answers from 20 or so runners, aged 37 to 80, of widely varied ability and fame, both genders, and from six countries; several are also coaches. I chose those who think well about their running and are still interested in running well, whether that means a sub-5:00 marathon or a sub-2:04/2:20 one. (The first runners I questioned were Haile Gebrselassie, 38, and Paula Radcliffe, 37.) All have long, continuous running experience, because I needed comparison across age groups, to understand the aging/running process. I wanted to learn how these thoughtful men and women are changing their response to the eternal challenge of running as well as you can run.
I'll summarize their responses as tidily as I can. There is consensus on many things. But dealing with aging is always a tangle of senescent cells, wisdom, denial and defiance. When you add the demands of a vigorous sport mainly associated with youth, it's a complex subject.
Do more of a warm-up, the older you are. "I need a longer warmup before hard running now, including an easy 2 miles and some fast pick-ups" (Norman, 73). "The whole body comes slowly to the point of fast running" (Ger, 59). The older body seems to need longer to catch on that it's time to work hard. You can't blast away from the gun cold as high school runners can.
In a repeats session, you feel sluggish on the first one or two, and then they get easier and faster. You feel reluctant in the first half mile of a race. So stir things up. "I include skipping and hopping in warm-ups, as older runners are inclined to get heavy-footed" (Diane, 73). "My warm-up routine often includes a 1K swim and stretches" (Bernie, 64).
Above all, be prepared. "My days of going out the door ready to take whatever life throws at me during a run are over" (Deb, 52).
There's total agreement that "peaking" is even more important as you age. If you want to race well, pick goals (say, two or three a year) and shape your whole training to be ready for them. "I do base work, then gradually gear up fitness with speed work and races to peak at the right time" (Grant, 43). "I structure training to peak for a half in March and a marathon in April/May; then similar in the fall" (Ton, 55). "It's more important than ever to plan the steps to your goal race" (Bernie, 64).
There's also wide (not quite total) agreement that if you want to race well, whatever your age, your training program needs the same elements as before (long runs, faster repeats, tempo, recovery). But Jonathan (47) nails the problem that "you must face a reduction in options. Time was if I had the chance for a good 15 miles, say, it didn't matter too much if I'd done speed work yesterday. Now it's hard even to put two strong 10-milers back to back."
THE LONG RUN
The long run gets shorter. You have little choice. You can do the same workouts and mileage until your early 50s if you're lucky ("At the same perceived effort albeit at a slower pace," (Alan, 54).) After that your options are reduced, as the long run gets more demanding. "The last three years have challenged my ability to hold progressive overload. I cannot now insist on 20-plus miles every Sunday long run" (Chris, 63). "Not as long and not the intensity--the recovery took too long and interfered with the whole week's training" (Bernie, 62).
Dan (67) points to the danger that, unless you make the longer runs slower, they become too near your new (slower) race pace, and leave you flat for races. Scott (47) runs more time now, sometimes 3 hours, to log the distance he wants, but recognizes the cost/benefit problem, "given that goal No. 1 is to remain uninjured and keep running daily."
It was the ever-lurking injury issue that caused Les (59) to shift to mostly long, slow running, which has given him extra endurance (as a Team in Training coach, he's often running for 8 hours back and forth supporting his beginners through a marathon). Coach and runner Diane (73) has perhaps the best solution: "Run similar amounts of time, so shorter distances. Those who have already built a solid base need less focus on adding up the miles."
Yes. At any age interval training is the shortest cut to race preparedness. Even Ed Whitlock (80), who famously runs round and round his local cemetery, told me two years ago, "I haven't run intervals for five years." OK, but even my math can figure that means he ran intervals to age 73. "A qualified yes--the intensive work gradually gives way to greater volume" (Dan, 67). That seems the consensus--retirement-age runners have less inclination for intensive training, and it may be less essential.
Against that general trend, however, set the revival of Norman's racing by running long repeats for the first time at 70: "The long intervals--3 minutes up to 10 minutes--were really important. They taught me the physical and mental discipline of racing for 40 minutes" (Norman, 73).
Handle intervals with care. Always build a base of miles first. Be aware of the "reduction of options" (see above), which means as you get older and recovery is slower, you can't fit everything into each week. "On Tuesdays I alternate 8 x 3 minutes with a 10-mile tempo/pick-up run" (Grant, 43). So try a two-week training cycle, a brilliantly simple solution proposed by British guru Bruce Tulloh.
Shorten the intense phase. "Track and tempo sessions are still key, but now I do them for only four weeks before a big race instead of eight" (Gabby, 44). Ger, a Dutch coach, does the same. Reduce the impact/injury risk. Almost all my respondents have given up training in spikes. Paula (37) no longer races on the track. Bernie (64) often does her speed work on grass. Jo (38) does hers on a straight trail because track bends aggravated a foot injury. Norm (73) does his on a rail-trail, by time--6 x 3 minutes, say, instead of 6 x 800m, which cured his crippling anxiety about lap times. Haile (38) and Chris (63) do their speed work on a treadmill. And see "Warming Up" and "Recovery."
Yes, especially if you race marathons, but they may have to alternate with intervals. "You can do too many tempo runs as you age and run yourself right out of your aerobic base" (Chris, 63). "Don't let them turn into mini-races" (Dan, 67). "Slower now, keyed more to marathon pace, and often on grass" (Bernie, 64). "I love to run at various paces. Would you cook the same dish every day? I do more impromptu tempo runs now, especially after a miserable work day, going hard for 30 minutes or so" (Scott, 47).
The older you are, the longer it takes to recover fully from hard races. And aging bodies are cunning. If you race too often, yours will find a comfort zone, and you'll become a 75 percent racer without realizing it. As you age, you need increasingly to make your body aware in training of the difference between a 25 percent day and a 100 percent one.
Be selective. You're old enough (if you're reading this) not to have to impress the crowds every week. Learn to treat some races as building blocks in your training program, alternatives perhaps to your tempo run, starting at a casual jog, then picking it up with, say, 2 miles to go. Or fit your interval session into a race--race one mile, jog one mile, and repeat, which will give you a useful 3 x 1-mile session in the course of a local 10K. Successful racing is always a balance of hot effort and cool judgment, and you can use minor races to teach yourself that self-control.
"Targeting one key race as the aim of the whole program really gave me a focus, and put the other races into perspective. In the past all races were equal to me, but this time each had a place and a purpose, a different objective from what the watch said" (Norman, 73). "My body now has only a certain amount of races and hard training without injury. You have to pick your goals" (Bernie, 64).
If you want to stay part of the weekly racing community, volunteer! You'll be surprised how much you learn about running. A day at the races is never wasted.
This is the key. Pete Magill's revelatory "It's the Recovery, Stupid," in last October's issue, should be required reading for all masters: "Physiological adaptations can only occur with proper recovery. … You shouldn't be doing a long run on tired legs." Essential stuff.
There are two aspects to recovery. First, as you age, the familiar hard day/easy day principle will become hard/easy/easy. You need more very light, 25 percent days (not necessarily days off running completely): "I pay greater attention to recovery days. I resent them, but I'm clear about the consequences of running unrecovered" (Chris, 63). "When I was younger, my body would tell me how long it took for the impact of training to wear off. Now I have to take charge of that process" (Dan, 67).
Second, there's recovery during sessions. Experimentally coaching a 70-year-old who could handle a session of 8 x 400m, I had him recover for 3 to 5 minutes between each repeat, instead of the 1 minute I would give a 25-year-old. Between longer repeats (of, say, 3 minutes or 6 minutes), we strolled along conversationally until he felt ready, maybe after 7 or 10 minutes. No one else seems to have tried these "relaxed recovery repeats" for older runners. It worked. It enabled him to fulfill what I call the "quantity of quality"--a total of 40 minutes' race-pace training for a 40-minute race. He trained like a 25-year-old. He could do that because he got a 70-year-old's recovery time.
"Unclog the wheels of life, to increase the motion of the machine," wrote the novelist Tobias Smollett in 1771. We get stale doing the same thing. One of the greatest dangers for the experienced runner is that if you simply keep repeating the same training, your body gets too efficient at it. Improvement comes from adaptation to recurrent overstress--that's the basic principle of human skills at any age. Watch a 1-year-old learn to walk. So revise your forms of overstress and refresh your program.
"Seriously, I think I need to change something" (Alan, 54, on the eve of his 25th New York City Marathon). "After 33 years you can get stale without knowing it. So adding long reps off the track gave me a new kind of freshness" (Norm, 73). Les (59) discovered in his 50s that "slow running can be good for you, and has much improved my endurance base. Now I even do an occasional speed workout without getting injured." Jo (38) added 15-mile tempo runs with a consistent heart rate. "It's hard for a lifetime track runner to accept that a long run is equal to a hard interval session, but it's working."
ADD-ONS, CROSS-TRAINING, ETC.
My respondents loved this bit. They all do stuff. "I need physiotherapy every day now" (Haile, 38). Several advocated stretching, others waxed lyrical about massage. Five of them chilled me by enthusing about ice baths. Here's an alphabetical list of other things they variously recommended: active isolated stretching, avoiding direct sun, balance improvement, bone density scans, compression clothing, core-strength exercises, electrolyte tablets, flow-type yoga, foot pad, gym work, heart monitor, hydration packs, pool running, stationary bike, strengthening quads, swimming, t'ai chi, touching your toes, treadmill, umpteen nutritional ideas, Wharton-sanctioned strengthening.
I confess to being out of my depth. I'm with Chris (63), who tried various new technologies, and concluded, "I returned to water, food and hard work."
Is it worth it? Only a tiny minority are willing to push themselves physically and mentally in their 50s, 60s or 70s instead of retiring to the couch. What are their rewards?
Bernie annually asks herself the question. "Decide each year if your passion and enthusiasm are still strong enough to enable you to enjoy your running no matter how hard it gets with age. Then just do it!" Scott defines the motivation. "Do what you can to keep your body as close as you can to how it was when you were at your best."
Walter Bortz, M.D., gives one medical-scientific justification: "Research at USC shows that a fit person of 70 has the same oxygen-carrying capacity as an unfit person of 30." University of Pittsburgh research published last fall found that in fit older runners there's little decline in muscle mass and quality (lack of fat infiltration) between age 40 and 80. When all Peter's cardiac arteries were found to be blocked at age 68, his life was saved because his 50 years of competitive running had created a whole network of ancillary routes for the blood.
Dan reveals the underlying passion: "I asked the 26 contributors to Running in the Zone why they all continue to run in later life. In one form or other, all 26 replied, ‘Because I love it.' They didn't say winning, just running. The time may come when old age catches you. But running demands mental strength, and so does adjusting to what time will slowly do to all of us." Homage therefore to both John Kelleys, Ron Hill, Bill Rodgers, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Dick Beardsley, Paula Radcliffe, and all those greats who have loved running so well that they kept competing, not too proud to be older and slower.
Norman trained for a year for a 70-plus world championship under a cruel and remorseless coach (me), only to fall sick with Lyme disease four days before the big race. He could have felt it was all a waste. Quite the reverse.
"The program was outstanding. Although of course I was slower than at 40, I was in better shape for a race than I had ever been in my whole running career. I had confidence, excitement and the knowledge that I could give it everything. I never felt like that before. I was putting in as much total effort as when I was younger, and I was training smarter and better. I really enjoyed the process. It was a whole new experience. I'm happy that I was lucky enough to have that in my 70s."
That sounds like reward. It also sounds like the "sunny day in winter" that we started out seeking. As Shakespeare put it, in another perfect motto for older runners, "Though I look old, yet am I strong and lusty."
Roger Robinson's Heroes and Sparrows: a Celebration of Running was republished in 2011. It includes the classic "Running through the mid-life crisis." Order it at www.rogerrobinson.com.
Thanks to the multinational runners and coaches who generously shared their thinking: Jonathan Beverly, Peter Coughlan, Dan Cumming, Scott Douglas, Haile Gebrselassie, Norman Goluskin, Ger Janssen, Les Heffernan, Grant McLean, Deb Meier, Gabrielle O'Rourke, Diane Palmason, Jo Pavey, Bernie Portenski, Paula Radcliffe, Brian Rhodes, Chris Risker, Jim Robinson, Alan Ruben, Ton Ruckert, Ed Whitlock.