The Washington Post recently published a story about running “even at 50-something” that may have raised a few eyebrows in the masters running community. As for the notion that at 50 you are suddenly “middle-aged,” your times are slowing and you’re experiencing arthritis and other aches and pains, well, all we have to say is, tell that to Jenny Hitchings, Gene Dykes, Rick Rayman, Patti Blanchard, Raymond Caissie, or any of the masters runners who have consistently challenged conventional ideas of aging as it relates to running.
The premise that “aging” begins at 50 is enough to get masters runners’ backs up. (Technically, we are all “aging” from the moment of birth.) The author adds, as a disclaimer, “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.”
This whole thesis is based on two assumptions: one, that most runners run only in pursuit of faster times, and two, that runners’s careers all follow the same trajectory: they start as teenagers, train hard and race competitively through their 20s, plateau in their 30s, and thereafter starts the “inevitable slowdown.”
There is evidence that elite runners do peak at around age 35. But many runners don’t start running until their 40s or even later. And, depending on their changing goals, they may find they reach their 50s fitter than they’ve ever been in their lives and still achieving personal bests. This could be a function of any one of several things: switching distances, training more effectively (possibly with a training group or coach), losing weight, adopting a new approach to nutrition, or having more time to devote to training as their children get older.
There is also evidence that many four-hour marathoners are physiologically capable of running much faster, but they don’t train effectively. As physiologist James Smoliga said in a Toronto Star story from 2017, “Our bodies are capable of performing at a high level later in life than we think.”
The story does contain some useful pieces of advice for masters runners who want to stay fit, healthy and as fast as possible:
Start lifting weights, if you aren’t already. Loss of speed and fitness need not be inevitable, but loss of muscle mass, if not attended to, is, and it starts sometime between age 28 and 35. Regardless, strength training should be part of every runner’s training week. Get some tips from a pro, at least when starting out, preferably one who understands the specific needs of running.
Cross train. This could mean strength training, but it also means finding other sports you enjoy and engaging in them on a regular basis–cycling, spinning, racquet sports, swimming, skating, skiing or dancing are all excellent ways to round out and complement your running fitness. (Or switch up your running itself, and try trail running.)
Warm up/activate before you run. Whereas when you were younger slow jogging was enough, you’ll definitely benefit from more time spent getting ready to run before heading out the door.