By Paul Thompson
This article is a personal view, informed by what I’ve read, heard and learned by doing, on how to stay competitive at distance running as age tries to catch up with us. It’s written against the back drop of mankind’s obsession with avoiding the effects of old age. But before we find a way of arresting the onset of old age what can masters runners do to stay fighting fit? This article, more anecdotal self-reflection than scientific analysis, explains how I have navigated the physical and psychological to keep the effects of creeping age at bay. We will slow as we age, but as this New York Times article explains we may not need to slow too much. Although declines in our running are unavoidable, they may be less steep than many of us fear. The article looks at the key ingredients, and their relative importance, to mastering masters athletics from training, recovery and mindset and motivation through to time management and planning, diet and support network.
Let’s start with a few words about me. That way you can judge whether or it’s worth reading what I have to say. I’m 52. I’ve run consistently, and competitively, since I was in my early teens. I ran for school, town, county and region but was never good enough to cut it a national level in the open age category. Until, that is, I turned 40. Since then I’ve been one of the top masters’ runners on both sides of the Pond – in the UK, where I was born, and in the US where I have lived since joining the masters’ ranks. It seems that as I’ve aged I’ve slowed down slower than most. Today I am proud to be a world class masters runner and able to compete and win medals at world masters athletics championships. My full running resume is here.
Review of the Literature
Before I tell my own story a few observations on what the literature is telling us about how to stay fit in our fifties. Arguably the most significant writer on the subject is Joe Friel. His book Fast After 50 was written primarily with endurance cyclists in mind but much of it is just as relevant to endurance running. Friel starts out by looking at the what is holding us back as we age — our specific weaknesses, or “limiters.” He notes that while many areas of our life can nurture limiters, such as time available to train, diet, amount of sleep, and speed of recovery, and much more, the “big three” aging limiters are as follows:
- Decreasing aerobic capacity – we lose the ability to deliver oxygen to our working muscles.
- Increasing body fat – we can expect more fat and less muscle, a transition that accelerates in our 60s.
- Shrinking muscles – starting around age 40, a progressive decrease of muscle begins.
Friel encourages us not to be defeatist. While these limiters can’t be dodged there’s much we can do to slow the pace of change. The book describes in considerable detail several key training, recovery and nutrition strategies that can limit age-related losses to performance. Below I’ll try to fuse my own ideas with those of Friel and others.
The single most important ingredient to our athletic success irrespective of age. My running log looks much like it did when I was younger. I run around 70 miles per week. This includes a 2 hour plus long run, longer than when I was younger, a mid-week medium long run, and two work-outs. Friel’s foremost recommendation is to maintain aerobic capacity through continued high-intensity training. I agree. As we age the natural tendency is for us to concede defeat and quit high intensity training on the basis that we should take it easy and push back. This is in keeping with the prevailing general view that as we age we should retire, take up golf and all that. So many of us revert to just steady running. Unfortunately, this just speeds up our rate of decline. Accepted it’s hard to wrap your head around the idea of running repeats slower and slower. But to stop high intensity training altogether will make us even slower, sooner.
Before I describe a few workouts I do on a regular basis, and how they differ from what I used to do, let me say a few words about how I approach them. First, get my mind and motivation right – see the section below. Second, while I may record the workout on my Garmin I tend to only glance at it during the workout to get a rough idea as to the time and pace. I try to avoid being a slave to the device or schedule. Organic is preferred. Third, I typically do a warm-up run of at least 25 minutes. Fourth, like all my runs I tend to start easier and slowly step up the intensity. In this way all my runs have a progressive dimension. For example, like this workout or this steady run. And finally, I do workouts mainly alone, partly to avoid the stress of chasing others and being reminded that I’m getting slower. When I’m rocking them I’m happy to have company.
One of my staple speed endurance sessions. The 20-minute version consists of 2 x 90sec, 4 x 60sec, 4 x 30sec, 4 x 15sec with a slower tempo recovery of the same time between each repetition. I approach the session as though a steady run with timed efforts. To be able to run the recoveries at a reasonable pace, ‘float’ recoveries, the efforts need to be fast but not all out. I aim to cover around 3.5 miles as I did on this one. This workout is great for shorter races and offers a varied high intensity session.
My typical hill work-out is 10x60secs with jog down recovery. The hill I use is of varying gradient but none of it is steeper than 10%. Close to the top is levels off enabling me to close fast. Like all hill sessions this one works the glutes and hips, maintaining muscle strength and power. I concentrate on form rather than speed. I did this one recently.
Like most runners I also do repeats on track or flat road. Typically these are longer efforts with short jog recoveries and ladders.
As we age the rate at which we recover, especially from high intensity sessions, slows markedly. Hence, getting recovery right assumes heightened importance as we age. When my daily run is done it’s all hands-on deck to recover as soon as possible. Except when it’s very cold I apply ice to my legs with an ice cup – this not only speeds up muscle recovery but in hot weather offers relief by lowering my overall body temperature – roll my legs and back on a foam roller and do a few strength exercises. Given my slow recovery I avoid back to back hard sessions: typically, I do steady runs of no more than an hour the day before and day after high intensity work-outs and long runs.
Mindset and Motivation
The second most important ingredient after training. As older athletes we have accumulated experience and grit. I can, if necessary, grind out training sessions and races even when the chips are down. I can eke out that extra few percent of effort on race day. Going into every work-out or race I moderate my expectations. I avoid comparing with yesteryear. For workouts the goal is to more to complete rather than to excel. Easing into the session, holding back early on, helps ensure I get it done. I know that I’ll struggle to run them anything like as fast as I used to. I also need to make allowances for the fact that age slows down the ability to recover so I may struggle to replicate the times the last time I did that same work-out. Similarly, my race goals differ to when I was younger. I’m looking to top my age group and maximize my age grade percentage (often at or around 90%) rather than bag a PR.
If I fear anything it’s injury rather than pain. I often have a contingency plan, or secondary goals, to avoid being like a ship at sea without anchor, in case things don’t play out the way I’d planned. In a recent 10K race my ultimate aim was to run under 33:00 but my back-up plan was to revert to 5:20 minute per mile pace. At 5K I reverted to Plan B and ran 33:10. When injury strikes one needs to be especially careful to ensure full and timely recovery. In a recent race I pulled a hamstring. I had to quickly bail out to avoid making matters worse. I rested, maintained cardio vascular fitness by cycling, and got treatment. Patience is indeed a virtue.
Finally, I’ve gotten a fillip of extra motivation from guiding visually impaired runners including Paralympian medalist Jason Dunkerley in the New York City Half Marathon. It feels good to help others enjoy something that I enjoy so much. And Jason has taught me that age, like blindness, is not a disability but a challenge to be overcome.
Time Management and Planning
Time is perhaps our most precious resource. There’s never enough of it. My wife and I are lucky in that we don’t have kids or pets or high maintenance parents. However, I like many in their fifties are at or close to the peak of our careers. This means a demanding day job and work travel. I invest considerable time in planning my week ahead to ensure I get the training done no matter when and where. Sometimes this demands last minute adjustments like moving a work-out to a less time constrained day.
There’s nothing special about my diet. I eat most things in moderation. But what has changed in the past few years, thanks to my wife Sham, is increased consumption of protein, to aid recovery, and fruit, nuts and seeds, sometimes in smoothies.
My support network is bigger and more important than ever. It includes coach Lee Troop, Urban Athletics team mates, manager, counsellor and wife Shamala, and physical therapist / acupuncturist Russell Stram at Runner Clinic NYC.
To see how you successfully you are holding back the years, slowing the rate of decline check out this calculator. I plugged in 2:29:56 for my marathon PR / PB at age 40 in London. It predicted I run 2:47:03 at age 51: in April 2017 at age 51, exactly 11 years after I ran my PR I ran 2:31:45 in London.
The ingredients to being fighting fit and fast in your fifties described above are not mutually exclusive. They overlap and interrelate. Get them right and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And it’s important to work simultaneously on all ingredients, more so that ingredient in the shortest supply, our weakest link.