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Running Over 50: How to Stay Healthy and Motivated

Let’s face it, running as a member of the over fifty gang presents some challenges that our younger brethren don’t necessarily have to face. First of all, you have to accept the fact that you’re just not going to be able to run as fast as you did in your youth. And at fifty or older the body just doesn’t respond as it once did, and this means injuries take longer to heal and you’re going to have more general aches and pains.

But the news isn’t all-bad. By this point in life most of us are hopefully a little wiser and we can use this experience and knowledge to our benefit to stay healthy and motivated so that we can continue to do what we love for years to come.

Joan Benoit Samuelson, still going strong!
Joan Benoit Samuelson, still going strong! | Source
Start of the New York City Marathon
Start of the New York City Marathon | Source

Changes

So what changes after the age of fifty that has an impact on your running. Well, for one thing everyone’s natural strength decreases. In fact, at this point in life its’ been decreasing for a number of years. Muscular strength actually peaks at around age thirty so by time you reach age fifty you’ve lost a significant amount of muscle mass unless you’re doing some strength training to stem the tide.

Another change occurs in our ability to process oxygen. This is known as VO2 max and it decreases about 1% for every decade that we age. As our ability to process oxygen decreases over time you’ll begin to notice this when trying to do speed workouts or when running shorter races where the effort required is greater. The decrease in VO2 max has less of an impact when running longer and slower so many older runners gravitate towards longer events like the half or full marathon.

Another one of the more noticeable changes for me has been the decrease in my stride length. This occurs as we begin to lose some flexibility in our hips. This shorter stride length just naturally leads to running at a slower pace.

Men & women have been running for centuries.
Men & women have been running for centuries. | Source

Older & Wiser

So if it’s all downhill after age fifty what is there to look forward to in running? Well, for one thing while we may be slower it does not mean we can’t run longer. As we get older we also get better at pacing ourselves and this has many benefits. Maybe it’s time to start thinking about the half marathon or that full marathon that you’ve always wanted to do? Many runners also just simply enjoy the “experience” more as they are now running for the pure enjoyment of it rather than competing.

2011 Boston Marathon
2011 Boston Marathon | Source

Mix it up

So how do we do it? How do we stay healthy when the repetitive process of running for years starts to take its toll? The answer is diversification. Or in running lingo it’s time to mix it up and do some cross training. Instead of running everyday, which I’ve never really been a big proponent of, it’s time to mix in some cross training and even add a day or two off every week.

When I was younger my running regimen usually consisted of running between five and seven days per week. This ultimately led to a variety of overuse injuries from achilles tendinitis to plantar fasciitis to shin splints. It wasn’t until I discovered the sport of triathlon that all this began to change.

To be young again!
To be young again! | Source

Cross Train

At some point during the early to mid 1980’s I became interested in the sport of triathlon, probably after watching Julie Moss crawl to the finish line of the Ironman in 1982. Trying to fit in the time required to swim, bike and run just naturally led to a decrease in my running mileage. But a funny thing happened on the way; in addition to an increase in my overall fitness level I actually was running faster.

Back then I’m not sure that I really figured out that it was the cross training that led to this. Today I know for certain that once I started running less and mixing in some other workouts my overall fitness level increased and the running injuries disappeared.

Triathlon
Triathlon | Source

Some Cross Training Options

So what kind of cross training should one do? That depends on the individual and what your interests are. Cycling makes for a great alternative as it takes the feet off the ground while still providing a pretty good aerobic workout. The same can be said of swimming, which just might provide the best all-round conditioning workout.

Mixing in some weight training is also a great way to work on your core fitness and overall strength, with the added benefit of helping to increase your metabolism. Yoga has numerous benefits as well that can benefit your running and is used by many of the top athletes in the world as part of their fitness regimen.

Deciding what activities to add to your routine ultimately comes down to you deciding what other activities interest you and figuring out how to add them to your schedule.

Rest

Perhaps the best thing that you can do for your body at this point in your life is to take a day off every now and then. It’s no secret that the body just doesn’t recover as quickly at fifty as it did at twent five. So why not add in a day or two off every week. It can be a total day away from exercise or it can be an easy cross training day. Either way you’re giving your body a chance to rest and recover and that can only be a good thing.

Air Force Marathon
Air Force Marathon | Source

My weekly regimen now consists of three to five runs per week depending on whether I have a race coming up or not. In addition to the running I also do one to two cycling workouts per week. Monday to Friday my day starts with a visit to the gym where I’ll do some stretching and core strengthening and on three to four of these days I’ll do some weight training.

On weekends I always take one day off and reserve the other day for a longer, slower run. If I’m overtired and feel that I need an extra day off I will not hesitate to take a weekday off to help recover. For me the combination of running, cycling, weight training and stretching has resulted in just an overall better fitness level. At this point in my life I know I’m not going to get faster, my priority is to keep doing what I’m doing for as long as possible and to stay as fit and healthy as possible.

The gang after the Lake Placid half marathon.
The gang after the Lake Placid half marathon. | Source

Staying Motivated

The other issue facing runners over fifty, especially those who have been running for decades, is how to stay motivated and into the sport. No matter how competitive you are we all go through periods where we just can’t seem to keep the motivation level high? So what can you do? Well, there are a number of things that might work. First of all there is nothing like knowing you have a race on the calendar to get you out the door. Knowing that a race, whether short or long, is looming on the horizon definitely keeps me going. So, if you find your energy and motivation waning, find a local race that supports a good cause and enter. And if you don’t want to compete, why not volunteer at one of your local road races. This is a great way to give back and there’s nothing like watching a race to get you motivated.

Spectate or Volunteer
Spectate or Volunteer | Source

Change is good

What else can you do? Try mixing up your workouts. Sometimes I find that I tend to do the same workouts and run the same routes over and over. To mix things up change your workout, try adding a hill workout once a week or go to your local track and run some repeats on the track. You don’t have to kill yourself with these workouts. You’re adding them to infuse some variety and to change the pace up. If you’re not already doing this, add a longer, slower run to your regimen. This will help your overall fitness level and help you hone your pacing skills for those longer races.

Still not feeling it? How about giving a triathlon a shot? Maybe start with a sprint race and see how it goes. Don’t want to compete? Sign up for a spinning class or a yoga class. Do you run with a group? The country is full of local running clubs and organizations, why not join one and meet some new people with whom to run with. Ever think about taking a running vacation? Why not sign up for a race in a beautiful location and combine a vacation with a race?

As with any sport activity it is always advisable to get the okay from your doctor. This is especially true if you have been inactive for awhile and are thiinking of starting an exercise routine. There are so many benefits to making running a part of your life. Recent statistics have shown that those who run live an average of six years longer than those who don’t. This alone should keep you motivated. Running helps to keep your weight consistent and in check. It helps to decrease your bad cholesterol (LDL) while increasing the good cholesterol (HDL). It also helps to lower your blood pressure and improve the function of your heart and lungs while strengthening your muscles and bones. We all want to have as good a quality of life as possible as we age. Adding running and cross training to you fitness routine will help you to live a longer and more productive life. Run on.

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