Getting along with getting old, Part II
The joys and challenges of being a senior runner
Saturday, March 01, 2014 8:28 PM
Growing old as a runner is like changing residences. Your body is no longer a youthful temple; it has transformed into what Realtors call “a fixer upper” and you are the handyman constantly attending to assorted stiff muscles, sore tendons, achy joints and dull pains.
If you heed the advice to “listen to your body,” you may actually hear clicks and squeaks emanating from your knees and ankles as you walk downstairs first thing in the morning.
Age tends to level the competitive playing field. Guys who trained fanatically 20 years ago, logging 100 miles a week, may not be able to run 50 miles over a seven day period now. Years of hard running does take a toll.
However, if you put in 40 miles weekly at a comfortable pace in the 1980s, it is quite likely you can still log about the same weekly mileage.
Those tortoises, who routinely got bested by the hares they faced in their youth, may now find themselves shooting past those one-time speedsters. And those newcomers, who didn’t even start running until they were in their 40s, they’ve got fresh legs and may now be racing past the ancient tortoises and hares.
Racing tips for ageing runners
If one is patient and uses the wisdom that allegedly comes with age, you can still be a healthy and happy competitor. You just have to look at things differently.
Let’s start with the shoes. Most old runners have been racing for a couple decades and logged tens of thousands of miles. The old foot suspension is definitely not light and springy anymore; your arches have probably flattened and x-rays may reveal the spidery bone lines of old injuries.
Ditch the racing flats. Wear training shoes for your races. Furthermore, buy new shoes every 400 to 500 miles even if your old ones still look nice and have good rubber on the heels. You can’t see it but the mid-sole of those old shoes have lost their cushioning.
When you are an old runner, the warm-up is key. Stretching is optional, but the first steps of a run must be gentle ones. If timing a run is important, then slowly jog a half mile before clicking the watch on. Even then, some days we just can’t loosen up.
Every training program emphasizes tapering; easing back on workouts before a race. With older runners the taper is a flat line: No running at all for the last two or three days before a competition. In this way you actually may arrive at a race site with absolutely no muscle stiffness. Don’t be deceived. No matter what your brain tells you, you are still as old as the Rolling Stones and this race will not mark a return to the good old days.
So as you approach the starting line do a couple run outs to make sure you can still hold a reasonable race pace. Just realize that once the gun fires, a good chunk of the field will pull away from you. And that includes many women. Banish all thoughts of “No woman is gonna beat me” because they can and they will.
Racing is tough for everyone (in our age group)
Racing is no more painful for older runners than it is for anyone else. If you’re running hard, no matter how old you are, it hurts plenty. But the leg muscles of senior runners fatigue before their lungs. That means that when your aching quads won’t push you any faster, you’re likely still able to easily converse with other runners. This allows me, for example, to cheerily wish racers passing me “Good luck” or tell them they are “Looking good.”
One might argue that because older runners take more time to complete the race distance, they are getting more for their entry fee.
The race to the finish is no longer a venue for heroic sprints. If you haven’t been practicing sprinting, don’t try or your hamstring is apt to split open like the skin of bratwurst on a hot grill. Just quicken your turnover and gamely leg it out to the finish.
Seconds after crossing the finish line, expect to have a race official hovering next to you saying, “Are you O.K.?” Apparently old guys who race hard look awful.
Yeah, we probably do look awful and we feel pretty terrible, as well, but no worse than when we were in our 30s. The difference is that everyone expects youthful runners to recover. We older runners look like the faces they see in the newspaper’s obituary column. So race officials are afraid we’ll expire right there in their finish chutes.
There’s some good news. While your race times are getting slower, the likeliness of getting awards increases. In the age groups beyond 50-54, there’s markedly fewer competitors. And many of them have a goal of just finishing rather than racing.
Good news for senior runners
Studies show that people that exercise regularly can expect to live two to seven years longer, and those are more likely to be healthy years. The down side is that those who exercise regularly are more likely to die during or immediately after working out. Frankly, that sounds good to me. I’d rather live longer and die quickly on a trail run then dragged to a hospital to have tubes run up my arms to keep me “alive.”
Although I have often heard scoffers say we must be out of our mind to be running, a recent study tells otherwise. A Seattle, Washington-based study involved more than 1,700 men and women who were 65 or older and exercised at least three times a week. The subjects were 32 percent less likely to develop symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia. I can’t think of a much better reason to out there running.
Nobody ever finds it easier to be an older runner. But while our bodies increasingly exhibit the discrepancies that come with aging, we can avoid most injuries by listening to our bodies. And since those daily runs burn up calories, we can eat more than our sedentary peers and still stay trim. Although our bodies may ache a little, most days it feels good to be out running. And if the science is correct, we are going to enjoy longer, healthier lives as runners.
I once wondered what it would feel like to run as a senior citizen. I now know. Although the daily jogs are slower and sometimes muscles are tight, some days I feel young and my feet seem to fly down the road. A nine-minute mile on these days feels no different then the sixes I once ran. The good feelings that made me want to run every day so many years ago are still there. If my body will let me, I intend to run forever.
Dave Foley has run over 88,000 miles since 1975. An excerpt of Part I can be found here.