As the years tick away and the birthday candles take up more space on your cake, you might be worried about how many years of running you have left. But the good news is that in your 30s, 40s and 50s, you can set yourself up for a lifetime of running. It just takes some effort and thought in your training plan.
“When you’re 20-something, you think that the world is yours, and you’re going to do anything you want. And you’re pretty much right,” says Joe Friel, a legendary endurance coach and author of “Fast After 50.” “At 50 years old, you’re not going to be able to do that. Your body’s not going to recover as fast as it used to, but you can help it by providing things it needs.”
Here, we’re looking at what you can be doing in these three decades to set you up for success in these years and beyond.
Basically, you’re in the optimal zone. At the last summer Olympics, for example, four of the six medalists in the marathon were over 30. So the sky’s the limit as far as your running potential this decade! “In a runner’s journey, the second and third decades of life should be a blast. Seriously, what a fun time to run!” says Elizabeth Carey, coach and author of “Girls Running.”. “Ideally you’ve got a little experience and some fitness under your belt, and you’re coming out of the weeds of adolescence, which researchers say can last until 24. All this primes your body and mind for performance — and the training needed for setting PRs — plus trying new events or experiences.”
Focus on: In your 30s, fit in strength training — “even a few minutes is better than nothing,” says Carey. “You have a window in which you’re building up to peak bone density, which will set you up for a lifetime of healthy running and movement,” she explains. Weight-bearing exercise (which includes running) is key in helping prevent bone density loss and osteoporosis issues later in life, and the time to start is as early as possible. You’ll want to be able to weightlift as the years go on, so if you haven’t yet learned how to properly squat or deadlift with heavier weight, prioritize that. Because you’re still able to recover from workouts relatively quickly, this new stimulus shouldn’t interfere with your regular training load.
Avoid: Not taking a rest day. In your 30s, you likely still think of yourself as a young runner — and you are! — but you’re not 18 anymore. “Remember to take care of your body,” says Carey. “However invincible you might feel, prioritize sleep, fueling and the other factors that support the stress of training and life… Don’t despair if you start to feel more creaky, say, in the mornings. You still have miles of good and fast running if you train and recover properly.”
Running doesn’t just help keep you healthy, it keeps you young.One study showed that after training for a marathon, new runners’ blood pressures and arteries actually got ‘younger’ by four years. But you are starting to hit the point where performance is starting a gradual decline of roughly 1% each year. Self-care is more important than ever: If you can stay uninjured, your risk of injury is lower. Once you have one injury, though, you’re at higher risk of re-injury. Bone density in sedentary people begins declining around now, but continuing your weight-training regimen helps lessen the effects of aging.
Focus on: Make sure you’re having fun and start backing off performance goals. Because you’re in the decade where performance may begin to gradually decline, it’s time to start planning your training and racing around what feels fun for you. Maybe this is the decade you take up trail running after spending your 30s chasing a 5K personal best. Or perhaps you start running with a few friends on your ‘easy’ days to ensure your pace stays conversational. Your goal in this decade should be to keep the spark alive as a runner, especially if you were highly competitive in your earlier years. Learn to love running for the sake of running, not for finish lines and medals.
Avoid: Long runs for no reason. Let’s be honest, most runners in their 40s don’t have time for an unplanned 20-miler anyway: You’re likely too busy managing work, a household and a family as well as some semblance of a social life. But even if you manage to eke out time for a random longer session, don’t go overboard. While your fitness can take you far, those long runs done outside of an appropriate training plan will likely result in needing more time to recover rather than boosting your fitness.
Good news — you can still do a marathon safely and successfully at this age. A study of over-50s showed there are no adverse effects to running a marathon. Phew! You’ll also stay healthier than your sedentary counterparts. But that doesn’t mean you should continue to train like a teenager.
Focus on: High-intensity. As you get older, intensity becomes more important in your life. Many runners believe that as they get older, slowing down and doing longer, slower runs is better for the body, but that isn’t the case. “I would recommend that the over-50 athlete do high-intensity training twice a week, then do five days a week easy or recovering,” says Friel. “Exercising hard regularly helps keep your VO2 Max relatively high as you get older. Doing long, slow distance all the time won’t help that — you need to go hard on a regular basis.”
Avoid: More than two high-intensity workouts in a week. Friel advocates for adding an extra rest day on top of your normal “Mondays off” that you’ve likely done for years. When it comes to those high-intensity workouts, doing more isn’t better. “In my 20s, I could do hard intervals five days a week, spring back and do it the next week,” says Friel. “When I was in my 30s, I may have been able to do four days a week like that, and I would have been challenged. But I’ve made a bit of a pull off for when I was in my 40s maybe three and a week when I was in my 50s maybe twice a week. The reality athletes learn as they get older is that recovery becomes the main thing: You don’t recover as fast anymore, and it becomes very obvious.” Prioritize recovery and speed follows.
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