After a certain age, birthdays are about as exciting as watching the housemates sleep in Big Brother. When you hit 35, acting like a teenager becomes embarrassing rather than endearing; your 20s are further away than your 40s; and the ladies among us will see a big ‘V’ next to our name when we enter a race. You can’t turn back the years but becoming older doesn’t necessarily mean running slower. These three veteran runners are still improving well into their 40s and 50s.
|Typical training week|
45-minute road run. Pace set according to how Agyei feels
AM Easy 35-minute jog
PM Track session: 10 x 200m, 4 x 400m faster than 800m pace
One-hour steady road run
AM Easy 35-minute jog morning
PM Track session at 1500m pace eg three sets of 4 x 400m, with short recoveries of one minute between repetitions, and five minutes rest between sets
AM Easy jog
PM Track session: 4 x 1,600m at 5K pace with two minutes recovery between repetitions, 16 x 400m with one minute recovery between repetitions
Kofi Agyei, aged 42
If you believe the scientists, Kofi Agyei still has a few more years of improvement left in him. Agyei started running in 2001, so he is only half way though the supposed 10 years of improvement we all have from the time we take up the sport. His upward curve was emphasised last year when he decided to run a 10K at short notice and knocked a minute off his PB, running 32:37. He is already one of the world’s fastest 1500m runners for his age group and his times keep improving. All of which suggests he is probably still at the dawn rather than the twilight of his running career.
No one would be more surprised by his burgeoning running career than his old school PE teacher. "At school I was not a successful or willing runner," he says, "I was the youngest in my age group and I was continually beaten and lost all motivation, stopped running and took up smoking instead."
Like many reluctant PE-class attendees, Agyei rediscovered sport later in life. "I was quite fat really," he says, "so I started doing weights and tried the treadmill. I realised that I did enjoy running after all." Soon he was spending more time on the treadmill than the weights bench and entered a 10K race with the aim of finishing inside 40 minutes. He didn’t manage it but he was bitten by the racing bug. "Initially I didn’t see myself as anything other than a recreational runner, but I set myself small targets and I was competitive with others." Within six months he’d found himself a running club, and, in Ollie Wright, a coach, and discovered that he was more than competitive. A few months saw him change from recreational runner into a hard-core track athlete training twice a day.
He’s convinced his late start has been a benefit to his training and his appetite for the sport. "I think I’m more motivated than my contemporaries who have been training for years," he says. "There can’t be many runners my age who train twice a day." He also believes that if your faster times are behind you, it’s harder to push yourself. "I’m more motivated because a lot of it is still new to me," he says. With three tough track sessions a week built into his winter training schedule, Agyei uses this time of year to focus on building a solid base for a summer of racing.
Knowing he’s capable of running faster helps him maintain focus. Last year he was disappointed to come fifth in the 1,500m in the World Outdoor Championships in San Sebastian in Spain. "It would have been nice to come higher but it keeps me motivated," he says. "As long as I’m improving, I’m happy." Constant improvement is the aim, and Agyei has a pragmatic approach. "If I stop improving at shorter distances I might start running half-marathons," he laughs. His PE teacher would be proud.
|Typical training week|
Gym: half an hour of weight training
Track session: Five miles of effort, eg pyramid 2,000m, 1,600m, 1,200m, 800m, 1,200m, 1,600m, 2,000m
AM Swim 1,000m including some arms/legs only
PM One hour steady run about 8-minute miling
AM 30-45 minute fartlek
PM Gym as Monday
Swim as Wednesday
Hills or cross-country race of 3-5 miles
Two-hour long slow run (more when marathon training)
Ros Tabor, aged 56
Ros Tabor took up running in 1984. Over 20 years later, not only is she still beating her contemporaries and breaking age-group records, but she is still speeding up. Last year she set a new 10K PB, running 40:40, and in 2004 she set a new marathon PB of 3:09:31 in Cardiff. The time was also an age-group British record, and is good enough to put her on the elite start at the 2006 Flora London Marathon alongside the slightly younger likes of Paula Radcliffe.
It’s running in such youthful company, albeit generally on a more modest level, that could be the key to Tabor’s success. Training with her faster, and younger, club mates at Dulwich Runners makes a huge difference. "Doing speedwork every week in a group is great," she admits. "I’m the oldest so the challenge for me is to keep up with younger runners."
Like many of today’s veterans, Tabor was a late starter to running drawn by the first boom in the early 80s. She’d played tennis and swum at school but it wasn’t until her 30s that she started to run. "I didn’t realise I could be fast when I started," she recalls. "Running was just a way of keeping fit." That changed when she joining a running club and discovered a competitive side to her personality. "I started winning things," she says. "I realised that I enjoyed beating people younger than me, and men as well."
The competition has continued to spur her on, especially during the winter cross-country season. "It’s just great training," she says. "Cross-country races make you mentally strong, and their unpredictability teaches you to dig deep and cope with the ups and downs of running."
Her improving times have been a by-product of the competition; she’s personally far more interested in beating other people than in racing against the clock. That numerical improvement is not lost on her coach, Steve Smythe, who sends her a schedule every month tailored to the races she’s targeting and follows the results closely. The pair have managed to resist the conventional wisdom of adding mileage with each passing year to maintain performance. Tabor still runs the same weekly mileage that she always has 35 miles when she’s not training for a marathon and more than 40 when she is. It’s clearly working. She can’t hold back the years but she’s still beating the clock and her opponents.
|Typical training week|
AM 10km off road with the dog
PM Swim 1km
AM 13km road run
PM Half an hour light stretching or exercise at the gym
AM Faster run (10km or 13km) or minute intervals
PM Swim 1km
16km coastal footpath, off road. Or shorter run and gym work
AM Multi terrain run or 13km on road
PM Gym work
Hills or rest if racing on Sunday
Race or 21km fast - could be road, multi terrain or cross-country
Ruth Pickvance, aged 44
"I remember watching a fell race and thinking it was the most astonishing thing I’d ever seen," says Ruth Pickvance. She decided to enter the same race the following year. She did and came second to last. That was 20 years ago. Now she’s an experienced international mountain runner. A lot has happened in the years between.
After only a few years of running, she became British Fell Running Champion in 1989 and her upward trend was maintained last year when she came second in the World Masters Mountain Running Championships in Keswick. The improvements since reaching veteran status have not been limited to the hills, with PBs in the marathon, half and 10K since she turned 40.
Like Agyei, Pickvance didn’t enjoy running at school. "We had an annual cross-country day and I would try to miss school on that day as I hated it so much." She did enjoy family walking holidays though and says her love of the mountains drew her to the Lake District in her 20s when she discovered fell running. With her early aversion to running long forgotten, she began to run more.
She’s never had a coach her friends joke that she is uncoachable preferring to learn from experience and adapt her training to the races coming up. "A lot of things fall into place as you age," she believes. "You develop a stronger head. You’re more determined; less likely to turn away from things because you’re a little afraid of them."
Clearly Pickvance is not afraid of a challenge. When a move to south Wales a few years ago forced her to swap the fells for the road, she did so with impressive results. "I hated road running but a colleague dragged me out," she recalls. "It’s a totally different mentality to mountain running but I caught the marathon bug and ran four in the space of 10 months."
Few runners succeed on the roads as well as the hills, but Pickvance’s talent and discipline led her to complete every one of the marathons within 2:45. The pick of the bunch was New York City where she made a last-minute decision to race with some friends. "I hadn’t really trained but they don’t have a separate start for women so I enjoyed the company and ran well," she says modestly. It was enough to join Joan Samuelson Benoit on the podium in her age group.
Pickvance relishes competition but admits that she’s never been particularly motivated by veterans’ running. When she takes a break from her teaching job to spend summers running in Italy, she races in the open category. "I hold my own," she smiles. "A race is a race. I don’t really think about the age thing." It’s hard to imagine that the runners she beats are quite so philosophical about it.
Time marches on|
Research suggests your running is unlikely to improve after the age of 40, yet each of these veterans has bucked the trend. By knowing what to expect in each decade you too could hold back the years.
20s Your running may still be improving, but your heart is already slowing down by around one beat per year. Your maximum heart rate controls the oxygen pumping round your body, as you age less oxygen is available, slowing performance. This decrease in capacity could amount to a loss of at least seven per cent in performance per decade.
30s Your metabolic rate slows by two per cent every decade after 20. That means that with each passing decade, you need to eat 100 fewer calories every day to maintain your weight. Also, what you’re eating becomes even more important. A variety of fresh fruit and vegetables will give you the antioxidants your body needs to protect it from the damaging free radicals created by exercise and the ageing process. The number of muscle fibres you have also falls by three to five per cent per decade after 30. Try cross-training to maintain muscle strength.
40s After the age of 45, Professor Tim Noakes believes you should reduce your training by 25 to 40 per cent. "At first try to achieve as much as possible on a minimum of training," he advises. He adds that older runners perform better on less training because the margin between optimum training and overtraining is small, making injury more likely.
50s You might be slowing down in your 50s but your training needs to speed up. In a study at the University of Iowa in the US, researchers concluded that the range of motion in knees falls 33 per cent from the ages of 35 to 90, but that the greatest changes occur after the age of 50. Even though running will delay your loss of flexibility, you should introduce speedwork to keep you limber. "Fast-twitch muscles are the first to deteriorate," says RW Medical Adviser Dr Patrick Milroy. "Adding some sprints to a fartlek session will improve your flexibility as you stride out more."
While the decline in performance with age is likely to be linear in men, some women experience an acceleration with the menopause. The average age for the menopause is 50 in the UK, and while anecdotal evidence suggests it may come sooner to runners, the symptoms are likely to be alleviated by being active.
60s "Retirement may have a positive or negative effect on your running," says Milroy. "If you are motivated, you’re likely to improve, since you’ll have more time to run." But with more time on your hands you might also be tempted to train more. Be careful. "Soft tissue becomes less elastic as you age, so you’ll take longer to recover from both injury and a hard session," adds Milroy. Cross-training will reduce the continuing decline in flexibility and muscle strength.