9 pieces of advice for runners as they age

Photo by adidas UK

1/ Set goals for yourself

My goal for 2016 was to qualify for a fifth Olympics. I trained hard through winter but I got a chest infection before the UK trials in May. I still ran, but the race went badly, as I expected. It was then a race against time to prove my fitness, and I struggled to get my health and form back. I had one last chance to show form, in the 10,000m at the European Championships in June – which, thankfully, I did. It was a battle this time round, but I got there in the end. I love the challenge of having an event as my goal. As I work towards it, I have mini-goals along the way – such as other events or targets in training. Enjoy the journey of working hard to make progress. Usually there are ups and downs along the way, but learn to relish the challenge of trying to overcome difficulties.

2/ Make age an advantage

One of the great benefits of being an older athlete is that you can use your experience to your advantage. I often wish I could’ve had the knowledge I’ve gained over the years at the start of my running career. It’s not just learning about running as a sport that’s helpful, it’s also knowing about your own body and what works for you in training and racing. As the years have gone by I’ve become more aware of how the times I’m hitting in training relate to what shape I’m in, so I’m far better informed regarding which aspects of my training need improving in the lead-up to an event. Even if you have taken up running later in life and are relatively new to the sport, your maturity can help you to make wise decisions in your approach to health and fitness.

3/ Work on your flexibility

Maintain your overall flexibility to help prevent injury and avoid age-related deterioration in your stride length. Lightly stretch all the muscle groups before your run and more thoroughly afterwards. Before a hard session or race, stretch after both the warm-up and warm-down. I also go through all my stretches each night before I go to bed. It doesn’t take long and allows me to identify any muscle tightness, and reduces tightening up overnight.

4/ Eat a healthy diet

Eat a good, balanced diet, with plenty of protein, carbs and fresh fruit and vegetables to ensure you get the nutrients and fuel to recover from training and to be ready for your next session. You don’t have to deny yourself treats, it’s all about a healthy balance. I’ve always eaten well, which I think is one of the factors that has enabled me to keep competing. During my time as an athlete, I have seen the careers of promising distance runners cut short because of excessive dieting.

5/ Listen to your body

It becomes more important to listen to your body as you get older. It may take longer to recover from hard workouts and you’ve probably got lots of other things going on in your life, too. I’ve become better at making decisions on a day-by-day basis, reacting to circumstances and modifying my training accordingly. These days I don’t stress about taking an extra day between hard sessions if I need to, or changing a workout if I have a niggle. If you can, try to have a regular massage – I find them crucial for recovery and to reduce the likelihood of injury.

6/ Run off-road more often

Avoid doing too much of your mileage on the roads. When you can, make the effort to run on good trails or grass to reduce the pounding of your joints. I do a bit of road running in training, but I do the bulk of my mileage on a canal towpath or in a forest. It does involve a drive but I believe it’s worth it to protect my joints and muscles. It’s also more enjoyable to run in beautiful locations.

7/ Fit running into your life

As you become older your life circumstances can change, whether that’s juggling family life or taking a different career path. Allow yourself to improvise and be more flexible with your training. I’ve become more adaptable with the time of day I train in order to fit sessions around the needs of the kids. I’ve also found great motivation in being able to keep fit as a family – it makes training so much more enjoyable. My little boy, Jacob, goes on his bike, while my little girl, Emily, goes in the running buggy or on the back of my husband’s bike. To help me fit my training in, we also invested in a home treadmill. People are amused, because it’s in a cupboard-type space; they joke that I must be really motivated to train in there.

8/ Deal with setbacks

At the beginning of my career, just after I’d made it to my first senior international championships, I had a serious knee injury that required surgery. It cost me two and a half years out of the sport, and it looked like my career was over before it had really begun. Every day I focused on my goal of returning to competition. There were setbacks as I tried to overcome the injury, but I made it back and competed in my first Olympics, in Sydney.

As runners know, injuries are part of the sport, but how you deal with them can affect the impact they have on you. Don’t wallow in frustration – be positive and proactive, and ensure you maintain the belief you’ll return to fitness. Get the right advice and treatment to ensure you’re doing the right things to recover as quickly as you can. If possible, keep training, changing the activity you’re doing if you have to. If you can’t run, do a workout in the pool, either swimming or aqua running, or work out on a stationary bike or other cross-training machine. Depending on your injury, you may also be able to continue with a small amount of running on a forgiving surface.

9/ Maintain perspective

Remember, running should be fun, not something that adds worry to your life – so always try to enjoy it. Many worse things can happen than a bad session or race. Becoming a mum definitely helped me to put any worries about running into perspective. When I was young, if I had a track session in the evening, I often found myself worrying all day about whether I would hit my planned targets. Now I try as hard as ever when I’m at the track, but the rest of the time I have other priorities, juggling my life with a young family. If a race doesn’t go well, my little ones are soon there to keep me happy and always remind me what’s important. Having that balance in my life has made me happier and enabled me to enjoy my running more.