How to run at your best when you’re 65+

Illustration by Spencer Wilson

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‘Humans are well adapted to run into late middle age,’ says Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University. He says our ancestors appear to have evolved to continue running or hunting well into today’s masters years. ‘Hunter-gatherers often live into their 70s or even 80s and they remain very active.'

Despite what Lieberman says about our distant ancestors’ staying power, this is an age where simply lining up at the start of a race is something most of your peers would never attempt. But if you’re careful and dedicated, it’s still possible to be good. One person who’s discovered this is running coach Mike Reif. ‘I’ve been running for over 55 years and [at 65] got motivated because of the new age group,’ he says. He lost weight and began running with the athletes he coaches. He also remembered his youth, when he was on a national championship team. ‘My mindset went back to that,’ he says. ‘If you can make that transition, you can get motivated at any age.’

It’s also useful to find a club. Reif’s club competes in competitions where masters events can have sizeable fields, even in the higher age groups.

Work on your stride length. Studying 78 men at the seven-mile mark of a marathon, researchers found the stride length of runners over 60 was 17 per cent shorter, on average, than those of 40-49-year olds. To lengthen your stride, stretch after every run, concentrating on your hamstrings, calves and lower back. In addition, try throwing some 10-15-second pickups (bursts of faster running) into your regular runs to stretch out your muscles.

It’s also increasingly important to pay attention to strength training. The average person steadily loses muscle mass after the age of 30 – this can mean a decline of 30-40 per cent by the age of 70. Just because you’re a runner, don’t think you’re immune to this fall-off.

It’s worth building some balance and coordination moves into your routine. Try the ‘flamingo’: stand on one leg for one minute, with a finger on the back of a chair to stabilise yourself. Then try it without finger support, and finally try it with your eyes closed.

Recovery and listening to your body is ever more important. Joe Kregal, a 70-year-old from Portland, Oregon, who can still run a 22:48 5K, monitors his body’s twinges and reacts accordingly. And he also believes in active recovery, like swimming and biking.

And most important of all, pay no heed to the naysayers. ‘Unless there’s something anatomically wrong with you, you can get some pretty good speed going,’ says Kregal. ‘The problem is that society wants to close you down. Don’t quit when people tell you to.’

Priorities

Find company: join a club and look for races with strong masters fields.

Define success on your own terms.

Train cautiously, recover well and listen to your body.

Focus on balance, coordination and flexibility.

Keep on running

It strengthens your joints and hips. In 2013 the US National Runners’ Health Study found runners have about a 20 per cent lower risk of osteoarthritis and hip replacement than walkers. It also found higher mileage runners (15-23 miles per week) have a 16 per cent lower risk of osteoarthritis than those who run fewer than eight miles per week.


75+

Kregal’s advice to fellow 70-year-olds applies double to the age divisions above him. For about two decades, beginning in the late 1980s, John Keston (now 90) was the dominant runner among his peers, setting age-group records in a range of distances. In his 70s he trained fairly traditionally, but as he approached 80, he found that rest had become so important that he shifted to a three-day workout rotation, running one day (up to 16 miles), then walking six miles on each of the next two days. ‘I also raced a lot, using the races as my speedwork,’ he says.

Running only every third day was a radical change from his prior training formula. But it worked, so well, in fact, that at 80 he set world bests for the mile, the 3000m and the half marathon.

Running coach Jeff Galloway recommends breaking up workouts into segments. Instead of running for 30 minutes, for example, do three 10-minute runs, with a five-minute easy walk between segments. If injury hasn’t already forced you to try pool running, do it now. With no impact on your joints and offering the aerobic benefits of running, striding through the water at least once a week will help stave off injuries.

Marv Metzer, 87, still manages a 3:26 half marathon. Not fast, but it’s the equivalent of a 30-year-old’s 1:43. At his age, he says, training becomes more and more like work, and it gets increasingly difficult to stay in shape.

You also have to get used to the fact that you’re slower than you’d like to be. On a recent training run, he says, he noticed his shadow and ‘it looked like I was walking’. He’s also had to reduce his racing (because otherwise he’d spend all of his time recovering) and cut back on his training. ‘I’m only doing about 15 miles a week these days,’ he says. ‘A few years ago I did 60.’ But he plans to keep going, even if he eventually winds up walking. ‘Unless something serious happens, I’m still going to be out there moving,’ he says.

Reif echoes the same sentiment. ‘Use it or lose it,’ he says. ‘It’s very important to stay active and healthy. I am very motivated to live a healthy lifestyle for the rest of my life.’ And from a much younger masters’ perspective, Cotner notes that as you reach each new age group, everything readjusts. ‘But that’s what masters running is,’ he says. ‘You’re reinventing yourself every season. We wipe the slate clean and start again.’

Priorities

Introduce more walking and run/walking interval workouts.

Do more pool running.

Reduce racing and training volume.

Wipe the slate clean and start afresh every day.

Keep on running

Regular running slows the effects of ageing. According to research from the Stanford University School of Medicine, US, which tracked 500 older runners for more than 20 years, masters runners have fewer disabilities, a longer span of active life and are half as likely as ageing non-runners to die early deaths.