LEARNING CENTER: COACH'S CORNER

Running Through the Ages

by Scott Douglas

Tips on Top Performance in Your 40s, 50s and Beyond

Runners in their 40s and older are a varied lot-someone in her mid 40s who started running in high school might have more than 80,000 miles on her odometer, while her running partner might have started just a few years earlier. Nonetheless, because of what happens to our bodies as we age, there are some common elements that all older runners should include in their training. Here are some approaches to keeping your running rewarding and enjoyable once you're in the masters ranks.

Don't Get Injured

Of course no runner wants to get injured, but what can be a minor setback for someone in his 20s can mean the end of a season for someone in his 40s. Because your body's repair processes slow with age, little niggles can stay around for weeks, and minor strains can deteriorate into major problems. Some ways to keep injuries at bay:

Make your easy days really easy. Even if doing so impedes their performance, younger runners can get away with going too fast on days between hard and long runs. Older runners who are always pushing the pace just get hurt. On your easy days, you should feel as if you're storing up, rather than slowly leaking energy. A heart rate monitor can help you stay at a slow enough effort level (less than 70% of your max heart rate).

Keep your body like it used to be. With age, we lose muscle mass, and our connective tissues lose some of their elasticity. Those changes are made worse by how many older runners spend the bulk of their time-driving to and from work, sitting at a desk and rarely moving outside of a small range of motion. For your weakest and tightest spots, pick a few exercises to do a few times per week so that your body can function more like it did in your mid 20s. Yoga, core strengthening and weight training are great for older runners.

Wear the right shoes. As with not training intelligently, younger runners can get away with being in the wrong shoes without necessarily getting injured. Older runners need to be sure that their shoes match their gait and biomechanical needs to minimize compensatory injuries. See our videos on shoe selection and gait analysis to help find the right shoes for you.

Always Stay In Touch with Your Speed

As noted, we lose muscle mass with age. Especially quick to deteriorate are fast-twitch muscle fibers, which power quick, explosive movements. It's crucial for older runners who want to do more than shuffle for the rest of their running lives to place more, not less emphasis on speed as they age.

Do Striders at least twice a week. Even during your base training phases-in fact, even if you're never going to race again-include relaxed, fast runs of about 100 meters at the end of at least two easy runs each week. Don't strain; instead, think about moving quickly across the ground while concentrating on one aspect of good running form. Do 6 to 8 striders, all on a flat, level surface.

Maintain your max heart rate. Maximum heart rate also declines with age, but that decline can be greatly slowed if you regularly work near your maximum. Doing so doesn't necessarily mean weekly gut-busting track sessions. On runs when you're feeling good and fluid, finish up the last 5 to 10 minutes at a "comfortably fast" pace, about the pace you could maintain for 30 to 60 minutes.

Do hills and drills. One aspect of maintaining your speed is preserving good running mechanics. Short hill repeats a few times a month will help your stride length, muscular strength and ankle flexibility. Doing drills once or twice a week that emphasize aspects of good running form, such as high knees, fast feet and lunges, will keep your stride more open and flowing. For more on hills and drills, see our article on Kenyan training.

Don't Get Fat

If you were at a healthy weight in your mid 20s, there's no real reason not to be at that weight later in life. Because our metabolism slows as we age, the food aspect of the calories-in/calories-out equation becomes more important with age.

Concentrate on nutrient-dense foods. Because you'll probably need to eat less than in your 20s to maintain a healthy weight, every calorie needs to count. The right food choices will also help you recover quicker from training, which we've seen is an issue for older runners. See our article on good recovery foods.

Add crosstraining if necessary. If you can't run enough to maintain your weight without risking injury, add other forms of aerobic exercise to your program. Cycling, water running, cross country skiing and using an elliptical trainer burn decent amounts of calories without the pounding of running. Although crosstraining probably won't directly improve your running performance, it will help you to maintain a high degree of cardiovascular fitness that might not otherwise be possible through running alone.

Scott Douglas is a former editor of Running Times, and the co-author of four books on running. Visit him online at www.scottdouglas.biz.