Many athletes age quickly. Some elite gymnasts are finished in their early 20’s. Football, baseball, basketball and hockey players rarely compete past their 30’s. That brings me to one more reason to love the sport of distance running. Distance runners routinely maintain high levels of fitness and performance well into their 60’s or even later. Many distance runners don’t even hit their peak until their mid to late 30’s. While distance runners can continue to run at extraordinary levels as they age, there are some inevitable physical declines that take place. Nearly all aging athletes suffer from some level of decreasing muscle fiber numbers, muscle fiber size, VO2 max, neuromuscular efficiency and proprioception. While you can’t stop the effects of aging you can take steps to slow down the process keeping you fit, fast and strong. Here are our top ten ways to run forever young.
Cut Yourself Some Slack
As a young runner you are or were probably very hard on yourself. You may have become frustrated and disappointed when you had a bad run or race. You might have beat yourself up if you failed to PR. That type of negative energy is never good, but it can be especially destructive for a masters runner. You’ve run hard for many years. Now it’s time to cut yourself some slack. Always keep a good, positive attitude about your running and racing. Understand that although your days of PR’s may be over you are a more complete and mature runner. Use that to your advantage and run smart with lots of positive energy. Focus on the fun and spiritual aspects of running and quit being a results orientated runner.
Speed is a Big Need
To ward off some of the neurological and strength declines associated with aging you need to challenge your mind and muscles with speed training. Yep, I know you also need speed training when you’re young, but as you age you need it for a new reason. You need it to slow down or stop that decline in muscle fiber size and numbers. Speed training will also help avoid decreases in your sensitivity to nerve impulses or neuromuscular conditioning. So keep doing those weekly speed sessions.
Reinforce the Foundation
Most stride breakdowns begin at your core. Your hips, abs and back are where everything originates. Keep your core strong with core strength training exercises. A strong body is nothing without a strong foundation.
Your core isn’t the only part of your body that need to stay strong. Your all important lower body muscles and to a slightly lesser extent, your upper body muscles need to maintain their strength and power. You need extreme extremities. Do both lower and upper body strength training twice per week to maintain strength, power, speed, elasticity and injury resistance.
Your mother isn’t the only one that always knows best, your body also knows best. Many young runners tend to ignore the pain and fatigue signals their bodies are sending them. They are a bit more bullet proof at that age and can sometimes get away with that. As you move towards the masters side of running it becomes more important to listen to your body. Any chronic fatigue or pain means you should back off on mileage, intensity or both until you are feeling strong again.
Mind Your P’s and Q’s
Your P’s and Q’s become more important as you age. What are your P’s and Q’s? Its Purpose, Quantity and Quality. This is really a fancy was of saying you should avoid junk miles. Always have a purpose for your run, focus on quality running and only put in as much quantity as necessary to meet your running goal. You’ve put in thousands of miles composed of millions of strides over the years. All those strides eventually take their toll in even the most fit and efficient runners. Reduce additional stress by avoiding junk miles.
Stride For Perfection
You really can’t do much about the unavoidable reduction in your VO2 max. That means that your ability to produce running power, speed and stamina is going to drop. Can you do anything about that? You sure can! There have been many studies and investigations that have shown that if two runners with identical VO2 max levels were to complete, the athlete with the most efficient stride will win. That is because a more efficient runner is able to run with less effort, at a lower percentage of VO2 max, at similar speed. So, you should stride for perfection. Improve your stride efficiency and you can ward off some or all of the effects of a reduced VO2 max. Strength training, plyometrics, speed training, barefoot running and a focus on proper running mechanics can all make you a more efficient runner.
Balance and proprioception, or a feel for where and what all your body parts are doing at a given time, are critical for running performance. They are also an area that tends to suffer as your grow older. Just as you train your muscles, you can train your balance and proprioception. The best way to train your balance is to challenge it. Do a lot of uni-lateral or one leg exercises as well as a series of exercises using a Bosu or balance ball. Balance increases are an obvious benefit of balance training but it will also improve your proprioceptive abilities and neuromuscular conditioning.
One of the great things about aging is your increase in wisdom. Use that wisdom in your running life by becoming a more holistic and spiritual runner. Focus on the joy of running, the mental aspects of running and the spiritual side of running, rather than being a slave to your running watch. You will be a more complete and contented runner.
When I was a young runner I hated taking any time off. I always felt like I was losing ground. Plus, I loved running so much I felt like a part of my day was missing. Now as an older and wiser runner I know the value of a holiday. A more mature body with lots of miles on it needs more frequent breaks. Give yourself a break and take a planned holiday. It doesn’t need to be long. Maybe as short as a couple of days or as long as a couple of weeks. Give your body and mind the time it needs to recover and recuperate. They both will come back stronger than ever.