Running, it is often said, is a lifelong sport. You can start as early as primary school and keep going as long as you can put one foot in front of the other. You grow, mature, set PBs and (hopefully) break them again and again.
But there comes a time when the PB chase grows difficult, except for those who entered the sport later in life and are still relatively new to it. And even those runners have to accept the fact that try as they might to keep fit and youthful, their bodies inexorably decline.
It’s a process that on average begins sometime in our 30s. The rate of decline gradually increases to about 0.7 percent per year (with slight variations among events and between men and women) throughout our 40s, 50s and 60s, according to the current (2010) version of the age-grading tables maintained by World Masters Athletics (available online through numerous age-grading calculators).
The reasons for this decline are mixed and not terribly well-understood from a basic physiological level. What is known is that age lowers VO2 max and decreases muscle mass. Accumulated wear and tear makes you less flexible. All forms of healing take longer, including recovery from hard workouts, something you can’t ignore unless you want to spiral into an endless cycle of overtraining and injury.
The good news is that it could be worse. At the 2014 Twin Cities Marathon, 59-year-old Christine Kennedy of Los Gatos, California, ran an age-defying 2:59:39, a time many runners half her age only dream of. “Humans are well-adapted to run into late middle age,” says Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist. In fact, says Lieberman, who has spent part of his career studying pre-industrial cultures, our ancestors appear to have evolved to continue running or hunting well into today’s masters years. “Hunter/gatherers who survive childhood often live into their 70s or even 80s and remain very active,” he says.
That does not mean, however, that the biology of aging can be ignored. It’s still necessary to adjust your training – and your expectations –to the realities of getting older. Those adjustments differ as you progress along the masters path.
Young Masters: 35-44
It’s tempting to deny that age has any effect at the lower end of this range.
Some spend their early masters career bemoaning every race as a new PW – personal worst. Others embrace it, counting the days until their 40th birthday when they have a chance to set records in a new category.
In terms of training, the changes at this early stage in masters running are relatively minor. Realise that injuries can be more frequent and take longer to heal.
Priorities for a Young Masters Runner
- Accept that things have changed: Don’t collect personal worsts.
- Look forward to being the youngest and fastest in a new competitive field.
- Learn to evaluate results in relation to your workouts and your effort.
- Start to add extra recovery time and cross-training.
Middle Masters: 45-54
While the increase in recovery time and the decline in top performances are impossible to ignore, this age can be one of the most rewarding of a runner’s life. Each age group represents a chance to be the young runner again, providing anticipation as the turn-year approaches and offering the thrill of setting new marks and competing for awards as you enter the new group.
Some people who had busy family lives when they were younger may suddenly find new time for training.
Another motivation is simply to beat the age-grading curve. In fact, you can easily channel the energy you once put into chasing PBs into chasing age-graded PBs, with similar, if not greater satisfaction as you defy the hands of time.
But this is also the age when masters reality truly sets in. Not only do you have to be exceptional to still be fighting for the type of position you might once have had among the open-class runners, but if you haven’t already adjusted training to accommodate your changing body, you’re in danger of spending this decade fighting off injuries.
Priorities for a Middle Masters Runner
- Find new motivation with each age group or in beating your PBs with age-grading.
- Use newly found extra time to train more.
- Work on strength and flexibility, particularly in the calves and hip flexors.
- Run on soft surfaces.
Climbing the Age Ranks: 55-64
To begin, the 55-59 age group is the first to show a truly marked drop-off in the number of competitors.
Other than praying you have good genes and doing your best to maintain a healthy lifestyle, there’s not a lot you can do to keep yourself from joining the ranks of those sidelined by arthritis and other nonrunning ailments. But if you’re one of those people who is never happy with your race results, this might be a good time to start acknowledging the successes you’ve already had, before the unpleasant time comes – however far in the future – when there are no more successes.
Also important to realize is that the 0.7 percent annual decrease in performance translates to 3.5 percent over the course of each five-year age group. The youngsters in your age group are now 12–18 seconds per K ahead of you, and it’s easy to get frustrated.
One way to deal with this is simply to wait it out until the next key birthday rolls around. Another is to use the upcoming age group as an incentive. That’s useful, Williams says, because “you need to ramp up a year or so early to really be effective.”
Meanwhile, you do need to make some training changes. One is to recognize that just as masters runners don’t recover as easily as open-class runners, older masters runners don’t recover as quickly as younger ones. You have to become more adept at monitoring and judging your recovery, not relying on timing rules or other runners’ experiences.
Even if you’ve had a relatively smooth path through your masters career so far, this is another time when you may need to revise expectations for racing and training.
Priorities for a Masters Runner Climbing the Age Ranks
- Learn to appreciate your successes, recognizing that your running years are limited.
- Make allowances for every year of aging.
- Become expert at monitoring your recovery; no single formula works for everyone.
- Take advantage of established fitness to maintain performances with less effort.
Senior Masters: 65-74
Whatever evolutionary biologist Lieberman says about our distant ancestors, this is an age where simply lining up for the start of a race is something most peers would never attempt.
It can be useful to find a club, even if many of the runners aren’t your age. You can mentor some of the young ones. Others are inspirational, letting you point to a young speedster and say, “Hey, he’s part of my team.”
From a training perspective, caution now rules. It’s also increasingly important to pay attention to strength training. The average person steadily loses muscle mass after age 30 – this can represent a 30 to 40 percent decline by age 70. Just because you run, don’t believe you’re immune to this.
And whatever you do, don’t listen to the naysayers. “Unless there’s something anatomically wrong with you, you can get some pretty good speed going,” Kregal says. “The problem is that society wants to close you down. Don’t quit when people tell you to.”
Priorities for a Senior Masters Runner
- Find company: Join a club and look for races with strong masters fields.
- Lacking peers, compete with the open field, defining success on your terms.
- Make caution your top priority in training.
- Get serious about regular weight training.
Super Masters: 75+
When it comes to Super Masters the advice above applies tenfold.
Some find that as the years mount, the onetime nuances of form, pacing, race strategy and training take a backseat to simply lining up for the next race start.
Priorities for the Super-Master Runner
- Ignore the voices that say you’re too old.
- Reduce racing and training volume.
- Wipe the slate and start new every day.
- Keep running.