Culture

Advice on Running Gracefully into Old Age

With the right approach and advice from Oiselle's Elite Grannies, there’s no reason to think you can’t run well no matter how old you are.

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Peggy Richko discovered the marathon late in life. She’s been a runner forever, but she didn’t race 26.2 miles until age 54. Immediately hooked on the sense of accomplishment, Richko proceeded to run 17 more marathons over the next decade. Today at 72, she’s still going strong—and has no plans to stop.

“I am retired from work and I don’t have to do anything hard,” Richko says. “I could spend my day reading, shopping, watching TV or napping, but I need the challenge of running.”

Richko is one of a growing number of women who continue to run and race well into their later years. Running USA stats reveal that the over 65 age group in road races grew from 216,884 participants in 2013 to 434,640 in 2018. In the 55- to 64-year-old category, numbers went from 650,652 to nearly 1.1 million in the same time frame—and women make up 59 percent of participants at road races.

Sponsors, naturally, are taking notice of this growing demographic, too. Richko is one of the three women over the age of 70 included in Oiselle’s “Elite Grannies” team—joined by 73-year old Marjorie Conry and 73-year old Donna Keto.

IS AGE JUST A NUMBER?

First, the bad news. No matter how much we may want to deny it, the effects of aging are real.

Aging runners lose muscle mass with the corresponding reduction in strength and power; muscles and connective tissues like tendons and ligaments become less supple and flexible; VO2 max—the top amount of oxygen you have available for exercise—drops, as does maximum heart rate; bones may become more frail; hormone levels drop—estrogen in particular—resulting in less efficient heat management, disrupted sleep, and faster rates of fatigue.

The side effects of aging can seem discouraging, but runners like Richko prove that you can manage them and still thrive. Muscles and aerobic systems still respond to training and get stronger and faster. Aging runners who train smart and consistently can have bodies—and results—that compare with less-fit individuals who are decades younger. And they can still experience the joys of movement like escape, effort, and the feeling of progress that running brings.

So how can you train to still run well at 70? Much of the same training principles apply, with some unique considerations and some areas of increased importance.

As with runners of any age, one of the most important elements of masters training is consistency. In interviewing lifetime competitive runners for his book, Run Strong, Stay Hungry, Jonathan Beverly found that all shared a habit of putting in daily miles—week after week, month after month, year after year—adding up to more than 100,000 lifetime miles for many. And this consistency didn’t wane much as the years piled up.

Research confirms the importance of consistency for masters. In a study published in the December 2008 Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, researchers questioned participants in the U.S. and Canadian masters track and field championships about their performances and training throughout the years. They found that the most reliable predictor of performance was the amount of training done consistently over the past five years.

“Middle-aged athletic individuals who retain a high level of performance do so likely because they have maintained years of uninterrupted practice, consistently have shorter off-season periods, exhibit higher weekly amounts of practice, and avoid injury,” the researchers concluded.

When it comes to volume, there are no hard-and-fast rules—each runner has individual needs and capabilities—but research shows that it isn’t the volume that causes injury but spikes in training load as we ramp up after taking time off or periods of reduced training. Australian professor of exercise science Tim Gabbett, who conducted key studies in this area, says that chronic under-training accompanied by overloading spikes is more likely to lead to injury than sustained heavy workload, which can protect against injury. “Runners intuitively know this,” Gabbett says. “If they can run consistently, train consistently, it actually builds robustness, it doesn’t build fragility.”

It’s easier to retain fitness than to gain it, says coach Greg McMillan, author of You (Only Faster). “As we age, regaining it becomes more and more difficult—physically and mentally,” he says. “So, runners who have had a long successful running career are the ones that just keep racing. They keep training. And, they race lots of distances and do lots of different types of training.”

That variety that McMillan touches on is another key to longevity. Melody Fairchild, a Boulder-based running coach whose groups include a 28-member masters women’s club, agrees on the importance of mixing things up. “The likelihood of overuse injuries is higher in older athletes, so I make sure the workouts, surfaces, and terrain are different,” she says. “This variety is also good for the mind, keeping things interesting, and enthusiasm high.”

Robin Emery, who has been a force on the Maine running scene for six decades, is another 70-year-old still competing enthusiastically. She runs every day, but each day doesn’t look the same. Her weeks often include such diverse elements as ladder interval workouts and tempo runs. Plus, she says, “I sprint at the end of every run.”

Variable training and terrain can help, as well as planning blocks of different intensities and focus. Even just rolling with whatever else life throws at you can reduce monotony.

Dawn Werlinger, a 70-year old runner from Salem, Oregon, is another master still running well after 40 years. She pays attention to the mix of training, life changes, and other stressors from one season to the next. “Some years have been low key with regard to my running,” Werlinger says, “while others have been more competitive.”

The key here is that while successful masters still run regularly and incorporate many different types of training, like their younger counterparts, they do have to be open to change and willing to adapt to new realities.

The primary change is a reduction in training density. In his book Fast After 50, coach Joe Friel explains the difference between training dose and training density. Dose is how hard any one session is; density is how frequently you administer that dosage. Aging athletes find that while they can run just as hard and nearly as fast as ever, they get in trouble if they try to do so frequently.

“Both dose and density need to decrease as age increases,” Friel says. “We can generally do a high-dose session, perhaps even as hard as when we were much younger, but we can’t do several of them in a few days’ time. While both dose and density are concerns of the senior athlete, I’ve found the density becomes the one that gives us the most trouble as we get older.”

Elizabeth Carey, a Seattle-based running coach and writer who works with Fairchild, says that this can look different for all athletes. “That could be removing one hard workout per week,” she says. “Recovery takes longer at this age, so coaches and athletes need to keep that front and center.”

While some masters keep running as often as ever, many reduce the frequency, taking more off days than they did in their youth. Fairchild says that a four-day-a-week run schedule seems to work for most of her older athletes. “This seems to be the sweet spot,” she says. “They run four days, cross train one or two days, and take a full rest day.”

Aging runners find longer warm-ups essential, too, allowing muscles and tissues with decreased elasticity to loosen and prepare for harder work ahead. This especially holds true for speedwork. In a track workout, for instance, the warm-up might be two times longer than prescribed for younger runners. And the first interval may not be timed, effectively becoming the final step in the warmup.

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CRITICAL SUPPORT

While Dawn Werlinger, 70, has adjusted her approach several times over the decades, she points to strength training as one of the most impactful changes she’s made. “I started in my 40s with my local run team,” she says, “and kept it going a few times a week ever since. I’ve added new things over the years as I’ve learned them. Women need to embrace strength work—it’s critical to our bones and muscles.��

After the age of 30, you begin to lose muscle mass at about the rate of 10 percent per decade and that number accelerates in the later years. This can hurt your running performance and increase injury odds if you don’t work to mitigate the loss. Running helps, of course, but strength training becomes more important than ever in your 50s and beyond.

“It will not only stave off muscle loss, but help you maintain stability around your joints, helping prevent injury,” says Jennifer Corso, MA, an Arizona-based biochemical physiologist and author. “If you do get injured, you will bounce back faster if you have adequate muscle strength.”

Underlying all of the training rules for aging runners is a sound approach to nutrition. Bone health becomes critical because as estrogen drops, bones have a tougher time retaining calcium. The National Institutes of Health recommends increasing calcium intake from 1,000 mg per day to 1,200 mg to offset the loss once you reach menopause.

Corso says that now is not the time to restrict calories. “If you’re not getting enough calories, you’ll be affecting your muscle and bone mass,” she says. “Also pay attention to when you eat.

It takes longer to recover from workouts when you’re older, so eating within about 30 minutes of your runs is important.”

More than anything, says Fairchild, older runners want to avoid getting into a catabolic state, where you train too much and don’t supply your body with adequate nutrition, resulting in a breakdown. “When you’re 18, you can dip into a catabolic state and bounce back quickly,” she says. “As a masters runner, it’s a hole from which it’s tough to get out.”

ATTITUDE REALLY IS EVERYTHING

While it isn’t what primarily motivates these elite grannies, continuing to run into later years has positive impacts on your health. Richko, for instance, was diagnosed with osteoporosis three years ago. “My doctor told me the only reason I was still standing was because I was a runner,” she says. “We’ve found the right medication now and my most recent scan revealed that my bones are strong and healthy with no signs of osteo.”

She also checks out well with the normal battery of screenings. “I am very health conscious,” Richko says. “I maintain a low body weight, I have great blood pressure, and no health issues. I don’t take any medication, including acetaminophen and NSAIDs.”

Reaping the health benefits of running can start at any age. A Harvard study found that people beginning exercise as late as their 50s reduced their mortality risk as much as their lifelong exercising counterparts, compared to their sedentary peers.

“My non-running friends always complain that my husband and I walk too fast,” she says. “Our running friends are different. Running tends to be a way of life, and not just an endorphin boost. Age doesn’t seem to matter when your team is working together to win a race.”

That way of life is enthusiastic, engaged, mindful, hopeful, happy—and forward-looking, no matter the age. Running in your 70s provides the same opportunities for growth, satisfaction, and joy as it does in your 20s. While Richko, Emery, and Werlinger began their running careers years ago, Richko’s Oiselle teammate, Keto, came to the sport in 2006 at the age of 60 and is reaping the physical and mental rewards. “I feel good and happy and enjoy being able to run at this stage in my life,” she says. “I especially enjoy traveling to races.”

Fairchild says that newcomers have some advantages. “An experienced runner might be able to handle a bigger workload easier,” she says, “But newer runners can bring fresher legs to the equation.”

And rookies are still in the discovery and growth phase, without the weight of previous exploits. “The late bloomers run with pure joy,” Fairchild says. “I think sometimes runners who have been at it for a long time have a hard time comparing themselves to their younger versions.”

Those who endure, however, quickly learn to appreciate what they can do now, focus on the present, and find ways to challenge themselves. Emery is delighted to have broken into the 70-year-old age group. “Look out!” she says. “It’s a whole new world opening up. If you’ve got to be it, you might as well be enjoying it. I go look at race results, nobody in the 70s, if there are, it’s really, really slow.”

Some find motivation in age-grading (a type of “handicap” used in running to put athletes of all ages on an even playing field), some in being part of a team in cross-country races. Joan Benoit Samuelson started tying her racing to what she calls “stories,” such as running sub-2:50 at age 50, or, now, breaking 3 hours in her 60s. And, there are always the inherent difficulties of running and racing which are satisfying to overcome.

“My husband says I run for new running shoes and I do love the feel of new shoes,” Richko says. “But I am motivated to run because it is hard. Going outside in 80 degrees or 15 degrees, getting up at 5:30 a.m. to drive two hours for a 5K race is challenging.”

Older runners find satisfaction in overcoming challenges and have an appreciation for doing what they love.

“It just feels so good,” Emery says. “How you feel when you run, how you feel when you don’t run. Compare those. It’s like eating. It’s like breathing. I can’t not run.”