SPLITS: 5 Reasons Why Athletes Can Embrace Aging
There's always the opportunity to adjust your mindset when it comes to performance. Erin Strout offers a new way to think about aging as a runner.
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My grandfather lived until he was 94. By the time he died in 2009, he was the sole survivor of 13 siblings. His secret? For as long as I can remember he used to say, with a gusto I have yet to match, “You just have to keep moving!” And with every passing birthday he’d also remind me: “Getting older is better than the alternative.”
Those two pearls of wisdom have continued to serve me well. But it has also occurred to me that since I became a masters runner (defined as 40 and older), I’ve focused primarily on the negative aspects of aging—albeit, mostly factors that my grandfather never had to experience. Women face a lot of challenges in mid-life that make it hard to maintain a cheery disposition, even as that simple advice to “keep moving!” holds true. The decline of estrogen levels has an effect on just about everything, including mood, sleep, body composition, bone density, muscle mass, and more. It’s a lot to navigate—especially for those of us who’ve been athletes for most of our lives. We have to adjust expectations and relearn how to properly train our bodies that have new needs and capabilities.
It’s natural to fixate on what we’re potentially losing as the years go by. But what if we explored the ways that aging serves us, instead? I’m not trying to pollyanna our way out of perimenopause, but taking a little time to reflect on the happier sides of getting older might entice some of us to relish this phase instead of fear it.
So I called Selene Yeager, host of the podcast Hit Play Not Pause and content manager for Feisty Menopause, a site that covers training, nutrition, and lifestyle advice to help women maximize performance during menopause and beyond. She shared some expertise and insight on how athletes can find hope and enjoyment during the second half of their active lives. Out of that conversation and many others over the years with runners who have experienced longevity in the sport, I came up with five reasons to embrace masters running.
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It is impossible to acknowledge or appreciate the bigger picture when you’re younger. Every botched workout, every missed PR, every off-pace long run seems like a big deal. But then life expands in wild ways. Whether it’s a spouse or children or career or aging parents, everybody seemingly needs something from you for quite a while.
The upside? Those important people who need you can also put performance into perspective. Before running the Berlin Marathon in September, Keira D’Amato, 37, who was trying to improve her American record during the race (2:19:12, which has since been broken by Emily Sisson at the Chicago Marathon in 2:18:29), remarked that while her goals are a priority, her results actually don’t matter much in the grand scheme.
“At the end of the day, no matter what happens, I’m still going to come home to two kids who will ask me what’s for dinner,” D’Amato said during a pre-race interview.
Similarly, Yeager remembers when her daughter was younger, she felt a pivot in her outlook, too. “You’re not sitting there ruminating about yourself anymore—it’s a similar sort of transition phase in a woman’s life that can bring that better head space.”
The even better news is that eventually a lot of those people become less dependent as we enter midlife, leaving new-found time to focus more on your own endeavors.
“The shedding of those ovarian hormones that have you nurturing everybody but yourself gives you the brain space to look at what you need and want,” Yeager says. “And that is a great thing. Not that nurturing is bad, but it’s time for you.”
The older we get, the less we care. In a good way. In the best ways, really. As Yeager puts it, “You can say it however you want, but you get to this point where you don’t actually give a f*ck and it’s very liberating and empowering.”
You don’t care what people think when you try something new, like mountain racing. You don’t care what your time is and realize that nobody else does either (spoiler alert: nobody ever did care what your personal bests or weekly mileage were). You start to realize that the performances and goals can be broader and more creative than ever before—your effort can go toward something besides qualifying for the Boston Marathon, for example.
Look no further than somebody like Deena Kastor, who won the Olympic marathon bronze medal in 2004. Now 49, she still trains at a high level, but has continually redefined what success means to her, whether it’s going after age-group records or racing all the World Marathon Major events, a goal she just completed when she finished the Berlin Marathon a few weeks ago, in 2:45:12.
“There’s lots of empowerment that comes with midlife, especially around 50,” Yeager says. “It takes some time and it might take hormonal changes—I don’t know; they’re still doing their research—to really accept and embrace that you are the only one thinking about you as much as you’re thinking about you.”
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Not long ago I spoke with Kathryn Martin, who at 70 years old had just taken a five-year break from competing on the masters track scene. She has two dozen age-group American records and a dozen world records, but was feeling a little burned out from the high-intensity pursuits. During that break, she didn’t stop running, but she did cease serious training. What brought her back? Aside from a renewed desire to tackle more records, she missed all the friends she made on the circuit.
“What I really missed was the camaraderie. Masters runners are so unique,” Martin told me. “You can be warriors on the track, but prior to and immediately afterward, everybody’s hugging. We’re just so happy to see each other and be in each other’s company.”
While you don’t have to grow older to appreciate the running community, Martin is right. The masters category hits a little different. Yeager sees it, too—and hears about it from plenty of women she interviews.
“Even if you’re really competitive still, there’s a genuine appreciation for your peers,” Yeager says. “We’ve seen a lot of shit in our lives at this point and that creates a lot of camaraderie. You’re also just more secure in your skin and not having all your self-worth wrapped up in beating another person.”
Technology and Research.
Sara Hall, 39, is the poster woman for longevity. She started having the best races of her career in her mid-30s, now one of the fastest U.S. women at the marathon (2:20:32). Many factors have worked in Hall’s favor, but one thing she’s continually given credit to is the advancement in shoe technology—not just the way in which they’ve elevated everybody’s performances, but also how they’ve reduced the pounding on her legs and allowed quicker recovery between big efforts.
The generation entering its 50s now is the first to grow up in a post-Title IX world, with increased access to sports for their entire lives. As Yeager says, we aren’t in the “Golden Girls” era anymore. Women remain competitive and active for far longer than they ever have not only thanks to that critical piece of policy, but also because of the technology (think: gear, nutrition, recovery tools, etc.) that keeps us healthier, longer. The research on all phases of the female athlete lifecycle still has plenty of catching up to do, but as it advances and we know better how to care for our maturing bodies, the possibilities will only increase.
“Everything we thought we knew about women after they had babies or when they go through the menopause transition—really about women at any stage—is being rewritten and discovered,” Yeager says. “It’s a huge thing, when performance and fitness is exponentially different because we’ve started and built it all from the time we were adolescents, many not stopping during pregnancy, either. Are you kidding? We’re just different human beings than the women back in the Golden Girl time.”
Ever want to try different distances? Different terrain? Are you triathlon curious? Have you heeded the often repeated advice to start lifting weights (seriously, you need to lift weights)? After all is said and done, if you’re still not convinced that growing older as a runner can become an equally enjoyable experience, then reinvent yourself. Try something new and see the comparisons to your former self disappear.
Yeager, for example, didn’t start CrossFit until she was 48 years old, when “it was time to start ‘lifting heavy sh*t’ as they say.’” Desiree Linden, 39, winner of the 2018 Boston Marathon, has said she’s looking forward to exploring trails and ultra-distance races after she retires from competitive road racing.
“If you are open to expanding your horizons, it makes all the difference in the world,” Yeager says. “You have nowhere to go but up. You’re learning new things and experiencing something for the joy of it again. That’s enormously positive.”
It looks like my grandfather had a point. All you have to do is keep moving.