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Becoming a Master: Goal Setting for Female Runners After 40

Our lives go through some big changes as masters-age runners. Here’s how to stay motivated and inspired to reach new goals.

Photo: Getty Images

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Sasha Gollish is new to the masters category—she turned 40 in December. But she hasn’t wasted much time dwelling on the milestone birthday. One of the first races for the Canadian pro was on February 27, at the Ontario Masters Championships in Toronto, where she set a women’s 40+ indoor mile world record in 4:44.81 (pending ratification).

“We’ve always, in a sense, had these limitations put on us by others with no empirical evidence, right?” Gollish says. “There are a lot of women out there who are going to do way cooler things than I just did.”

To be sure, the expectations for performance in middle age and beyond are changing—the top U.S. women at the marathon distance right now are Keira D’Amato, who set the American record in January at age 37 (2:19:12), and Sara Hall, who ran her fastest marathon (2:20:32) in December 2020, also at age 37. They aren’t masters yet, but it’s promising that they’re still driving for big achievements into their late 30s.

The fact is, when women cross over into the magical masters threshold, our running lives do not come to a screeching halt, as we may have once been led to believe. Training principles have become more advanced, as well as the expertise on how athletes can safely return to running after pregnancy and childbirth. Shoe technology is alleviating some of the pounding our bodies take, allowing better recovery and increasing the number of years we can train at a high level. We know a lot more about how nutrition, fueling, and strength training prolong healthy running, too.

RELATED: Age is Just a Number: Why Elite Women Over 35 Are Crushing It

Inevitably, however, physiology and biology will always win, and recording personal bests every year will become impossible—it’s just a matter of when it happens, which depends on a number of factors including how many years you’ve been training, injury history, genetics, and lifestyle. For those who have always been driven and motivated by improvement, it can feel frustrating when the gains begin to plateau and then dissipate.

On the upside, plenty of athletes have proven that new and worthy goals remain if you can adjust your mindset and find new motivation. Gollish, for one, is redefining how she approaches training on a daily basis, which isn’t tied as closely to performance.  

“I am currently fascinated with what success means and turning preparation into success,” she says. “[Success is] based on my values…as it relates to running, it’s all about consistency. It’s about showing up—you’ve gotta do the hard work, the workouts, and the specificity—but more than that, you actually just have to show up.” 

Read on for four strategies masters women use to stay inspired and reach new goals after 40.

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Drop the Need for Perfection

Gollish spent a lot of her running career trying to nail each workout and feeling disheartened when she didn’t. But with age comes wisdom (and perspective), as the saying goes. Most of us have trained long enough to know that one bad day doesn’t define us and that can be an advantage in our post-40 running lives. Shifting our attitudes takes practice, but it can help alleviate frustration. 

“I would get very competitive with myself and expect certain times. I’m a recovering perfectionist for sure,” Gollish says. “Consistency can help with that. I don’t need to have a perfect workout, I can just get it done. If the times aren’t happening and I can’t wrap my head around it, I take the watch off.”

The clock can trigger a lot of comparison traps, whether to the people we see on social media or to a version of our younger selves. And that’s just unproductive.

“This idea of respecting where you’re at as opposed to comparing yourself to other people or to your former self or who you think your future self can be, I think it actually gives you this robust strength to play with,” Gollish says. “On your bad days, you don’t give up. On your good days you weaponize that strength and take advantage of it.”

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Try New Things

Susan Loken didn’t start running until she was 36. A mother of three boys, she felt like she needed an activity to build fitness, so she decided to give it a whirl. Little did she know, she had some talent, which was motivating and fulfilling to her. 

“Talent” may have been an understatement. She qualified for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials three times and has been the U.S. Masters marathon champion four times. 

Along the way, Loken, now 58 and based in Phoenix, has also become a coach at Believe Train Become, and she guides many other women through the ups and downs of the masters years as she experiences them herself, too. She has started to see her performances slip on the roads in recent years, so she’s turned to the trails and to training for ultra distances. She’ll collect nothing but personal bests by doing a kind of running she’s never tried before.

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“I’m starting at the bottom. I’m excited about turning 60 because I’ll probably be running faster at trails and ultras than I am today,” Loken says. “I want to live as long as I can, as young as I can. The way to do that is to have goals and dreams that still challenge you, but are realistic. If there’s no way you’re going any faster at the marathon and that’s discouraging to you, well, try something new.”

While some women decide they’re going for age group records, others reset what counts as a personal record every 5 or 10 years. Finding the objectives that keep them motivated as the years go by is key—whether it’s training for a new-to-you distance or setting a weekly strength training goal, it all counts. (In fact, strength training becomes more critical with every passing year to preserve muscle mass.)

Lisa Levin, a masters runner in Maryland who also coaches many 40 and older women along with coach Julie Sapper at Run Farther & Faster, suggests that when goal times are no longer motivating, her athletes try other objectives they’ve struggled to achieve earlier in life, like negative splitting a marathon or perfecting perceived effort, finishing a race feeling strong instead of riding the struggle bus. Perhaps the answer is dipping a toe in multi-sport races like triathlons or duathlons.

“It doesn’t have to be driven by time, but maybe by how you felt or your place or how many training runs you did during the week,” Levin says. “It’s all about finding the joy in achieving something that may not be strictly time-based.”

Goals must stoke a high level of excitement and if you pick the right one, it will no doubt lead you to other healthy lifestyle habits, Loken finds.

“Find a goal that makes you happy to wake up every single day and work towards,” Loken says. “If you’re excited about that goal every single day, the days that you don’t want to train, you’ll train. The days you don’t want to eat right, you’ll eat right. The days you don’t want to go to bed early, you’re going to go to bed early.”

Recognize All the Transitions

Middle age is not for the weak. Often women are caught between caring for children and caring for aging parents, while juggling their careers, and fitting in training. Usually this all happens while experiencing perimenopause and menopause—which on their own can create debilitating fatigue. And we wonder why we aren’t running as fast as we used to?

For many, masters running requires a new kind of patience and flexibility, which are goals in and of themselves. For those who experience menopause, the decline in estrogen levels wreaks all sorts of havoc. Our body fat increases, we can have bone density loss, and of course hot flashes and sleep disturbances (which interferes with recovery). 

“We encourage our runners who are going through menopause to go with the flow—no pun intended,” Levin says. “If you’re really dragging one day because you didn’t sleep well, then cut the run short and move the workout to another day. If you’re adjusting to [hormone replacement therapy] medications, it takes a lot of trial and error—be kind to yourself.”

Aside from all the physical changes taking place, life in general may interfere with performance more so in mid age. That’s when it’s essential to redefine success for yourself.

“As a group [masters runners] are under stress in a big way,” Semper says. “Looking at running as a comfort during times of transition is also a great motivator. To be able to stay healthy, to be able to set goals and achieve those goals even if the times are different than what they were 10 years ago, you’re still finishing races that other people the same age would find unimaginable.”

Make Gratitude a Goal

The good news is that masters runners have a perspective that nobody else out there can fully appreciate until they join their ranks. We appreciate what our bodies can do more than ever and we don’t take our running for granted. While we’ve always heard we should keep the bigger picture and the long game in mind, nobody fully understands what that means until we get there.

Semper and Levin believe that middle-age and older runners train with a keener sense of gratitude than most.

“Something that we gain with age is perspective on our running and what role it plays in our lives—it’s not the be-all, end-all—that is a huge benefit to getting older,” Semper says.

And the older we get, the less we care about what anybody thinks or what the clock says.

“We start to just focus on the joy of the sport and how fortunate we are to be out there doing what we love to do, pursuing a passion with others who enjoy the same passion,” Levin says. “We recognize that it is such a gift to be able to do it for many years, which is the goal.”

Gollish has realized that journaling every morning helps her figure out what is most important for her—getting her thoughts down on paper often makes it more obvious where her heart is, which informs decisions about where to put her energy.

“I figured out that it’s really important for me. I think of things to let go of, things I’m grateful for, and—I stole from Brené Brown—an ordinary moment in my life that brings me joy,” Gollish says.

And as she embarks on the new, big decade, she shares the belief that success in running will be found in less tangible ways than what the data presents—staying active and spending time outside continues to excite her.

“I like acting like a teenager,” Gollish says, “but it’s way better now when you have a paycheck to support the fun.” 

RELATED: Mirna Valerio’s Advice to Her Younger Self: Practice Saying “No” 

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