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Natalie Dorset, 53, started distance running about eight years ago when her boyfriend signed her up for a 5K when she wasn’t paying attention. She hadn’t run since high school. Begrudgingly, she trained for the Dogfish Dash. When she completed it, Dorset discovered she loved the feel of the finish line.
“That feeling of accomplishment, that feeling of knowing that there was room for growth, and that you could apply yourself to something and get better, and that you could start something and do as well you could at it,” that’s what kept her running, she says.
Many of her friends, also over 40, began running too. They would often turn to Dorset for advice. “I didn’t want that responsibility of people asking me, ‘What do I do?’ and I’m just telling them something that’s not proven or I don’t know the science behind and I just picked up somewhere,” she says. “So I decided it made sense for me to certify.” Dorset is now an RRCA Level 2 certified coach. And as she’s been taking her own running to the next level (she had planned on competing in the now-canceled Wanda Age Group Championships representing The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago) she’s been helping other masters runners start or improve on their running journey. Here’s here advice on running when you’re over 40.
Of course you should invest in a pair of comfortable shoes and perhaps a GPS watch, but Dorset sees a lot of women over 40 who struggle with confidence so much that even that is a challenge to overcome. “Getting started is more intimidating than you would think,” she says. “People are nervous to go to a running store, to run on a treadmill, to get fitted for shoes.” Her new clients ask if they are going to look silly. Her response: “Absolutely not.”
It’s important to start out slow and give your body time to adjust to the stresses of running. Have patience! Remember the old saying “haste makes waste?” That’s the same for running. Going out too fast and running too many miles too many days in a row can put stress on your body that it’s not used to. “Your ankles, your joints, aren’t ready straight away when you just get started running.”
It’s also very important to start listening to your body and what it needs. This can help you prevent overtraining and getting injured. It can also help you make smart choices with nutrition. While it can be hard sometimes to follow a prescribed diet, Dorset recommends just paying attention to how your eating affects your training and make adjustments from there. “If you notice that when you eat a certain type of food the night before and it’s too heavy and you feel sluggish and heavy in your run the next day, then maybe modify that.”
Like everyone else, runners over 40 should focus their diet around whole foods if possible and be sure to prioritize protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. People over 50 lose up to one percent of their muscle mass every year, but a new study shows that consuming more vitamin C can prevent that. Fueling needs also change slightly if you’re perimenopausal, menopausal, or post-menopausal.
“Your body is like a beautiful machine,” says Dorset. Make the time to fuel it properly.
Set a Goal
Determine your goal for running, whether it’s fitness, to make friends, improving your health, to burn off stress, or run a local race. Dorset recommends setting a long-term goal that you’d hope to achieve within six months to a year. The goal should guide your training, but it shouldn’t overshadow what you’re accomplishing day-to-day.
“You set a goal and then sort of forget about it,” she says. “You set a goal but don’t judge yourself by that goal.”
Embrace Playfulness in Training
After a few weeks—and once you’re comfortable with running—you can add additional workouts like a “fartlek” or hill repeats. These are easy and can be done anywhere.
Fartlek means speed-play, and you determine how long and how fast. You can vary the distance, the time, and the speed over the course of your run. Hill repeats are a speed workout in disguise because as you charge up the hill, you have to be aware of your form: take short baby steps, keep your head up, angle your body with hill incline, pump arms, and breathe. Then on the downhill you can either slowly jog or walk down to save the pounding on your quads.
Dorset also recommends mixing running and mindfulness to make the process easier when you’re first starting out. “Pay attention to the things around you. What do you hear under your feet? Your feet crunching on the gravel? Do you hear birds singing? Do you feel a breeze? Do you see the sunshine or are there trees and leaves? How does the light catch things?”
As a beginner, running doesn’t have to be complicated. The act of running is organic and freeing. Over time, you’ll want to add more quality workouts; do two to three a week depending on your training goal. Then you can invest in a coach, read one of many great training books available, or join a local running club. “There usually is this sort of representation of women who are over 40 that go to these run clubs. It’s a great way to make friends and find community,” says Dorset.
There are plenty of benefits to starting a running program in your 40s or later, including improved health, self-esteem, and a renewed sense of curiosity in life. “It seems to set a base for trying new things and accomplishing new things in other areas of life outside of running,” says Dorset. “If I can complete this, then what else can I do?”