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Twenty years ago, someone in the audience at a talk about trail running asked Buzz Burrell, past record holder of the FKT on Colorado Trail and John Muir Trail and co-founder of FastestKnownTime.com: “What’s the key to longevity?” Then 51 years old, Burrell answered: “Like what you do.”
Now 71 and still charging trails—he was the overall winner of the Runner’s Division of the 7.4-mile Dipsea race in June of 2023, and plans to race the 23K Tromsø Skyrace in Norway, the Matterhorn Ultrax Exterme 25K, and the World Masters Uphill and 32.4K in Madiera, Spain in Europe this fall—Burrell stands by his statement so many years ago. “Truly enjoying what you’re doing is one of the best markers for longevity,” he told Trail Runner recently.
Runners like Burrell at 71 and 65-year-old Diana Fitzpatrick, who’s been crushing road and trail races for decades, have unlocked what most of us are striving for: How to continue running—and running fast, far, and injury-free—into our later years.
And those “later years,” points out Burrell, don’t necessarily mean age 40, which is technically considered the age for competing in the Masters division of most races. “Running at 40 and running at 70 are two very different things,” says Burrell.
Fitzpatrick, who clocked a 23:52 time at Western States 100 in 2018, making her the oldest runner to break 24 hours, acknowledges that some of the successes she, Burrell, and other standout Masters runners enjoy is due to genetics. She says she’s been lucky to have a long running career—she’s run in three Olympic Marathon Trials—and stayed relatively healthy. Still, she’s figured out a formula and a mindset that continues to work for her.
Here’s what Fitzpatrick, Burrell, and 56-year-old speedster Todd Straka who races the Mile and competes in trail events, have to say about the keys to long-term success.
Enjoy Your Running
As Burrell says, enjoying your running will keep you out there doing it. Not only does loving the kind of running you do keep you motivated to continue to run, but it encourages you to make smart choices that aid in longevity. He says that his trail racing plans for this fall are a “great way to meet people, see fun spots.”
Fitzpatrick agrees. “I’ve always tried to make sure [running] is still fun. And for me, that often means my husband and I run together. We mix it up and go on different trails, or trails that we really love, or if we feel like doing a flat easy bike path run that we do that.” She says she’s never “too regimented” about her running. She doesn’t follow a strict program.
For Boulder, Colorado’s Todd Straka, continuing to enjoy running meant dropping down from the marathon distance to racing the Mile on the roads, while still getting out on trail runs regularly and occasionally hopping in trail races.
Straka was inspired by someone who was a year older than him beat him in Santa Barbara’s State Street Mile. “He ran 10 seconds faster,” Straka explains. “I thought, if I take some time, I could drop down two seconds a lap.” He says he realized he could be competitive at a mile race and focus on race dynamics, instead of high mileage. “It’s been fun to do something different,” he says.
Burrell says running into your later years isn’t all about running, specifically. “Your overall health has to be good,” he says. “You’ve got to have the vitality, the energy, the biomechanical health to be able to pull it off.” Otherwise, he adds, none of the training plans in the world will keep you running.
While we can’t control everything about how we go when, we can control our diet, our sleep, and our overall health. “You’ve got to get it together or else nothing else works,” says Burrell.
Burrell has upped his protein intake with protein powders, eats nuts and fish though he’s otherwise vegetarian, and takes supplements—collagen peptides, glucosamine sulfate, and creatine—to help him stay healthy.
Don’t Compare Your Old Self to Your New Self
“I try to not compare myself to my former self so I don’t have the same expectations of what I should be able to do or what I can do,” says Fitzpatrick. Instead, she focuses on staying healthy and strong. “[Race] times change,” she says. “That all becomes very relative.”
“I think a lot of people, as they get older, can’t help but compare to what where they were before and are disappointed and frustrated,” she adds. “And then you layer on to that people who get injured more easily and it takes longer to recover from injury. I think all of that combined makes it hard.” She credits being able to read her body and being careful not to overdo it for helping her stay healthy.
“You’re not going to do what you used to do,” says Burrell. “You could say, ‘This sucks.’ Instead, say, ‘This is what it is right now.’” It’s a mindset shift that can save older runners a lot of heartache and a lot of injury from pushing too hard to try to match times they used to run.
Fitzpatrick suggests focusing on the process instead of the outcome. “Enjoying the process means enjoying the daily runs,” she says, “making sure running fits into your life. If there are periods of time when it really doesn’t fit in, don’t be hard on yourself about it. Try to keep a big-picture view.”
Striving for goals isn’t bad—all three Masters runners race hard and are constantly striving towards goals—but they’re all enjoying the process. “Just don’t let time and age and everything catch you up and just enjoy where you are,” says Fitzpatrick.
Space Out Efforts, Listen to Your Body, and Do Self-Care
“I am definitely more careful now to not overdo it,” says Fitzpatrick. While she does a hard track session, a tempo run, and a long run each week, she makes sure to run easy miles on the days in between. “
She also spends most of the winter cross country skiing instead of running. “I actually think there’s a huge benefit to taking that time off,” she says.
Straka is a huge proponent of getting bodywork—like massage—regularly. He also utilizes a host of tools for self-care, like Normatec boots, R3 Rollers, and a Theragun. “It’s important, for Masters in particular.”
“I also think it’s important to really listen to your body,” he says, “learning that you don’t have to push super-hard all the time. If I’m not feeling great, I’ll do 9 or 8 repeats instead of 10.”
Strength Training is Imperative
“You’ve got to strength train,” says Burrell. Sarcopenia is a real thing,” he says. (“Sarcopenia” is the loss of muscle mass of older adults.) “A little strength training goes a long way.” Burrell explains how, because of the natural loss of muscle, older runners lose speed from a lack of power. “Strength will help give you a little more power to maintain that proper form. Muscle mass and strength will help prevent injuries.”
Burrell also suggests having running form assessed by a professional to make you’re your biomechanics are sustainable. “Have someone who really knows what they’re doing clean up any issues and attempt to have your stride be as light and as efficient as possible.”
Straka and Fitzpatrick agree. Straka lifts weights and does resistance training with bands, and plyometrics, which he introduced slowly into his routine. Fitzpatrick does strength-based yoga three days a week, which she feels has the added benefit balance gained for trail running. “There’s a lot we do on one leg standing on one leg,” she says. Because the yoga itself is challenging, she does it on the days of her easy runs, not the days she’s doing a track workout, long run, or tempo effort.
“Don’t forget that we’re in this because we love it,” says Straka. By heeding the tips of Straka, Burrell, and Fitzpatrick, we can all aim to continue loving running for years to come.