Have you ever thought about running for exercise but decided you were too old to start? Or you used to run and tried to pick it back up after a few (or many) years and found it was a lot harder than it used to be?
I’ve considered myself a runner since I won ribbons on Field Day at McLean Elementary School, but for decades after I hung up my high school track spikes, I was an “off and on” runner. I’d run when the weather was nice or to get ready for the annual Fourth of July 5K in Kansas, but I’d get busy or the weather would be lousy and I’d stop.
I could do that without a lot of trouble until I hit the Big 4-0. Then getting back into shape became A LOT harder. What I realized as I approached 50 was that it was much easier to maintain a certain level of running fitness than it was to fall off the wagon for a few weeks and try to climb back on without getting run over.
According to the experts at “Runner’s World,” muscle mass begins to decline as you approach 40 and the loss gradually accelerates through your 50s and 60s to .7 percent a year. While I focused on setting personal records (PRs) in the 5K during my 30s, I’m not going to surpass those at age 52, if I’m being realistic.
Now my goal is longevity. To keep running for fun and fitness for as many years as I can. One encouraging bit of news is the emerging research on the benefits of HIIT (high intensity interval training) on older folks.
HIIT for runners is simply picking up your pace to a fast clip for a short amount of time, followed by a longer amount of time jogging slow, then picking up the pace again for a brief time. Repeat three or four times.
A recent study from the journal “Cell Metabolism” said that HIIT does the best of any workout at reversing age-related changes at the cellular level. The older you are, the better it works. To me, that’s great news!
Here are my top 10 tips for anyone who wants to start, resume or maintain a running program after 40:
- Get real running shoes: Be sure to get some good running shoes before you begin running. Your older joints need good support and cushioning. I change out my shoes about every six months if I’m running regularly. I can tell when my knees and shins start complaining on a routine three mile run that the support has worn down.
- Start slow: Start by walking. Just walk for a few weeks and work your way up to at least two miles. Then begin mixing in two minutes of jogging with ten minutes of walking. Every time out, you can add another minute of jogging until you can jog the whole two miles.
- Don’t run daily: Aim for three times a week and don’t exceed four times in a week. This is perhaps the most important tip for running as you pass 45. Your body can no longer take daily pounding. You need to alternate running days with non-running days to give your joints rest.
- Manage your miles: The general rule of thumb is to increase your miles no more than 10 percent each week. Most weeks, I run two to three miles twice a week and will take a longer run once a week. Sometimes the longer run is four miles. Sometimes it’s six or seven or more, depending on whether I’m training for a longer road race.
- Cross train: Non-running days don’t mean sedentary days. Go for a walk. Do an exercise video or yoga. Stretching is good for older joints. I feel the wear and tear in my hip flexors, so certain yoga moves feel great. Weight training is excellent for keeping as much muscle mass as you can. If you swim or bike or hit the elliptical, all that makes you even stronger for the long haul.
- Listen to your body: Pay attention to pain. It’s okay to walk or to lay off running for a few days. If you get hurt or sick, scale back your miles or go back to the walk-jog mix.
- Seek accountability: I have a couple of running buddies. The one who goes with me almost every time is my German shepherd-border collie mix pound puppy. Elektra’s got loads of energy and can run me into the ground most days. Running is her favorite activity, so I know she’ll be disappointed if I don’t lace up the running shoes. I also run about once a week with my college-age daughter Rebekah, who must slow down for her mom, but we still have fun together. I used to run weekly with a friend who kept me running the other days on my own so I didn’t fall behind.
- Focus on fun: If you’re running by yourself, find upbeat music to keep you moving or listen to a podcast. When I’m out with my dog, I look forward to listening to podcasts. I’ll drive five or ten minutes away to get to a park with a lovely nature trail. Seeing trees in bloom, wild flowers and bunnies lifts the mood.
- Set a goal: Nothing keeps me running like plans to run a race. You don’t have to be fast to enjoy the festivities that go along with a race. Runners are a friendly bunch, and you get a t-shirt! There are hundreds of 5-kilometer runs and dozens of 10Ks and longer races in my area. In May 2016, Rebekah and I ran our first half marathon. We traveled to the Boston area to run the Twin Lights Half Marathon. It was a tough race, but we finished AND we had a great time seeing the sights.
- Celebrate progress, big and small: If you’re just starting out or coming back to running after months or years off, celebrate progress. Reward yourself for keeping up with your regimen. Have a cookie after a long run, stock up on low-calorie sports drinks to keep you hydrated, take a long bath to soak sore muscles, buy those sports earbuds you saw in Target.
If you can only run a little, run a little. If you can’t run at all, enjoy walking. For me, it’s the combination of physical activity and getting outside in nature that boost my mood and my energy, and help me keep everything in perspective. Life isn’t a sprint and it isn’t a marathon. It’s a journey. Getting active will help you enjoy the adventure and may just make it last even longer.