Masters runners are making amazing strides these days – from weekend warriors continuing yearly marathon streaks to elite athletes breaking times that were once unheard of. If you’re a middle-aged runner and beyond, we’ve got some training tips for older runners that will help you maintain a solid pace, prevent injury, and continue running for as long as your heart desires.
Disclaimer: This post was written and reviewed by Chrissy Carroll, RRCA Running Coach and USAT Level I Triathlon Coach. This is for informational purposes only and does not constitute direct advice. As always, consult your doctor prior to beginning any new exercise program.
1. Assess your goal.
No matter what age you are, you’ve likely had different goals throughout your time as a runner.
There may be times where you want to train to attempt to break a certain time goal (like running a sub 2 hour half marathon). Or there may be times where you just want to run to get some anxiety-reducing time by yourself on the road. Or perhaps your main goal is simply to run to keep up your overall health and just have a little fun.
Ask yourself what your goal is right now, and use that to guide decisions around your training.
I also want to emphasize – it’s OK to want to run for fun!
Sometimes, the pressure of living up to past achievements can make athletes continue training at an intense level for too long, and lose the enjoyment of the sport. It’s OK to have breaks or decide you just want to enjoy running for running.
You also may be reading this article having never ran before, and are just looking to get started – that’s awesome! Many of these tips will be helpful in your quest to soak up knowledge before pounding the pavement. I’d also recommend checking out some of the beginner training plans available, like the 12 week run/walk plan in this post. This gradual plan will help you build up to consistent running.
2. Understand your physiology.
It would be amazing if we could maintain our younger self’s running pace into old age. Unfortunately, that’s not a reality for the large majority of people.
Research has shown that after age 40, there is a fairly linear decrease in running speed through your late 70’s. It’s estimated you’ll lose about 1% of your speed per year during this time. Unfortunately, once you hit 80, speed starts declining more rapidly, though still not as much as some may expect.
Some data suggests that female athletes may lose speed at a slightly greater rate compared to males, at least in the marathon distance.
But rest assured, it’s not due to your lack of effort – it’s due to physiological changes.
The body general hits peak fitness level in your twenties or early thirties, after which it starts to decline. Your VO2 max – the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use at a time during exercise – declines with age (source). This applies to both sedentary and well-trained people, so you can’t escape Father Time.
However, by running throughout life, you do generally maintain a higher overall VO2 max compared to those who never laced up their sneakers. In other words, it’s a higher flat amount, but still unfortunately drifts down each decade.
This decline in VO2 max occurs for several reasons including decreased maximal heart rate, decreased stroke volume, and less capacity to utilize oxygen at the muscular level (source).
Biomechanics may play a role as well. A study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that older runners had less ground reaction force and weaker ankle power – which points towards weaker push-offs and power with each stride.
While it sounds like doom and gloom, understanding these physiological changes can help adjust your own expectations and know that you can’t necessarily out-train time.
3. Start your runs slowly.
Warm-ups become even more important as you age. Give yourself time to gradually get to the training pace for that day’s workout. You may feel like you could walk faster than you’re running at the start, but that’s OK – let your heart rate gradually come up and get the blood flowing to your muscles.
When you work your way into the session like this, you may reduce injury risk and even potentially lesson your chances of muscle soreness post-workout.
This is even more essential if you perform any speed or hill workouts. Do not skimp on the warm-up before these intense sessions.
4. Build your mileage gradually.
Honestly, this tip applies to all runners, and I’m a firm believer that many people would experience fewer injuries if they simply extended their training plan to allow for a more gradual build up. However, it’s even more important for older runners.
While you may have been able to jump into training for a half marathon just a few weeks before the event in your twenties, doing the same in your sixties could put you at a much greater risk of injury.
Progressing with smaller weekly increases in mileage over a longer time frame is better than major increases in shorter time frame.
5. Allow for more recovery.
While there are some exceptions to the rule, older runners often need more recovery than their 20-something counterparts. Recovery can be broken down into a few aspects:
a) Overall training plan
If you are creating your own training plan, consider adjusting your schedule to allow for more recovery weeks. A typical periodized running schedule uses the approach of 3 weeks of challenging work followed by 1 week of recovery (where training volume and/or intensity is less).
For older runners, though, a 2 week work phase followed by a 1 week recovery phase may be better. It allows for more recovery throughout the training progression and is particularly useful if there’s been any history of injury.
Some runners may even prefer a 1 week up/1 week down approach, particularly towards the middle to end of training for a marathon or ultra. For example, if you think of long run structure, that might look like running a 14 miler one weekend, then 8 miles the following week, then a 16 miler, then 10 miles – you get the idea.
b) Individual workouts
Similarly, you may also need more recovery during a single interval workout. It may take more time for your breathing and heart rate to drop back down between your intervals. That’s OK!
For example, if you used to do 400 meter intervals in 2 minutes, with 2 minutes of rest between each, you may need to now add 3 minutes between intervals to maintain your pace.
c) Lifestyle factors
In addition to the workouts themselves, don’t skimp on the lifestyle factors that contribute to recovery. Aim to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night, as there are many benefits of sleep for athletes. Sleep helps allow the muscles to repair and recover from tough workouts, letting you wake up feeling rejuvenated and ready to tackle your next session.
Nutrition is also a key factor in recovery. Be sure you’re getting enough healthy carbohydrates (like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes) each day, as well as high-quality protein (which can be from plant-based or animal-based sources).
6. Consider the 80/20 rule.
The 80/20 rule states that about 80% of your training should be done at an easy, conversational pace, and 20% should be more intense running (like speed work or intervals).
Now, if you’re just running for fun, you could leave all 100% of your runs at that easy pace. Completely fine.
If you’re training for an event though or have a certain goal in mind, then the 80/20 rule offers good guidance. Too much speed work can increase the risk of injury, fatigue, and burnout. This becomes more likely as we age.
Just remember – when you’re doing the 80% of runs that should be easy – keep them easy! Many people run their easy days too hard, and their hard days too easy. Keep the emphasis where it should be.
7. Use hills.
You might be surprised to learn that running uphill actually puts less stress on your joints than running on a flat surface. You can use this to your advantage by doing some of your intense work on hills.
Hills naturally require greater muscular engagement and energy expenditure, making them a tougher workout before speed is even increased (source).
Keep in mind, though, that running downhill can put more stress on your joints and muscles. Downhill running increases tibial shock and impact force, increasing the risk of overuse injury (source). The eccentric muscle contractions may lead to DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) as well.
(Some feel the frequent graded changes in something like trail running may lead to less overuse injuries than constant level road running, though there’s not much research on this yet.)
One easy way to maximize the benefit of hills while attenuating the risk of downhill running? Simply do your running intervals up the hill, then walk carefully down the hill. There’s less force and impact with walking compared to running.
8. Run where it feels comfortable.
Anecdotally, some runners swear by the trails over the roads. It is true that trail running has less impact, because there’s some give on the ground when the foot hits it (compared to the road, where no give is present in the pavement, leading your foot and leg to absorb all the force).
For runners with certain knee issues, some experts believe the trails may be a better choice in this scenario. Talk to your doctor for advice on this.
Overall, though, if you aren’t suffering from any injuries – run wherever you feel comfortable. If that’s on a trail, great! If that’s on the road, that’s great too. Stick with what makes you feel good.
9. Consider a coach if you have an event goal.
A good coach will be able to assess your running and injury history, current running abilities, impact of age, and details of your event – and develop a training program to give you the best shot at helping you achieve your goal.
Coaches are able to check in with you each week, evaluating how your workouts went and looking at any data you may have like heart rate and pace data. From there, they can adjust as needed.
As a practical example, coaches may see insight in data that an average weekend warrior doesn’t notice. One example is excessive “decoupling” of heart rate and pace. During a successful aerobic endurance run, there is a relatively steady parallel between heart rate and the pace you’re keeping (with a small amount of cardiac drift being normal).
But if at a certain mileage point, the heart rate starts to increase much more than expected, or the pace starts to slow more than expected – that may be an indication that your aerobic endurance for that distance isn’t well established yet. You may need more base-building work like easy runs and tempo runs, before introducing tougher interval-based training.
Your coach can adjust the training plan for you using this data. This can make for a better and more effective training experience.
But equally – or perhaps even more important – is that your coach can also be a great source of support and motivation when training for an event.
10. Investigate muscle imbalances.
Of all the training advice for older runners, I think this is one of the most important.
Middle to older age is when many muscle imbalances start to rear their ugly head. In your twenties, your body may have compensated for these without much issue. As you get older, though, you may start to notice aches and pains affecting your stride (or everyday life).
A little personal anecdote – despite running with no major issues for years, when I hit my mid-30’s, I started pulling my back out every few months. It wasn’t during a workout; it would occur at the most mundane tasks like taking a baking sheet out of the oven or reaching down to grab a container of Clorox.
Eventually, I got referred to physical therapy and kicked myself for not going sooner. They were able to immediately identify core and hip flexor weaknesses. These were causing my back to arch a bit and bear more pressure, leading to the continued issues I kept having.
I realize that mid-30’s is not an “older runner”, I tell this story simply to emphasize the importance of paying attention to any issues (even seemingly minor) and be proactive in seeking help.
Physical therapy is really amazing for identifying these muscle imbalances, and working on them will not only help maintain your running in old age – but will also maintain your overall quality of life for years to come.
11. Start strength training (if you’re not already doing it).
This tip falls in line with the last one, but not everyone may have overt muscular imbalances that need to be addressed. Even so, regular strength training is a must for older runners.
As your body ages, you lose muscle mass – unless you take proactive steps to prevent that. Strength training is by far the best step you can take to do so.
In addition to preserving lean mass, strength training improves stability (especially with one-sided work and balance work), preserves bone strength (helping to prevent osteoporosis), and, like all forms of exercise, may improve mood and brain health.
If you already do a strength training routine, I’m giving you a virtual round of applause as you read this.
If you don’t strength train, that’s OK – there’s no better time to start!
Try finding a personal trainer that specializes in runners (or alternatively, a physical therapist as mentioned above if you do have some imbalances to address first). While you may know some basic exercises, a professional will be able to better assess your starting point and how to best work towards a balanced whole body program.
12. Listen to your body.
You know your body better than anyone else. If your legs have felt like lead all this week, or you’re feeling rundown, or you’ve simply got that gut feeling that’s telling you “too much too soon!” – those are good signals to back off for a day or two (or even a full week), then reassess.
If any lingering pain or weakness occurs, that’s a good indication that it’s time to get assessed by a doctor. Running through an injury isn’t good for anyone. Older adults may have a lengthier recovery from an injury, so it’s important to get it checked out ASAP.
13. Keep a positive outlook.
It can be difficult seeing your pace slow down every few years, despite training similarly to how you did when you were younger. How do you handle that from the mental side of things?
First, avoid comparing your performance now to your performance thirty years ago. Aging is a fact of life, and it’s completely normal that you may not perform the same way now.
Focus on the experience of running and racing, more than just the final time stamp as you cross the finish line.
Remind yourself of all you have accomplished, and think of new ideas that can continue to motivate you.
For example, maybe hitting that 3 hour marathon is long out of sight – but could you try to knock off the bucket list goal of a marathon in every state? There are ways to approach running and goal setting that don’t have to rely on time.
Of course, that’s not to say that you can’t work towards pace and time goals. A large majority of us are Type A people that won’t stop our Garmins until we hit an exact mileage number. It’d be silly for me to think we’d flat out ignore time and distance.
If you are setting time or distance-based goals, though, set them based on your current performance and your running abilities right now. Not your performance from your younger years. This will help set realistic challenges that you can feel great accomplishing.
Above all, simply keep a positive outlook and remember how much joy running brings to your life!
To wrap up this post, let’s answer some of the most common questions that people look for on this topic:
- Is running bad for 50 year olds? Whether you’re 20, 50, or 80 – running is a lifelong exercise with many health benefits. It is not bad for older adults to run; on the contrary, it can improve cardiovascular health, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and may even improve mental health.
- How do you become a runner at 50? To start running at 50, use a gradual approach. A run/walk interval plan is a great way to start building up endurance to run. For example, you might start with a 1 minute run / 3 minute walk interval workout your first week. Each subsequent week, work on increasing the running and reducing the walking.
- How can older runners get faster? An older runner may be able to improve their current speed, but not to the extent of trying to match their pace from early adulthood. To improve speed, add in weekly interval training and/or hill work sessions with sufficient recovery time.
- Can you run after a hip or knee replacement? Ask your doctor. One study of ultra-trail runners did find that a handful had hip or knee replacements, and the majority were able to successfully finish their races. However, every individual has different requirements post-surgery. Defer to your doctor’s guidance.
There you have it – everything you need to know about training as a middle aged or older runner!
Share: When it comes to training for older runners, do you have any other tips to share?
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