I have spent some time on reflecting on my recent race, my training, and my running goals. As you know, I came very close to achieving my goal of running a sub-two hour half marathon for the first time since I turned 50. Missed it by 11 seconds!
I told you that it didn’t bother me, to be so close, and that’s the truth. It doesn’t mean I won’t try again in my next race, but I am happy with my effort and my race time.
No More PRs
It did start me thinking though, that there will be no more PRs for me. I will never again train or race with the intention of finishing in my best time ever. While I will train hard and possibly achieve that 2:00 goal, it is more than 25 minutes slower than my best half marathon time (which was a long time ago, in 2001).
Think about that for a moment. Think about your training, your goals. For many of you, the goal is to PR, to achieve your personal record, to improve your best time at your race distance. Now, think about that time when it will no longer be possible to get just a little bit better. Yes, they do call me Debbie Downer.
I started running in 1992 and ran my first race in 1994. I have read that there is a timeline, a bell curve, during which time you can expect to improve, no matter how old you are when you start running. The combination of better training, overall better fitness, a learning curve from the races in which you participate, will generally lead to an improvement period of seven years (#12). After that time, the aging process will begin to take its toll, along with the possibility of a running injury to slow you down.
So let’s look at my own timeline, shall we? I finished my first race, a 10k, in 51:51, not bad for the first time I’d ever run over six miles. I also finished 4th in my division, which fired me up for my next 10k, about a month later, where I took four minutes off my time and finished 3rd in my age. My first medal! I ran my PR at the 10k distance in 1998, six years after I started running.
1998 was also the year I ran my 5k PR (at the same event actually, I ran both back to back. Yes, I was kind of bad ass in my day. I even won the race overall.). My PR in the 5k is (was?) 19:52. I had several years after that race that I continued to run in the low 20s, but never could break 20 again. Over the last 15 years, no matter how hard I train, I have watched my times creep up, as have my expectations, so that when I was able to run 25:07 at my most recent 5k I was thrilled. That’s two minutes a mile difference!
My marathon PR was in 1999, seven years after I started running, but only three years after my first marathon During those three years, though, I took nearly an hour off of my race time. I spent the next three years trying to break that record, but that combination of great training, good course (St. George Marathon), and, probably most importantly, control of my exercise induced asthma, never happened again.
For me, the marathon curve was abruptly shortened when I injured my knee in 2002. Overnight (well, after a four week period of no running at all), my average training pace went from the 7:30-8:30 per mile range to much closer to 10:00. Correspondingly, my race times plummeted, I trained a lot less, and I lost a lot of the fitness base that I had taken for granted. By the time I started taking my training seriously again, the age-related decline was in effect.
Hold Off the Inevitable
So what’s an aging runner to do? Here are a few ideas which, while they won’t completely hold back the age-related decline, will at least slow it down.
- First of all, relax. This is what age group awards are for. You compete against people your own age, so that all things being equal, it is still as easy (or as tough) to score in your division as it ever was.
- Keep training. Runners with a solid cardiovascular base, who follow a training program that includes both endurance and speed training lose their competitive edge at a much slower rate.
- Strength train. If you’re not cross training with weights, start now. Strength training will hold off muscle loss associated with aging, balance out those running muscles to help prevent injuries, improve your posture and your balance, and keep your core strong.
- Train smarter, not harder. This doesn’t mean that you won’t work hard to keep your fitness level. It means make every workout count. No more running junk miles just to keep your mileage up. Focus on three core types of training: endurance, V02 max, and lactate threshold, to improve your speed and stamina. On other days you can..
- Cross Train. In addition to your strength training sessions, try cycling, swimming, yoga, Pilates, or some other type of exercise. Choose one that consists of less pounding that running, and works your muscles in different ways.
- Respond to small injuries quickly so that they don’t become serious injuries. You’ve been running a while now. You know that if you feel a twinge in your Achilles, a pain in your knee or your foot, you will be best served to take a day or two off, spend some time with an ice pack, and simply rest. Much younger runners than you have discovered that the consequence of ignoring these small issues can lead to larger, more serious injuries, that will take you out of action for a longer time.
Remember, this age-related decline can start as early as seven years after you start running, so before you scoff and think this is for “old folks,” take a moment to calculate how long you’ve been running. Generally speaking these are post high school/college competitions years, so if you ran cross country in high school you don’t have to count that. But, if you started running at age 20, you can start seeing age related declines by 27!
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. If you continue to improve your training method through the years, you can still improve your race times for a longer period. If you ran or raced for several years without a training plan, your bell curve will actually start at a different point.
But eventually, time will take its toll. Slow it down as long as possible by following the above tips.
If you’re a runner, where are you on the 7-year curve? Do you have plans to beat it?