No More PRs: 6 Ways to Hold Off the Inevitable (no matter your age)

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

PRs No More PRs: 6 Ways to Hold Off the Inevitable (no matter your age)

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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..
  5. 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.
  6. 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?

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Comments

  1. says

    I am in year 8, and I am about to turn 48, so…yeah. I’ve only had two PRs since I turned 45, and those were two years ago. I’ve come to terms with the likelihood that new PRs are unlikely (though I haven’t abandoned all hope). What frustrates me is the decline in amount of improvement I see when I train well after a slow period (e.g. ramped up spring training after the winter slump). I regain speed, but not to the level of the year before. I like your tips, and will keep them in mind!
    Kristin recently posted..July Clean Eating (personal) ChallengeMy Profile

  2. says

    I needed this perspective tonight….because although it may not be age for me, at some point, running needs to be less about the PR and more about the feeling….and although I have goals–there comes a point where trying to reach a goal sets you up for disappointment instead of finding the sliver linings and successes.
    Elena recently posted..I am a Fat RunnerMy Profile

  3. says

    Hi Debbie, I’ve been running 18 months and at 47 sometimes I feel my rate of improvement and rate of decline are equal! I keep trying though because (when not injured) it still feels good and that is the main thing!
    Also – trail running, with it’s varied terrain and distances, is great for avoiding the I-must-PR trap!
    Sherry recently posted..Half Marathon Training PlansMy Profile

  4. says

    Runners World had an article about this ages ago, but it stuck with me. It talked about the “Line of Decline” in pace after you reach a certain age. I like your tips and would add to shift your perspective — focus on having fun and enjoying the gift of running for as long as you can!
    Coco recently posted..A Peek Inside My PurseMy Profile

  5. says

    I love your first tip- relax! It’s part of what happens, and I think as I start hitting that stage I’ll be learning to switch gears and really enjoy running just for the sake of running. Some times when I’m training hard for an event, I honestly look forward to it! :)
    Laura @ Mommy Run Fast recently posted..3 Yoga Poses for RunnersMy Profile

  6. says

    Great post! I was thinking about that recently to, the time when there will be no more PR’s and what that means. For me, I think I’ll switch over to the ultra’s and work on longer distances at a slower paces. Great tips though, I think they are spot on.
    Robin recently posted..UpdateMy Profile

  7. says

    Oh ma gawd – something I’d never truly considered. I guess I’m 2 years in, so I’d best get cracking ;-) (don’t ya love how I just slid over the RELAX bit of that post?).

    You are still pretty bad ass, but yes, running a 10k and a 5k back to back takes something!!
    Kate recently posted..It’s all meatMy Profile

  8. says

    I follow all 6 of those ideas you have to beat the curve! As I’ve gotten older, I just run and live smarter than in my 20s — that’s no surprise! I’ve been able to keep my PR times fairly close from 20 years apart (eg 26 yrs to 46 yrs old) — 5k 17:45 now 18:08, half marathon 1:20 now 1:23 . . . . age graded the older times are much better performances. I also don’t run nearly as many miles as in my 20s, but I run smarter (no junk miles) and workout in the gym harder . . .
    Jennifer F recently posted..To-Go Thai Peanut Chicken Jar Salads & Tips on Salad LayeringMy Profile

  9. says

    I love this post Debbie & I bet you knew I would! :)

    I am not a runner BUT I see that is takes me longer to do the same weight workout than just 5 years ago – even longer than 10 years ago. I am still doing as much hard core stuff – it just takes me longer… I am happy with it because I know I am doing a lot for myself & my health & a lot more than others my age! :)

    Cardio – I have done decently with that BUT I don’t race so I get exactly what you are saying & I do feel myself slowing a bit but that is OK! :)
    Jody – Fit at 55 recently posted..Gratitude Monday & Things to ComeMy Profile

  10. says

    You know this is a post to which I can relate! I haven’t given up on a couple of PRs yet…marathon, specifically, but my 5k/10k PRs are gone. And I’m fine with that. Even if I don’t PR my marathon at this point, that’s ok, too. I’m also starting to find a love for trail running and I think that’s a really good place for the “older crowd” to do well and thrive.

    I totally agree with the emphasis on strength training as we age. SO important!
    misszippy recently posted..One day MAF hall passMy Profile

  11. says

    What an interesting post, and what a great perspective. I’m still in my first year of running, although I am 36 so not a spring chicken. I can totally see how the PR would become harder to attain through a course of 7 years or more. It would be a tough pill to swallow but there’s only so much the body can do. Thank you for sharing this.
    Jenn recently posted..t-12 daysMy Profile

  12. says

    Debbie, this was something I was thinking about the other day. Granted I am 29 but all my PR’s are from 2010 and in 3 years I have yet to break many of them and it made me question a lot about my training and whether maybe I am out of the peak of my early to mid 20’s. I’m going to use some of your tips and see if maybe that helps me reverse my fortunes. Thank you.

      • says

        My lack of PR’s is part lack of focus and also that my life went into upheaval the last 2 years. I am finally starting to put it all together so hopefully by September when races resume I can do something special. I’m actually running this marathon in November as my last and moving back down towards the half. I’m a bigger fan of 4 milers and 5K’s anyway. But what you wrote was a catalyst that got me thinking so thank you.

  13. says

    I’m only a couple of years into running but it was interesting to read this. I’ve never been into beating my previous times but I have often wondered how I will feel when I find I can’t complete races that have previously caused no problems for me. I’m sure it will happen one day. I always thought it would just be a case of adjusting my expectations (hopefully I’ll do that gracefully!)
    Becky recently posted..Coast run: Portscatho to St AustellMy Profile

  14. says

    I started running 28 years ago – high school and college I competed in CC and track then road raced for years after. Now I mostly just run without training but I still try to push myself. I’m running faster now than ever and I think it’s because I started lifting weights and cross training about 7 years ago. I figure that I’m fixing to start the down slope but in the meantime, I just love to run hard and fast sometimes!!
    Kim recently posted..Sometimes we Indulge – Sometimes we Overindulge – Looking for ModerationMy Profile

  15. says

    I’ve read about this before, but never with the personal spin that you put on it. I’m only in my second year of running, but already I am beginning to realize that I must adjust my expectations. Huge gains just don’t happen at my age (46) – especially since I was already in good shape before I started running. TBH, I haven’t seen much speed or endurance improvement since last fall, but I am enjoying running more and more. Thanks for the excellent post!
    Mendy@FlamingJuneRuns recently posted..The Great Fall of 2013My Profile

      • says

        Oh, I didn’t mean I didn’t think I could get faster. Just not as fast as I expected. I thought that if I could run a 30 minute 5K after 2 months training then I should be able to run a 25 minute 5k a year later. Instead, I hover around 29. NOT the huge improvement I was expecting… but I’m learning to be OK with that! I’ve still got a lot of growing room in the longer distances and so I am concentrating on them. Honestly, 5Ks aren’t that much fun anyway :)
        Mendy@FlamingJuneRuns recently posted..The Great Fall of 2013My Profile

  16. says

    I am still a new runner, so I have yet to reach that 7 year mark. I am still enjoying seeing the slight improvements with every race. I still feel that your tips here apply, however, as I am a runner who will always need to keep my competitive nature in check and remember I will never be the fastest. Otherwise some serious injury, both physical and mental may occur!
    Kaitie recently posted..Weekend RundownMy Profile

  17. says

    I suppose in many respects this is why I was lucky to be a slow runner. I have no illusions of grandeur or winning, so for me running has consistently been about finding a fun race, getting out there regularly to run… I started out old, I guess?
    Nicole recently posted..PinterestMy Profile

  18. Lorrie says

    Thank you for putting into words what I’m trying to come to terms with. I’ve been running for years, but never for competition. I ran a my first race at 49, and a marathon at 50. Now that I am 52 with a complete tear of my hamstring, I am trying to realize, I may not be able to run without pain anymore. I do other activities, but enjoy the release that running gives me. It is depressing. Thank you for expressing my own thoughts and emotions.

  19. says

    I had a similar conversation with my dad not too long ago. He’s in his 60s now, but back when he ran his first marathon in the 1990s, he was running Boston qualifying times. Now, not so much.

    For a little while he was discouraged and frustrated, but overtime he learned to roll with it. He still runs regularly and does 7-10 mile long runs on the weekends. He said that keeps him in decent shape and he’s happy to still be getting out there.

  20. says

    Until a non-running injury this year, I would have said I am the exception. I began running 1/2 marathons in my mid-40’s and had a tough time breaking that 2-hour mark. In 2011, at age 64, I finally broke it with a 1:58 and within a few months bested that by about 30 minutes. I attribute the breakthrough to my retirement and having the time to run a few more mile per week and work on a training plan.
    Mary Lou Harris recently posted..Gansett Makes a Marathon Move To Fall 2013My Profile

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