Matt Mace, 56, has been on a running streak since 1985. He typically logs about 2,500 miles per year and has kept that volume going for at least a decade. He races as much as 20 times each year, including ultras, all without injury—making him something of a masters marvel, if not the envy of runners of all ages.
Jennifer Harrison, 46, a triathlon coach from the Chicago suburbs, can also point to a long streak of healthy running. Other than a short break for an Achilles injury in 2011, and bed rest during pregnancy, Harrison has been running without a break since middle school.
And then there’s elite distance-running phenom Mike Wardian, the 42-year-old from West Virginia, who recently rocked the World Marathon Challenge which consists of running seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. Aside from a bout of injury in 2012, Wardian has been crushing records and miles since 1995.
What’s the secret sauce that these masters have stumbled upon? More importantly, how can the rest of the running world take a page from their books?
The answers, as you might expect, are as individual as the runners themselves. But there are some common denominators from which everyone can benefit.
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The response is familiar: listen to your body. Every runner knows it, but not every runner follows it. Mace, Harrison and Wardian, however, live it. “If something doesn’t feel right, I back off,” Wardian says. “I don’t care if the schedule calls for 80 miles that week. If I need to cut back to 60, I cut back to 60.”
Mace concurs. “I’m really good at being cautious if I need to be,” he says. “If something hurts, I scale back.”
Clearly it’s an approach that’s working and one that many coaches will preach. By taking a couple of days off as soon as pain shows up, runners can usually avoid taking weeks off when pushing through.
Another tactic that these masters runners use is knowing their limits and respecting them. Mace says that he recognizes he’s not going to run as fast as he did 20 years ago and doesn’t try to push it. “Look, I’m not going to be dropping time off my PRs at this point,” he says. “So it’s not worth making big bumps in mileage and asking for an injury.”
Mace is also a fan of knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are with running, and then playing into them. “I’m never going to be a miler, so I don’t train to that,” he says. “I also knew early on that my threshold was 80 to 90 miles per week, not 100 or 110, so I keep that limit on myself.”
Harrison is a proponent of this approach as well. “I’ve come to peace with the fact that I’m not as fast as I used to be and I don’t try to compete with my former times,” she says. “I’ve reestablished my goals and plans for speedwork and racing.”
As a triathlete, Harrison has been able to focus on age-group awards as opposed to time goals, and she says this has been helpful to her. “In the running community, everyone is chasing PRs,” she says. “I have learned to let my ego and the clock go, and focus instead on being competitive with something other than the clock.”
Consistency in training is a tenant most runners live by, and it definitely applies to these masters. When it comes to injury-free longevity, its consistency not only with regular running, but also with the approach to what works that counts. Wardian and Mace say they both train fairly similarly now as when they were younger and don’t let concerns with aging creep into their psyches. “Don’t let age dictate what you’re doing,” Wardian advises. “Let your body tell you what you’re capable of doing.”
Mace says he really hasn’t changed all that much since becoming a masters runner. In other words, if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. “It’s not like I turned 40 and decided I had to do things differently,” he says. “I train pretty similarly now to how I always have.”
Wardian says that the one thing he has changed is running fewer miles than he used to, although his mileage still remains high. “I’ve realized that I can get by on so much less,” he says. “It’s not easy for me because I love running so much, but consistency is more important than the number of miles.”
Be A Cross-Trainer
All three of the masters runners spend time on activities other than running, and all three say that’s important. Mace, who has completed several Ironman distance races, says that swimming has been good for him. “I don’t really enjoy it,” he admits, “but I do think it helps.”
As a triathlete, Harrison also incorporates swimming and cycling into her routine and is a big believer in strength training as well. Pilates, core work and the like are all part of her regular routine. “In my 30s, I could get away without all the little things,” she says. “But now they add up.”
Even Wardian finds time for riding his bike, commuting to and from work daily. “I mix in a lot more cycling now than I used to, and I think that’s good for me,” he says.
Clearly it’s working—after a 200-mile week for the World Marathon Challenge, Wardian says he feels fantastic. “My legs feel really fresh,” he says. “I’m excited about being so fit.”