Runners who retain or regain an enthusiasm for competition as they reach their forties have no shortage of advice at their disposal. The main focus of this wisdom is taking the edge off the inevitable downside of aging, i.e., a decline in performance, as well as going on the defensive against injury. So for the most part, advice geared specifically toward masters tends to be broad-spectrum, emphasizing caution and laden with reminders of stark physical limitations. Less easy to come by are simple guidelines that can help make the transition to encroaching middle age heavier on goals and lighter on gloom–a desirable stance for competitive runners of all ages.
With that in mind, keep the following dicta in mind at every training and racing turn; each is supported by the grizzled voices of experience and expertise.
Go nuts at 39 ½. Many runners, especially those who’ve been competitively dormant for a few years, ramp up their training in anticipation of making an immediate impact in the Masters ranks. This is risky; not only does it put extra and often sudden demands on the body, but does so at a time when the legs are beginning to demand temperance. Numerous accomplished runners have promptly gotten hurt after trying to reclaim their open-division glory too quickly and energetically.
Save your strength. Pete Magill, who at age 49 became the oldest American to break 15:00 for 5K, believes that strength training is indispensable for Masters runners, but that there’s no margin for error when it comes to its allocation. Magill, who pointedly quips that Masters training is a “No-Mistake Zone,” says that hills constitute sufficient strength training for most masters, and that drills that more closely resemble dynamic stretching are are preferable to plyometrics.
Run in worn-out or inappropriate shoes. Younger runners often violate this mandate for the simple reason that they can get away with it. But as a corollary to the fact that your muscles recover more slowly and have accumulated more wear and tear when you’re older, you can’t afford to slack off when it comes to preventing as much damage as you can. Many runners report boasting of exceeding standard recommendations for replacing their shoes by several hundred miles or more; if you’re among them and are running into your fifth decade, consider tabling thriftiness in favor of temperance.
Be a slave to extended schedules. Operating on a months-long schedule with multiple hard workouts a week is a difficult enterprise even for younger, healthy runners who are often less encumbered by family and work obligations. A Masters athlete expecting to nail every hill, tempo, or interval session over a whole trimester or more is courting both disappointment and infirmity.
Save yourself for your harder days. As a younger runner you may have been accustomed to running hard as often as three times a week, and even sneaking in back-to-back high-intensity days, e.g., a Saturday race followed by a Sunday long run. As tissues inexorably take more and more time to repair and adapt, such endeavors are best left to the next generation. Be sure to be as disciplines on your recovery days as you are on the track; don’t be afraid to “jog.”
Maximize the gains of pure speed training. Arguments rage over whether high intensity is a more likely cause of running injuries than high mileage. This is a false dichotomy, but what’s certain is that you need to get the most out of as little stress as possible to retain or reclaim the competitive asset that erodes the fastest in older runners: basic speed. Doing six to ten striders about 20 seconds long in which you build up from 5K pace to a near-all-out-sprint is a superior means of speed maintenance.
Go heavy on the grass, lighter on the hard stuff. According to Magill, splitting mileage evenly between roads and trails is ideal, since the advantages of each combat the drawbacks of the other. “Trails feel the best, but the uneven surface can eventually cause problems in itself,” says Magill. “Roads solve the uneven-surface problem, but asphalt is brutal on aging runners’ musculoskeletal systems.” He also suggests that hill repeats, for those who do them, be performed on trails, mainly to ease the jarring of the return trip down.
Choose your races judiciously. Prolific racers find that as Masters, they either have to reduce the number of races they do, their average length, or both. If you’re more a 5K type, acknowledge that it’s best to go to the well only once or twice a month. If you lean toward the marathon, take care not to dig too deep in your build-up races, which themselves tend to be longer events, and unless you do marathons more to complete them than to record fast times (and even then), consider doing at most two a year.