Training

Training for Aging Runners

A former elite provides 7 keys to successfully running hard when you're old, based on his experience of staging a comeback at 80.

Can you come back to competitive racing at 80? After two years out in your late seventies, is it possible to reach national or international age-group elite level? What are the demands, the risks, the rewards? How is it different?

Former international elite Roger Robinson, after time off for knee replacement surgery, is conducting a one-man experiment, reported here as Still Hungry at 80, Parts 1–4. His original target races were the World Masters Championships in Toronto at the end of this month, with the long shot hope of repeating the victories and podium placings he attained at 40 and 50. That plan got virused, but Roger ran on.

Running hard when you’re old — what’s different? Conclusions so far.

The Basics

Despite all the fears about “overdoing it,” the basics are the same. If you aim to race, you need to train the two essentials of racing — speed and endurance. It’s that simple. You do that by progressively and carefully increasing the work, so the body adapts to each new level of overload. For speed, you need intervals (repeats) at race pace, slowly increasing in quantity and quality. Mix in accelerating tempo runs to add variety. For endurance, you need ordinary long runs, also slowly adding time or distance.

Race-pace makes you gasp, and long runs make you tired, just as they always did. But over weeks and months, the body adapts, in both speed and endurance, just as it always did. In fact, I’ve been surprised at 80+ at how quickly it gets better at the job. I haven’t yet found the limit.

Warm Up

More important than ever. The older you are, the more warm-up you need. Kids go from lunch to sprint in three seconds, but not when you’re old. Every race, my first mile is the slowest. Every interval session, the first repeat comes hard, and is several seconds slower than the eventual average. I can almost hear the grouchy old body protesting, “What, this again? Gimme a break! Where’s the couch?” Reluctantly, slowly, in about fifteen minutes, it cranks up into hard-run mode. Physiologically, it’s probably a matter of getting the heart-rate up, and thus the oxygen pulsing fast through the bloodstream to the muscles, but the sensation is like a rusty old steam locomotive that takes a mile to get its pistons pumping.

So in training, every run starts slow. Every interval or tempo session has 15–20 minutes warm-up. For races up to 10K, I follow this routine: 45 minutes total warm-up. Start with a walk, roll into a jog, increase the pace to do at least 15 minutes of steady running, mixed with jogs, walks, hydrating, chatting, bathroom stop, as needed, and finish with two race-pace stride-outs of about 30-40 seconds. For longer races, 15K and up (which I haven’t graduated to yet), I would plan to take the first mile or two of the race slow, rather than warm up too long or hard. At this age, there’s no embarrassment or overall loss if you start real slow.

Libby James, Fort Collins, Colorado, 25:11 5K, over-80 world record: “The important thing is to get out there every day. Usually I do at least four miles. If some slow to a walk, well, it is what it is!” Photo: Gavin Liddell

Recovery

When I first coached an older runner, I developed the mantra, “You can do a 25-year-old’s work if you take a 70-year-old’s recovery.” The body insists on it. Mine goes totally on strike the day after a race or a hard training session. I can barely shuffle. By trial and error, I have found the optimum between hard days is four lighter days. Hard/easy has become hard/easy/easy/easy/easy. That is impossible to fit into a regular seven-day week. My solution is a flexible training module of ten days. One major advantage of being old is relative freedom from constraints of work and family. Coronavirus solitude has increased that freedom, with no need even to fit in with friends’ schedules. So the long Sunday run (say) can fall any day of the conventional week. My typical program now might be:

Day 1: race, hard session, or long run
Day 2: no run or very light run
Day 3: light run
Day 4: medium run, sometimes middling tempo
Day 5: light/medium run
Day 6: hard session, different from Day 1
Day 7: no run or very light run
Day 8: light run
Day 9: medium run, sometimes middling tempo
Day 10: light/medium run

Day 11 is the next hard session, long run, or race. Because of the after-effects, I limit races to one a month at most. The day before a race will usually be a walk or short jog.

In training, especially between repeats, recovery should be extended when you’re old. I’ve become relaxed about it. I take more recovery than I used to, but not as much as I thought would be needed at this age. Doing repeat 5 minutes (or repeat 1 km), typically I take 4 or 5 minutes’ recovery jog. But if I feel I need more, no worries – it’s the total quantity of quality running that matters.

How far?

Impossible to prescribe. I’m aiming at a world championship (whenever there is one), and believe that to run well, you need to log the miles. Not obsessively, but enough. My basic principle is always a gradual increase. About six months back into running, I reached the point where a regular run (“medium” or “light/medium” above) is one hour. Some days now I make that 1hr 15mins, to pump the weekly total. In September 2019, I totaled four hours for a week for the first time since the second knee replacement two years earlier. In February 2020, I went over six hours , and from April 2020, I averaged over seven hours. The weekly total is not the only measure of progress, but it’s a useful one, and a good discipline. I think about Spiridon Louis jogging alongside his water-carrying donkey twice a day, and winning the 1896 Olympic marathon.

Ed Whitlock competing in masters track
Ed Whitlock trained for his many 70+ and 80+ world records by running 3 hours at varying pace around a local cemetery in Milton, Ontario.
Photo: 101 Degrees West

How hard?

I’ve always seen my training as “purposeful fun.” That purpose means pushing sometimes into overload territory. But what’s so terrible about getting puffed, or getting tired? Science confirms that the human body was designed for physical effort, and benefits from it. Does that stop at 70, or 80? No one has shown me why. Research into exercise for older people shows increased longevity, improved life quality, and alleviation of the effects of joint problems and chronic conditions. One key research project shows that it is running hard (not steady state jogging) that best counteracts the decline in muscle mass and strength. It’s also better for stimulating bone health.

Risks

Mid-race cardiac deaths seem to affect young and middle-aged runners, usually males. I know of no such deaths among runners over 70. Wikipedia has a list of 53 mid-marathon deaths worldwide since 1912. Only three of the victims were in their sixties, and the oldest was 66. One was 19. So the only 100% safe decades from mid-race death by cardiac episode are from 70 up. Joy Johnson (86) died after running the New York City Marathon in 2013, but she fell and hit her head badly during the race. Falls are probably the greatest risk. Older runners tend to shuffle more than spring, so roots, rocks, and uneven pavement are more hazardous. Vision is sometimes a factor. I know two contemporaries who right now are repairing broken bones after a fall or stumble. With age, bone density is reduced, so a fall is more likely to result in a fracture. But the best way to counteract that process is to run more, not less, and to include some running on hard road surface, and some faster running, where the impact is greater each footstrike, thus activating response in bone density.

Roger Robinson races a Virtual 10K in a gale, Wellington, New Zealand, May 2020
Roger Robinson races a Virtual 10K in a gale, Wellington, New Zealand, May 2020. Photo: Kathrine Switzer

Rewards

With a full knee replacement at age 78, I might have given away all thoughts of further running. Nothing I have written here tries to refute the inevitability of the aging process. Covid-19 has shown the inexorable decline in human immune response. Aware of all that, and conscious that my motives included denial and delusion, I decided nevertheless to try.

I have now had two pure bonus years of running that were only an irrational hope, and that no one else believed possible or sensible. In those two years, running and racing have given me not only improved health, but purpose, challenge, satisfaction, and delight. Not as much as in my prime — how could that be? But a real enrichment of these later years.

Believe me, the best way to forget about being old is to run a PR. In this weird pandemic era, there are no cheering crowds, no championship titles, no real races. But when I ran 25:32 for 5K at age 81, it felt as rewarding as when I ran 14:05 in 1966. Exactly as then, the work had paid off. If the World Masters Championships were happening as scheduled this month, my recent 5K and 10K times would have placed me probably between third and sixth. And I was not yet at peak.

Senile delusion? There was a time when I wouldn’t have imagined that anyone could take 25 minutes for 5K seriously. But if you think like that, you would not have read this far.

Roger Robinson is the author of When Running Made History which has won international acclaim as one of the best books about running ever.