Running in the 'Meda: Older athletes

Running in the 'Meda: Older athletes

Marty Beene

Marty Beene (second from left) and others at the start of the 10,000 meter race at the Pacific Association of USA Track & Field Masters Track Championships. Photo by Robert Warner.

The other day I received an e-mail from my friend Jym, an old running buddy. He reported that another friend, Issy, had won her age group in the Giant Race half marathon last weekend. Issy Fox, 61, ran the 13.1 miles in 1:54:17, which is 8:43 per mile, and beat the second place woman runner by more than five minutes. Jym reported that he was also successful, winning the men's 75-and-over age group by nearly an hour and a half with his time of 2:15:42, or a little over 10 minutes per mile. Wow. (Knowing our club members, Jym will certainly be ridiculed for "cherry picking" this race, given that there were only two other finishers in that age group, one four years older and the other six years older than he is.)

This reminded me of the early days of age group competition, back in the late 1980s when I was still an "open" competitor. Many of my running friends were over 40, and the notion of older runners competing against one another for accolades was relatively new. One thing that happened at that time was that three of the most famous male distance runners in history all turned 40 years old in 1987 - Jim Ryun (April), Frank Shorter (October), and Bill Rodgers (December). In 1988, someone had the idea to feature Shorter and Rodgers in a series of one-mile races around the country to see how fast these "old guys" could go. It turned out that there were several guys no one had ever heard of who were very, very fast at that age. One of my friends was among them, so he got to run in a couple of these races, and even appeared in a photo in a Sports Illustrated feature about the series!

One of the interesting quirks of running is that it's possible for a person to excel without having started at a young age. Nancy Ditz is a great local example: She started running at age 25 and, nine years later, found herself finishing 17th in the 1988 Olympic marathon in Seoul.

A more dramatic example is another local runner, Marion Irvine, a nun who started running at age 49 and qualified for the 1984 U.S. Olympic Marathon trials by running a 2:51 marathon at age 54. Kathy Martin, 62, of New York started jogging in her 30s and discovered she was pretty good at it. So far this year, she is ranked number one in the world in her age group in six different events ranging from 800 meters to the half marathon. Lest you think "Of course, the competition in the women's 60-64 age group isn't that tough," I consider myself a pretty good runner, and I could not even come close to her times right now.

Training is definitely different for older runners than it is for younger ones. Younger people's bodies will recover faster from hard efforts, so a 25-year-old can do three or even four intense workouts in a week. Some of the stars of the masters crowd I mentioned above might be able to squeeze in three in one week now and then, but most of us struggle to get in two intense workouts. That doesn't mean we can't train for serious competition; it simply means we have to plan our training more carefully. We have to make sure our bodies are strong enough to complete the workouts we want to do, and we have to allow for more calendar time to train leading up to any given event.

Are you an older athlete? Let me know in the comments how you train differently now than you would have when you were younger.

Marty Beene, a USA Track & Field certified coach, is owner of Be The Runner; he coaches adults from beginners to veterans individually and in groups. Marty has a NASM specialty certification in senior fitness, and can be reached at marty@BeTheRunner.com.