When thinking about aging, it’s essential to be honest about what it means for running performance. After you turn 30, every time you add a candle to your birthday cake, your absolute performance potential diminishes just a bit. But that doesn’t mean you can’t keep improving.
In 2014 Darrin Banks, then 48, finished California’s famed Dipsea race in 58 minutes 11 seconds. Two years later, at age 50, he finished the steep, seven-mile event in 54 minutes 20 seconds. According to the Dipsea’s complex head-start scheme, which gives runners a head start based on their age and gender, Darrin’s absolute performance potential in 2016 should have been a full minute slower than in 2014. In reality, though, he finished the 2016 race four minutes faster than he had in 2014. Those four minutes translated into 4th place overall, up from 27th in 2014.
The logic behind the Dipsea system is perfectly well reasoned: over the age of 50, physiological inertia trends toward a loss of strength, a decrease in bone density and reduced hormone production. But there are countless other runners like Banks who have bucked the trend.
Just as pediatricians are told not to think of children as small adults, runners over 50 should not simply think of themselves as young runners with a few more gray hairs; but with a smart training strategy, they can still chase performance gains.
Apply these five training principles to make up the head start given to your younger competitors and then some.
1. Take your easy days easy
Many 30-year old runners can get away with fast, ego-boosting runs nearly every day; almost no runners over the age of 50 can. So, while all runners should be doing most of their running at an easy, aerobic effort, it’s especially important for runners over 50 to do so.
Heart rate is a good way to keep yourself from going too fast. For younger runners, the crude calculation of 180 minus age is a helpful guidepost. However, in my coaching experience, the formula underestimates fit runners over 50 and tells them to run slower than they need to.
In lieu of lab testing (which is the best option): a simple approach is to run a two-mile time trial, finishing with an all-out sprint for the final minute or two, preferably slightly uphill to minimize impact forces. That number should be close to your max heart rate. Then, in the morning, take your resting heart rate. Subtract resting from max to get your heart rate reserve.
Zones one and two, where you want to do most of your training, are 60-80 percent of heart rate reserve, plus your resting heart rate. Most aerobic training should fall at the lower end of the spectrum, to further reduce injury risk.
If you don’t want to mess with a heart rate monitor, just jog at an easy, conversational pace. If you can sing along with your music or curse along with your news podcast, you should be fine.
2. Take rest days and have a cross-training option
Planned off days allow the body to rebuild and stop injuries in their tracks. Mark thrives off a five-day training week with two rest days. Four days may be optimal for some runners over 60, and three days may be best for runners over 70.
Since your running time may decrease as you age, it is helpful to have a no-impact cross-training option. I ask all my athletes over 50 to have a stationary bike trainer, which affords an aerobic workout without much injury risk. Focus on high cadence (90-plus) at all times, which seems to translate better to running.
3. Improve lactate threshold with workouts consisting of longer hill intervals
Due to natural reduction in aerobic capacity with age, focusing solely on VO2 max intervals (approximately an all-out 10-to-15-minute effort like many people use for short hill repeats) while aging is kind of like trying to form a bucket brigade to stop the rising tide. You’ll see more improvement from focusing most of your workout energy on easier intervals around lactate threshold (approximately an all-out one-hour effort) or a slightly faster critical velocity (approximately 30-to-40-minute effort for most runners).
In practice, athletes over 50 can thrive off of total work intervals of 10 to 30 minutes at critical velocity to lactate-threshold effort once or twice a week (using hills reduces impact forces). That time can be chopped up in a number of different ways, like 8 x 2 minutes or 2 x 15 minutes, depending on goals and background. Mark excels doing workouts like: 20 minutes easy, 5 x 3 minute hills (1-to-2-minute easy recovery), 20 minutes easy. Another workout: a short warm-up, followed by 30 minutes at lactate threshold on the Manitou Incline, the famous uphill grind in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The key is not to go too hard. Target an effort you could hold for 30 minutes to an hour, rather than one that stops you in your tracks at the end of each interval.
4. Build strength and running economy with shorter hill strides and strength training
Strength loss due to aging can not only be counteracted, it can be reversed. Short hills between 20 and 30 seconds are a double whammy, building strength while simultaneously improving running economy (the amount of energy it takes to run a given pace).
One of my athletes, Nancy Thomas, finished 2nd at the U.S. Cross Country Championships for the 45-plus age group using what I call “Nancy’s Hills.” Three or four times a week at the end of an easy run, she would do 8 x 20 second hills, starting at a bound—or slow, loping strides—and working into a relaxed sprint. These hills are easy and fun, and support faster running during workouts and races.
In addition to short hills, moderate strength training like push-ups can improve muscle strength and even have positive effects on bone density.
5. Periodize training with less specific training for hard events
A 30-year-old pro training for peak performance in a 100-miler might do 10 runs between 20 and 29 miles and four runs over 30 miles in training. An elite 60-year old might be better off doing three runs between 20 and 29 miles, one 50K and one 50-miler, with big efforts and full recovery. In other words, instead of focusing on quantity of race-specific stress, focus on quality of race-specific stress, since every stress dose increases injury risk.
Most training should be general and focused on building lactate threshold (hills), aerobic strength (as many easy miles as possible given your background) and running economy (hill strides). However, there is no substitute for specific training. The three rules that work for my athletes are to spread these key training sessions out by at least a week or two, make them count to provide the exact stimulus we are looking for and treat them with respect by taking more recovery than usual before and after.
Father Time spares no one. You will get older and you will get slower. But with smart training, you can spend a few decades giving your biological clock the middle finger.
David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play