How to run well in middle age and beyond

Personal trainer Carla Gibbons outlines practical advice on how you can age well as a runner


by Carla Gibbons |

If you are new to running completely or restarting after a long lay-off, it would be advisable to consult your doctor first – particularly if you have any health conditions. Once you have been given the all-clear, the best way to start is a run-walk training schedule that builds up gradually.

As we grow older, there are various changes which we have to consider in relation to our health and running. In fact, many of these changes start to happen in our thirties but accelerate as we get to our fifties and beyond. However, the good news is that exercise can slow many of these changes, so as a runner you are likely to be already doing things that help.

Firstly we begin to lose bone density (especially ladies). This can make us more susceptible to bone fractures and breaks. Running is a weight-bearing exercise so this helps keep our bones strong. But it is something to be aware of, especially on trails and fells where you will often be running on uneven and sometimes unstable surfaces. In addition, as we age, our balance, coordination and reaction time can all decline, making trips and falls on the fells more likely.

Working on balance and in different planes of movement allows us to be able to cope with these demands better, great for all of us and extra-important if you are a newbie to off-road running.

For example, add in balance practice wherever you can. Stand on one leg while waiting for the kettle to boil! Try progressing to single-leg squats. Work in different directions too as this will help improve your strength and stability in different directions, which is relevant to off-road running.

Another exercise to try would be clock lunges – imagine you are stood in the middle of a clock and lunge round the clock. Start with your right leg and do a forward lunge to 12 o'clock, a side-lunge to 3, a backward lunge to 6 and a back and across lunge (curtsy lunge) to 9, then swap and do the same with the opposite leg. Gradually you can add in all the numbers.

Our muscle mass also declines with age but, in fit healthy and active people, it can be well maintained by doing regular strength training, ideally a couple of times a week. This can slow and even prevent loss in muscle mass and support us in maintaining our bone density. This has many benefits for running too, such as improving efficiency and form and reducing the risk of injury.

Strength training doesn’t have to be in the gym. Bodyweight exercises at home can be just as effective. However, it should be progressive so gradually try adding dumbbells or a rucksack for extra resistance or completing more repetitions or sets. Just don’t increase all three at once! Try a circuit of clock lunges, press-ups, squats, mountain climbers, step-ups, seated twists, bridge raises and calf raises - 10 repetitions for each exercise. Try two sets to begin with.

As we get older it tends to take us a bit longer to warm up so allow more time for this and build up the range of movement and heart rate gradually. For example, you could begin with some walking and then easy jogging to warm the muscles and joints, followed by some mobility drills and exercises and dynamic stretching and mobility exercise such as walking with high knees, forward side and reverse lunges and leg swings. At the end of the session allow some time for static stretching to help keep your muscles flexible.

Running off-road can be a double-edged sword with regard to impact on our joints, which is often another consideration as we age. Although off-road surfaces can be more forgiving on our joints, rocky and uneven surfaces and downhills can cause a lot of impact and even damage our joints without care. So as mentioned above, strengthening and balance can pay off here. You might also consider walking, especially if the terrain is particularly technical or you don’t feel confident.

Recovery between sessions may take a bit longer than for you than in the past. Listen to your body and maybe even consider adding or swapping one of your run sessions for low-impact cross-training much as swimming, cycling or walking.

Although there certainly are health related issues to consider as we get older, you only need to take a glance at the results of races or even notice other runners out on the trails to see that many runners continue to run well and even excel over 50. In fact, race organisers are even having to consider adding over-70 age categories in events as the number of older runners wanting to keep running continues to grow. And as a newbie fell runner, you can certainly continue to improve and make gains in your fitness and performances.

"You don’t stop running because you get old, you get old because you stop running!"(Christopher McDougall)

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