Jo Pavey's tips for improving with age

Credit: James Carnegie/Saucony UK

Credit: James Carnegie/Saucony UK

Former European 10,000m champion Jo Pavey is intent on competing in her sixth consecutive Olympics next year despite the fact she will then be 46 by the time of Tokyo 2020.

It’ll be a big ask but the Devon athlete, who is a big fan of trail running, knows a thing or two about getting the most of out of your training as a veteran. When she qualified for those European Championships in 2012, the vest she wore when winning the trial race was older than some of her competitors. As recently as last year she was beating athletes half her age when clocking 15:48 for 5000m.

We took part in Jo’s trail running masterclass arranged by her sponsor Saucony and gave us the following tips for running well as a veteran.

Don’t limit yourself
Just because you’re getting older doesn’t mean you can’t get faster. Jo says: “You should never set boundaries for yourself because age is just a number and once you start thinking ‘I’m old, I can’t do certain things’, that’s when you stop trying to do certain things.” Take Jo herself, for example. She says she won’t rule out ever matching the time of 30min 53sec she ran in the London 2012 Olympic final, which makes her second fastest Brit in history behind Paula Radcliffe.

Set new goals
Leading by example, Jo knows it’s not all about being the fastest you’ve ever been. Reaching the Olympics for the sixth time – something no other British runner has done – would arguably be her greatest feat. To do so, she would need to run a qualifying time and beat off the challenge of athletes half her age. She says: “Making a sixth Olympics is a different goal, because perhaps I wouldn’t need to run under 31 minutes to get in the team, but I’m still going to have to run a really good time.”

Prioritise recovery
Although Jo says she hasn’t noticed much difference in terms of her own recovery time, she’s had to make subtle changes such as slowing down between key workouts and using foam rollers regularly. She says: “I have regular massages and go through my stretches every morning and before I go to bed. Eating can be more chaotic around the kids (Jo’s a mother of two), but I’m very strict with preparing for an important session and getting the recovery food straight afterwards. That’s really important for the muscles.”

Strengthen your core
Scientific studies have highlighted the need for those in middle age and older to do regular resistance work – and this is particularly important for runners. Jo says: “It’s a known thing that muscle mass decreases with age, and there’s probably more of a need to keep on top of core stability because if you’ve got a weak core you’re going to put more stress on your moving muscles. If you run really holding your core, you feel lighter on your feet.”

Listen to your body
One small way in which Jo’s training has changed is that she runs sets of fast 200m sprints after her main session, rather than before as when she was younger. She may opt to cut those reps from six, or even out completely, depending on how she is feeling. She says: “I’m very much listening to my body – more so than when I was younger – so I’m ready for the next workout.”

Enjoy your runs
It isn’t all about getting quicker. Even if you do start to slow down with age, that shouldn’t mean you stop enjoying running. Jo says: “Don’t think about what you’re actually achieving as a performance. Think about everything that the running is giving you, like the enormous boost in self-esteem and how great it is for your physical and mental health.”

Reset your goals
Despite Jo’s shining example, there’s a fair chance you might simply not be as quick as you were when you were younger. Consider running on the masters scene, says Jo, who stresses how confidence-boosting it can be if you put your times in the context of your age group.

Enjoy the journey
Maybe you’re slowing quicker than you expected, or maybe you’re not hitting your goals, but all is not lost. Jo intends to follow this philosophy as she heads towards Tokyo 2020. She says: “I’m not complacent about it, I know it’s tough to make a sixth Olympics. Not just because I’m getting older, but because the talent in Britain is so strong. It’s a goal and if you don’t get that goal, you’ve got to enjoy the journey, all the ups and downs, and not think about it being a failure if you don’t achieve something. It’s a win-win situation.”