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8 Tips for Older Runners

Training strategies for maintaining pace, preventing injury


spinner image leroy cummins after crossing the finish line of the brooklyn half marathon
Leroy Cummings, who ran his first marathon two years ago, wins his age group in the 2022 Brooklyn Half Marathon.
New York Road Runners

It was two days before the Brooklyn Half Marathon, and Leroy Cummins had begun the morning as usual at 5 a.m., running for two hours around the borough’s East Flatbush section, where the neighbors call him Marathon Man.

“ ‘Look at this guy: He’s got gray hair and he’s only 5-foot-5, and he’s out there getting his exercise on,’ ” he says, laughing, as he imagines what they’re saying to themselves when they give him a wave or a shout of support.

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Cummins, who is 72, ran his first marathon two years ago in an impressive 3:35. He would finish the Brooklyn Half in 1:47:02, or about 8 minutes a mile, to win his age group.

But he’s far from reckless. He keeps whole cases of coconut water on hand to stay hydrated. He carbo-loads on his wife’s Rasta pasta, tossed with Caribbean-style jerk chicken in a nod to their West Indian ancestry. He skips running two days a week in favor of strength and resistance training. And when he does run, it’s sometimes comparatively slowly, with intervals of speed.

“I call it base work,” Cummins says. “It’s not about time, initially. Fast times will come.”

What’s more important after 50, he says, is to avoid injury and muscle fatigue.

Runners are rolling along later in life — and getting faster. That doesn’t mean everyone who wants to run after 50 needs to break a record. Younger runners may be motivated by having something to prove; older runners are already proving something just by being out there.

But they also need to be mindful of inevitable physical changes that require more attention to stretching, form, intensity, hydration and nutrition. Consulting a physician to make sure there aren’t medical risks is also a wise move. When planning to run a road or trail race, older runners need to start training earlier than they used to. That’s because they need more recovery days than younger runners do. And when something hurts, they need to give it time to rest.

“You’re never too old to learn new things,” says the irrepressible Cummins. “You just have to be smart about it.”

Here are eight key training tips to keep you healthy and happy as you build up the miles.

1. Manage expectations

Among other things, aging brings a decline in V02 ­max levels — the amount of oxygen available during exercise, which can fall as much as 10 percent per decade — and in maximum heart rate. Runners lose about 1 percent of their speed per year after 40, and 2 to 3 percent after age 70, studies show. So older runners need to start their runs at a slower pace and build up to a faster one as they feel comfortable.

“As we get older, we may not realize that we have certain limitations we’re not used to,” says Sachin Narain, an interventional pain physician at The Pain Center of Arizona and a former distance runner. “Don’t push those limits as you might have when you were 25 or 35.”

spinner image ben navarette of the new york road runners
Ben Navarrete is a coach for Striders, a free walking and fitness program for older adults.
New York Road Runners

Some people want to go from zero to 60 overnight, and immediately run a marathon, observes Ben Navarrete, a coach for the Striders free walking and fitness program for older adults, run by New York City Marathon parent New York Road Runners.

“I start off telling people that they need to first accept the fact that they are getting a little older,” says Navarrete, who is 74. “It doesn’t mean you can’t still run fast, but you may not be able to run as fast as you did a few years ago.”

That means spending more time building a base of endurance at a slower pace. “Half of your training should be base building,” Navarrete says.

2. Stretch more

Running coaches increasingly recommend dynamic rather than static stretching — that is, using active movement to warm up muscles and joints. They also acknowledge that it’s often the least appealing part of training. But stretching not only keeps things flexible; it helps reduce pain and inflammation. Focus on calves, quads, hamstrings and glutes.

At the very least, walk for 10 minutes or so before running, advises Jeffrey Newman, medical director of cardiothoracic surgery at Delray Medical Center in Florida, a retired triathlete who is 64. Stretch again at the end of a run to speed recovery.

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3. Rest up

Rest and recovery become more important with age, reducing the risk of injury while improving performance.

Navarrete recommends running every other day. That way “you’re allowing your body to recuperate” in between, he says. “All the muscles and the fibers that you tear while you’re exercising, you let them rejuvenate themselves. And you’re rebuilding your energy level.”

Recovery is one of the most important parts of training for runners over 50, says Amanda Brooks, a running coach and author of Run to the Finish: The Everyday Runner’s Guide to Avoiding Injury, Ignoring the Clock and Loving the Run. “This doesn’t mean they can’t do as much, but it often means taking more days between any kind of hard effort,” she says.

That can be hard for older runners. “Many refuse to accept this, and others think they need to tough it out,” says Chris Kaplanis, cofounder with his wife of the New Jersey endurance coaching organization RTA Triathlon. “This typically leads to injury and disappointment.” 

But rest days don’t mean lying on the couch, according to Newman. It just means that “every day doesn’t have to be a high-intensity day. Maybe you just go out and jog easily or walk or get on a bike or swim. Those could all be considered rest days.”

4. Cross-train

Strength and resistance training become more important with age, when muscle mass and tone diminish. “The more muscle we have, the longer we can run,” says Julie Pollard, a gerontologist and exercise physiologist and cofounder of Ageless Fitness in Santa Barbara, California.

Cross-train on those rest days. That can include low-impact activities such as cycling, swimming or yoga, which spare the joints from the beating they take when running.

5. Form improves function

All that cross-training helps maintain good form. Building your core can maintain stability and upright posture. And working on glute and hip strength can take some of the strain off hamstrings.

Good running form includes keeping your head and neck straight, moving your elbows at your side and striking midfoot, Pollard says. Shorter strides reduce the impact on your knees, hips and lower back. “Running should feel smooth, not harsh or pounding,” she says.

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6. Mix things up

Older runners in particular tend to follow the same routes at the same times and the same pace, says Eric Orton, 57, the coach in the classic running book Born to Run. “That runner who’s been running for a long, long time often gets stuck in a rut,” says Orton. “Regardless of age, that’s a stagnant mindset.”

Instead, he says, runners should add variety. Throw in some 15-second sprints or short hill repeats. Runners who always go long should do a mile race or a track-and-field event; those who run short should go long. “The body has to do something new,” Orton says.

One thing many coaches recommend to add variety and strength: 10- or 15-second pickups, or bursts of speed, called fartleks (from the Swedish for “speed play”). “They’re fun, and it helps create lubrication” in joints, says Orton, author of The Cool Impossible and Born to Run 2: The Ultimate Training Guide and host of the YouTube series Born to Run Coach.

7. Listen to the pain

“Just run though the pain” may be the younger runner’s mantra, but it’s a particularly bad idea for runners over 50.

“Don’t fight against it,” Pollard says. Runners should take a few days off when they feel aches and pains, she says, until their symptoms fade.

“If you’re running on that knee and not giving it rest, you’re fueling the fire,” she says. “You’re adding to that inflammation.”

There are two reasons runners feel like they don’t want to lace up, Navarrete says. One is laziness. “And the second reason is your body’s bothering you. I tell them, ‘Don’t listen to your laziness. Always listen to your body.’ Missing one day of running because you listened to your body may save you a month of running because you didn’t listen.”

8. Hydration and nutrition

Another thing that decreases with age is the sensation of thirst, so older runners need to remember to hydrate. Joint problems in particular can result from dehydration, which also reduces the oxygen supply to muscles and stresses the cardiovascular system.

A good target is to divide your weight by half and drink that many ounces per day in water, says Kaplanis, not including hydration during exercise.

Back in East Flatbush, Leroy Cummins dips into those cases of coconut water as he starts training for the New York City Marathon.

“I didn’t want to sit around with the retirees,” he says of his running fixation.

He has no plans to slow down, gleefully recounting the story of a much younger runner who thanked him for pulling him along in a race.

“There’s no age limit” on running, Cummins says. “I expect to be doing this as long as God gives me the strength.”

spinner image former olympic runner jeff galloway gives advice to a runner in central park jeff is now a running coach author and speaker
Jeff Galloway — a former Olympian turned coach, author and speaker — gives advice to a runner in New York’s Central Park.
Brennan Galloway

How to Use the Galloway Run-Walk-Run Method

Want to be a better runner? Walk more.

That’s the idea behind the run-walk-run approach to running, named the Galloway method for the former Olympic runner turned coach, author and speaker who devised it, Jeff Galloway.

Since then, says Galloway, who is 78, research and personal testimonials have attested to the fact that his idea helps people keep running long after they turn 50.

“A tremendous number of them had either dropped out of running or discounted that until they found the method,” he says.

The Galloway method calls for warming up, running for a period of time, then walking vigorously enough to maintain a strong heart rate before repeating the pattern. That might mean running for three minutes followed by walking for 30 seconds, running again and so on.

“It reduces the stress buildup on weak links and lowers your chances of injury,” says Galloway, author of The Run Walk Run Method.

Users can adjust the length and intensity of the intervals to their own purposes and comfort or use the new Jeff Galloway Run Walk Run app to do it for them. (After a seven-day free trial, monthly or yearly fees will apply.) This approach is not just for beginners. A German study found that runners who walked for 60 seconds every mile and a half finished marathons only slightly behind competitors who ran nonstop.

But only 5 percent felt extreme fatigue afterward, compared to 40 percent of the run-only group.

“I would make a bet that if they did a study of 10,000 runners who used the run-walk-run, only about 5 to 10 percent as many would have orthopedic complaints,” Galloway says, “compared with average [runners] their age.”

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