Getting older doesn’t mean you have to stop running; you just have to run smarter. These five tips can help.
For some, ageing creeps up so slowly that you barely even notice. For me, it was a lot like the time I ran full speed into a goalie while striking a soccer ball: It hit hard.
Back in my mid-30s, I was presenting medicine ball techniques to about 100 fitness professionals. Mere seconds later, I went from feeling invincible to feeling like someone had injected a bucket of tar into my leg. As a former collegiate soccer player, I pushed my body to its limits, and, as a strength coach, I trained others to do the same. But now I could barely walk.
It’s not as if I’d never been injured before. I had. But this was different. In the past, I could trace aches or pains back to something concrete. This time, I’d done nothing to trigger the amount of stiffness I was experiencing. I limped out of the room. I limped through the airport. Then, back home, I limped my way into a doctor’s office. A few days and an MRI later, I confronted a diagnosis (a medial meniscus tear) as well as a frustrating realisation: My youth was over.
My days of invincibility were done. My body was no longer as forgiving. From this point on, instead of continually beating my personal bests, I’d more likely be trying not to regress—and, no matter how hard I worked, I might end up regressing anyway.
As you might guess, I was more than bummed. I was frustrated. I have two young boys, and I loved running with them, sharing the freedom I once felt as a child with them. I’d spent a lot of my childhood running the mountains that surrounded my grandparents’ Tennessee farm. I charged uphill, splashed through creeks, scrambled up boulders, and leapt over fallen trees. Every single step was reactive, unpredictable, and filled with pure joy—joy that I wanted to share with my kids.
I knew that I might not ever be able to run like I once had—freely, whenever I wanted, for as long as I wanted, on any terrain that I wanted, at any intensity. But if I rehabbed my knee, one day I could still run with excellence, and I could still run with my boys. That was my goal.
I’d read that rehab could yield the same results as surgery but with fewer complications, so I set up an appointment with a physical therapist who specialises in working with runners. I did everything he asked, and I learned a lot, not just about my knee and my body, but also about how to train as an “older” runner. These lessons are universal, and they benefit anyone who wants to run freely without pain for as long as possible. Here’s what I learned the hard way, so you don’t have to.
1. It’s time to incorporate intervals.
Some people have therapists. I had long runs. I loved thinking, problem solving, and meditating as I ran mile after glorious mile. My knee and back on the other hand? Not so much. If your body hates long runs, but your mind loves them, there’s a solution for that. Swap long runs for shorter, intense sessions that include sprints. In addition to allowing you to blast away stress, intervals are also better for your heart, training it to pump at its max and then quickly recover. Intervals also primarily target the highly metabolic fast-twitch muscle fibres. For anyone who wants to run off body fat, interval sprints and hills are definitely the way to go.
2. Recovery is more important than ever.
Ageing can make just about anyone wish they had a personal massage therapist, but a ball and a foam roller can get the job done–for a lot less. A lacrosse ball or foam roller can help you free up tight spots, making muscles more pliable and responsive to stretching. Plus, it just feels great.
3. There’s a right and a wrong way to stretch.
We all know that we should stretch, but many runners just grab their foot to stretch their quad for a few seconds before heading out, which may do nothing for their running and could possibly even hurt you if you have imbalances (which we all do). When done correctly, stretching can help you lengthen your tightest, overactive muscles as well as strengthen your weakest ones and help bring balance to your body. Called “strength stretching,” my technique involves contracting a muscle as if it’s flexed and then slowly lengthening it while maintaining the contraction. This allows you to safely lengthen a greater number of muscle fibres than traditional stretching does, while eccentrically strengthening the same muscle.
Strength stretching also uncovers what your muscles actually need—some need length, some need strength—and the result is balanced and efficient movement. And it also helps you to stretch the muscle itself while placing less stress on the tendons and ligaments. If you do it right, you’ll be sweating.
4. You can and should jump.
Many people shy away from explosive moments as they get older, and I get it. Our soft tissues can become more prone to injury as we age, making certain types of explosive exercises such as Olympic-style power training lifts or certain plyometric drills more risky.
But there’s a safe way to get the same benefits. First, use just your body weight or if you want more resistance, use a resistance band instead of dumbbells or barbells. Second, as with anything, proper form is key. Third, you want to start at the bottom of the movement, from a dead stop, and then explode. So for example: Let’s say you are doing a jump squat. Slowly lower into a squat. Hold for one to two seconds and then, from that dead stop, spring up and land softly. This will help you target difficult-to-train fast twitch fibres, put spring in every step, and help you charge uphill. And as a bonus, it will make you feel like a superhero. Of course, if you have a chronic injury that prevents you from jumping, skip it, or consult with your doctor before doing so.
5. You have to train smarter not harder.
It’s been seven years since I injured my knee. Today, I’m in my 40s, and now more than ever, I feel the responsibility to take care of myself for the sake of my family. I have to train differently. I have to train smarter. How I feel depends on how I care for my body. If I’m hydrated, eating healthy, stretching, foam rolling, and running smart, I feel great. If I’m traveling, dehydrated, and perhaps pushing myself too hard, my knee twinges, and my back gets stiff.
That’s ageing, and that’s okay. I’m able to forgive my body because running is not something I have to do, it’s something that I get to do. And for that, I’m grateful.