For many of us, putting the words running and over 50 in the same sentence appears to be a typo! Common wisdom would have us believe that once 50, any activity viewed as strenuous should be systematically eliminated from our daily behavioral patterns. But that way of thinking is gravely wrong and factoring into the unnecessary symptoms of aging and the aging before our time, which seems to be happening in our country.
This article is designed to help to win you over to an alternative way of thinking: “if you want to keep life in your years you have to keep movement in your life BUT you have to follow a strategy correct for your current stage of life.” If you do, the payoffs will be priceless! Adding running to your life or learning how to continue to do it with a program for 50+ is what this article is all about.
There are several compelling reasons for specifically targeting running as an activity to add to your life in your 50’s and beyond. One of the biggest reasons is that forward ambulation in the form of crawling, walking, jogging, and running have been in all our inventories of behaviors since infancy. Christopher McDougall wrote the book, “Born to Run” in 2009, highlighting this exact point and driving home that the reasons for injuries when running had more to do with improper footwear, bio-mechanics and I will add to that too much volume or intensity but that running in and of itself is one of the least injury-producing movements of other activities that we have not been practicing all our lives.
Another strong reason for starting a running program is current research is linking it to increased longevity and an easily available “fountain of youth”. What this means is that activities that sustain a higher than resting heart rate and include intervals of higher than comfortable heart rates (more on this to come) cause repair to damaged mitochondria and generation of more mitochondria and minimize the shortening of telomeres which are the ends of our chromosomes. Running at the proper intensities can enhance the positive effects on both nano-cellular changes which translates as living longer lives at higher levels of physical wellness and fitness.
I could do an entire article on the benefits of running but in addition to the two important ones already mentioned, disease control of diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and almost all chronic illnesses, are also benefits. Another is less brain shrinkage and heightened memory skills as highlighted in a 2012 study in Neurology journal (among others). Other benefits include higher calorie burn on the days you run so weight management and increase over-all body circulation which can help with erectile dysfunction and other circulation related symptoms. No one reading this article should take the above information and decide to start a running program that is strictly running. You must walk before you jog and jog in intervals before you jog consistently then jog consistently before adding running intervals and then maybe graduate to straight running. But that endpoint isn’t really the actual goal. It is the process because the process done consistently is where you will gain all the benefits already outlined.
There are endless apps on your phone (for free) that you can download with programs that start you walking and progress you to jogging safely. Jeff Galloway, a noted expert in the running world, has written books on run-walk-run plans that are wonderful ways to start a running program over 50 (and younger for that matter). You may also decide to start by reading one of the books on run techniques such as Chi Running by Danny Dreyer in which run technique at the beginning point of starting your run program which is very important to avoid joint injuries. You may also engage the help of a run coach or trainer or run group geared towards 50+ as your method for getting started. All are viable and smart approaches. Once you have decided on a program to start your running the next most important step is to invest in proper equipment which in the case of walk/jog/running is your footwear. There are a large variety of run sneaker makes, models, inserts, etc. As an over 50 runner myself, let me give you a piece of advice…minimalist running shoes are probably not your best choice. By the time you get to 50, a variety of biomechanical adjustments have occurred to your feet and lower body.
Younger people who have not been wearing shoes for a lifetime can avoid injury by wearing minimalist sneakers (basically close to barefoot in design) but in my personal experience as a 56-year-old Ultra Runner (multiple 100 mile runs under my belt, all over 50 years old) it is better for the older runner to buy sneakers that have added arch support, cushioning, etc. My best advice is to go to a running shoe store noted for service knowledge and have the staff look at your walk/jog gait and barefoot weight-bearing position and let them make suggestions as to the type of sneaker for your foot and then try on a variety of brands till you find one that feels the most supportive and comfortable for you. Please do not go by the ones you like the look of the best OR price point. This could be extremely detrimental especially to an over 50 body.
Once you have your start program and sneakers you are ready to start, however, as an over 50 runner, there are a few additional points that are necessary as you begin your program. First, we over-50’s have in bodies that are less hydrated, less motility, and elasticity in the muscle, tendon, and ligament tissue. For these reasons, we need to take extra time to limber up for our walk/jog/runs. A dynamic limbering routine that involves rhythmic, repetitive movements designed to progressively lengthen and contract the muscles that will be used in running is necessary. If it takes a younger person 3 min to do a limbering routine, we need to allocate 10 min minimum. Along the same vein, we older runners need to do more stretching after the activity (not immediately but within 10 min till bedtime) to counter the shortening of the fibers during running. And we also need more recovery time between higher intensity runs/intervals. If a younger person needs a day of lower-level movement to allow recovery, we older bodies need 2–3 days between harder efforts. Harder efforts of 30 sec or so done in sets of 4–10 are good to add once you have been on a program for at least 4–6 weeks. These more intense intervals are what give us the extra “fountain of youth” benefits mentioned earlier in this article.
I coach older age group athletes competing in running and triathlon and for all my older clients, I make sure in addition to the 2–4 times a week they are running, they are also doing at least 1–2 times a week of a functional strength training program. For the older athlete, it is imperative to have a handful of exercises that strengthen the smaller support muscles involved in running and that work on balance and stability for the one-leg stance involved in every step of walking/jogging/running. Without working on balance, injuries that are unnecessary may develop but they are easily prevented with a few exercises done consistently as a supplement to your running program.
Every running program will tell you the first step is to clear your program with your doctor, especially if you have been inactive for a long time and/or have some underlying health conditions. I encourage you to get your annual baseline blood work and physical during which you ask your doctor if there is any reason you should not start a run program. Now you will have baseline measures of cholesterol, blood pressure, etc. to compare 6 months or a year into your program. Seeing the improvements in these markers will serve as incredible motivation when your program motivation may need a boost!
Finally, muscle and joint issues need to be discussed. Common knowledge is that running will destroy your joints over time but interestingly, comparative research has disclosed that lifetime runners have a lower frequency of knee surgeries than sedentary adults. Very interesting! Proper footwear, programming, technique, and hygiene practices such as limbering, stretching, functional strength training, etc. appear to be the difference between injury and no injury NOT the running itself. This is good news for us 50+ interested in trying to add life to our years by starting a new fitness practice this season.
Need to walk before you run? Learn about the benefits of walking here.