In 2016, I hit 50. In 2017, I celebrated a quarter century of being a runner.
Two pretty major milestones: running’s been a Significant Other in my life for longer than I’ve been a parent, a wife, a non-runner (almost).
Yet between those two events, the shift that’s happened in my thinking and my training’s been completely unexpected.
I came into my 50s with an unspoken assumption that it was downhill from here. That all I could look forward to was gradually getting slower and slower.
Last year, I was all set to write a post about finding different motivations for training as an older runner, because hey, all that competitive stuff was O.V.E.R.
And then 2017 happened.
It started with a return to racing. I’d forgotten just how much fun it can be. The atmosphere, the challenge, the achievement.
Then working with my friend and colleague Gray Caws on the performance side of Chi Running, I began experimenting with new focuses and ways of training.
And suddenly I’m realising just how much my approach and attitude to my running and training has been shaped by my preconceptions.
I ‘knew’ that I’d peaked. I ‘knew’ that the PBs I hit in my 20s and 30s belonged to a different runner. I ‘knew’ that my ageing body was fragile so I had to be cautious with training.
But now, surprisingly, I find myself speeding up again. And even those old personal bests don’t look quite so out of reach anymore.
Some things have definitely changed. As an older runner, I recover more slowly from breaks in training. Warming up properly, rather than diving straight into a run, serves me better. And my tolerance for punishing training sessions isn’t what it was. But with a few tweaks, I’m finding that running as a quinquagenarion is more fun than it’s ever been.
It’s taken a bit of trial and error to find the training programme that works best for me, but out of the many things I’ve tried, these are the changes that have made the most difference to my running performance, energy levels and enjoyment:
Running smarter, not harder
As Danny Dreyer, founder of Chi Running says: ‘don’t add power to a poorly running machine.’ No point pushing for speed, if I’m working against myself with every step.
So my big project, and a continuation of one started last year, has been to iron out the energy leaks in my running. These can come from inefficient technique, too little range of motion, or too much tension. Me? I’ve got the full set. So looking on the bright side, there’s plenty of opportunities to improve 🙂
My Chi Running practice is always a work in progress. What I love about it is that I’m always discovering better ways to reduce my effort and feel more relaxed as I run.
For the parts of me that don’t move very much or very well, I use Katy Bowman’s corrective exercises, alongside some strength and balance work. I like her approach so much, I’m now into my second year of training to teach Nutritious Movement.
Far from being fragile, I’m realising just how adaptable and strong my body really is, given the right variety, quantity and quality of ingredients.
Getting out of first gear
If I’m honest, my training over the last few years has got into a bit of rut. Long and slow. Or shorter and a little less slow. I’ve grown afeared of speed.
Time for a rethink.
How can I find a relaxed faster pace in a race if I never get out of first gear the rest of the time?
So I’ve started mixing a bit of ‘speed play’ into my training. Nothing overly serious, and my goal is always to minimise effort rather than go eyeballs out. But it’s building confidence, helping me get used to being ‘comfortably uncomfortable’ on race day, and adding in a little variety to keeps things interesting.
If there’s one thing that holds me back as a runner, it’s my breathing. In a race, it’s always my lungs that are hitting their limit, even if my body feels really comfortable. And nothing more guaranteed to cause tension than gasping for breath.
Which is why breathing’s been such a focus this year.
I’m approaching it in a couple of different ways. Strengthening and mobilising the muscles that affect breathing mechanics in the neck, shoulders and ribcage. And working on efficiency by breathing through the nose as much as possible, while using some of Patrick McKeown’s Oxygen Advantage breath holding techniques.
Why nose breathing? Unlike mouth breathing, it triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, to reduce my heart rate and help me run relaxed; it creates more resistance to air flow, which means I get more oxygen out of each breath; it encourages me to breathe from my diaphragm rather than just the upper part of my lungs; and it releases nitric oxide, which opens up airways and blood vessels, helping the flow of oxygen to my muscles.
I’m convinced the work I’ve done on my breathing is a major reason I’ve been able to shave nearly 4 minutes off my 5K time since the start of the year.
As an older runner, my potential aerobic capacity’s on the decline – although there’s some debate about how much of that is really due to ageing. But I’m not starting out as a lean, mean Olympically-trained machine, so still plenty of opportunity to get better at breathing.
The power of massage
I’ll admit it, relaxing and letting go of tension doesn’t come very naturally and my muscles tend to get wound up pretty tight. Like a lot of runners, I hit the foam roller fairly regularly to rub out the sore spots and stop any minor niggles turning into something more serious. I used to go for the occasional massage for a bit of treat, but the effects were always pretty short-lived. 2017 is the year that I discovered the power of a regular sports massage.
The right therapist can be a bit of a miracle worker, so finding Sarah Sellick was a definite plus. After just a couple of months, everything’s moving better, and the sore spots are few and far between.
It seems as though massage may be the missing ingredient in my training programme, and it’s the one I’m probably going to have the least problem sticking to 🙂
So, what next?
Far from giving up on the competitive stuff, I’m rediscovering a new taste for racing. I don’t want my running to be all about the PB, as it was in my 20s, but it’s fun to watch those times steadily dropping.
And who knows? Maybe that elusive sub-4 marathon could still be a possibility?….