How to Run Faster after 40
I was always under the impression that I would get slower as I aged, and that once I hit 40 it would all be over. The beginning of a slow decline where each finish line would reward me with a sense of mortality instead of a cup of beer. I’ll be 41 in a few weeks and so far 2016 has been my best year as a runner and by best, I mean fastest. Granted, I have only considered myself a true runner since age 35, so it’s not like I have that many seasons under my belt, but I do have one marathon, six half-marathons, three Ragnars and a few shorter races to my credit. So while you won’t see me at the Olympics (not even as a parking attendant), I’m no sloth either!
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Here is how my times per mile have improved in 2016 over various distances:
This is an average improvement of 39 seconds per mile in one season, when my previous averages over a 5-year period were virtually unchanged (not a gradual change). Suddenly, at age 40, I’m much faster. It’s like those Nuun capsules contain some kind of caffeinated Fountain of Youth formula. To me, this improvement is so staggering that I wondered if my timer was broken, or was stopping somewhere mid-run only to start up again a few minutes later. The real validation came at the Red White and Boom Half Marathon, where I PRed and beat my average half marathon time by 41 seconds per mile (my last half was the Monster Dash last October, just 8 months earlier, where I was SUPER slow as shit.)
I get asked how I can explain such a quick improvement. My first answer is that I made a lot of changes to my running routine. Not all of these changes will work for everyone, and you certainly don’t have to do every one, but some might work. Here is what worked for me:
Sure, easy to do, right? But it made a difference. In October I weighed in at a cozy 203 lbs, peaking at 206 around Thanksgiving. Over the winter, and into the spring, I lost roughly 13 pounds, weighing in at 193 before Red White and Boom. Carrying less weight should obviously make you faster as long as you don’t under eat and maintain good muscle tone and flexibility. I supplemented a lower-calorie diet along with continuing my weight training routine to maintain my strength, and 13 pounds later I definitely feel lighter on my feet.
Run in the Red Zone
A good friend and fellow runner challenged me to stop running to stay comfortable and try to run in the red zone for as long as I can. To really push myself. My old philosophy was that to conserve my energy during long runs and start out slow, get into a good pace, and then maintain it until I fall apart and limp across the finish line out of breath and desperate for beer. The problem with that approach was that I stayed slow. I never really sped up. I might have picked up speed in the middle of the run, but for the most part I was staying comfortable knowing I’d need to save energy for the last 2-3 miles.
Now, I’m just starting out fast and trying to stay fast for as long as possible. This has been a mental switch more than a physical one, but I was surprised at how much faster I could be simply by pushing myself harder.
Make Time for Recovery
This year I’m using a 10-day training cycle vs. the traditional 7-day. This has given my body more time to rest and heal, and has made my legs feel fresh and rested almost every time I run. It doesn’t mean I’m running less. I actually ran about 50 miles more in the first 6 months of 2016 vs. last year. But I’m taking longer time between long runs instead of trying to cram everything into 7 days.
Instead of doing a long run every Saturday, I’ll do 5 miles on my “off” week and do my long run the following Wednesday. Then I’ll run another 5-mile “off” Saturday, have a regular week and then finally a long run the following Saturday, 10 days later.
The benefits have been more time to recover, more time to cross train and do other activities like weight lifting, cycling, yoga or stretching, and an extra rest day here or there.
Run Speed Workouts
A 10-day cycle means I am able to build a more structured speed work strategy into my schedule. I’ve wanted to make it a regular thing but and I’ve come up a little short. I have been able to build a 3-mile sprint workout into my plan once every 2 weeks or so. It’s not nearly enough, but it does help get my heart rate far into the red zone, and gets my body conditioned to run at a much faster speed. Even a little bit of speed work has helped.
Modify Running Form
I used to run what I call the “home run trot”. Bouncing strides, knees high in the air, head down, lots of time off the ground. I’ve since adapted to a flatter running style by shortening my stride, keeping myself closer to the ground with my head up, and concentrating on moving FORWARD instead of bounding along like I just hit a walkoff shot. It makes my shins hurt, but I’m able to run at a faster pace without expending as much energy, and I can cover more ground faster than before.
I am using the same running shoes as last year, and my cross training plan is virtually unchanged as is my diet (except for a lower calorie intake to reduce weight). I eat the same things before a run, have the same sleep schedule, and drink the same fluids the night before a long run. My hydration and mid-run fueling hasn’t changed either. And I still enjoy a beer or two every now and then!
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Are you Getting Faster with Age?
We’ll see what the summer heat does to my times. If my improvements are attributed to weather alone, then my message to everyone is – don’t run when it’s so hot!!!!
Are you 40 or older? What have you found is helping your running as your age?