Running Over 40
By Frank Horwill
It can safely be said, fifty years ago, that a person who continued to run or took up running after the age of forty, was considered to be, at least, a little eccentric by the average person. Even in the sport, veteran runners were given grudging respect. I can recall, at the age of seventeen, battling it out over a 6 mile cross-country course through Ruislip Woods, with a stoutish man of fifty. Afterwards, I looked at him in the dressing-room with some awe and finally said, "Why are you still running?" He replied, "This is part of my preparation for the Poly Marathon." From that reply I assumed that all marathoners were virtually ancient marathoners. This fact was reinforced by the numbers on the starting line for that race - hardly ever more than fifty.
The late Dr George Sheehan was to alter this thinking, "Running is part of ecology and preserving the good things. There is no such thing as growing old; you’re either growing up or stagnant. You can be old at 20." He wrote numerous letters to the local and national Press stating that running isn’t necessarily kid’s stuff. Eventually, he became a columnist in 1970, in a new journal called Runner’s World, where he preached the theme: run for your life.
Another pioneer was David H. R. Pain, a San Diego lawyer, who, in 1968 started the US Masters track and field championships. Within thirty years this move altered the lives of millions world-wide. It caused runners to look forward to their 40th birthday, and their 50th, and their 60th!
Middle-aged runners stand in sharp contrast to a gluttonous, lazy and obese society. They do not possess the fanaticism of the abstemious, nor the excesses of the hedonist. They follow Dr. Johnson’s view of things, "He who lives medically lives miserably." They like a pint or two., some even like a cigar or two (medical experts say that the pipe is the least harmful, then comes the cigar. The killer is the cigarette.). On the other hand, they listen to Emerson’s dictate, "The best wealth is health."
Now, there is something special about the veteran runner and Runner’s World were the first to discover it. They were and are in the habit of sending out questionnaires to their readers. At first just 100; now 1,000. Their usual return was 60 per cent. But, when they surveyed 100 veteran runners, they got an 80 per cent return. That fact alone speaks well for their enthusiasm. And the returns revealed some potent facts. Age has dimmed their basic speed, but increased their staying power to the point where they are often better than much, younger runners.
Unfortunately, age makes one more susceptible to injuries but not as much as those who start running at an early age. A runner who has 25 years’ experience has developed certain muscle groups, while the novice has not. However, when injured, they take longer to heal. Recent research suggests that the main cause of injury is training too many days in succession. If a vet is in the habit of training six days consecutively and gets more than one injury per hundred hours of running (16 weeks of 1 hour per day), it is time to consider training three days consecutively with the fourth off.
Unlike many of their younger counterparts, vets have stabilised their occupational and financial position, and can roam the world competing in all types of races. Age has taken from the vets, but time also has provided compensations.
The surveys also reveal that there is no "typical" runner. Most race above track distances, where speeds and competitive opportunities suit them best, but Dave Moorcroft at 40, broke the world’s vet mile record outdoors with a 4:02 reading (he alleges that creatine monohydrate played a big part), while Eamonn Coghlan became the first vet to run a sub 4-minute mile indoors. Notice anything special about these two? Well, they started running at 14 and never stopped. World vet records favour this group on the track. But this is not always the case with longer distances. Take, for example, Jack Foster of New Zealand. He started running at 32. He became an Olympian at 40! At age 33 he ran a 2:27:50 marathon, and at 38, 2:12:17. At 41, he ran 2:11:18.
He did not like the word "training": he called it running. He broke the 20-mile world record (1:39:14) when 39. He averaged 10 miles a day, seven days a week. His longest run lasted 2½ hours. His shortest session was 3x1 mile in 4:40 on a horse track with 3 minutes jog recovery. He won eight marathons.
If you like running, you will like it more if, for your age, you get better at it. A regular pattern of training is the key to greater enjoyment. Running every other day for not less than 35 minutes paves the way for greater things. After 12 weeks of this, you are ready for one run of 70 minutes each week. After 12 weeks of that, the world is your oyster.