Training, Recovery, and Nutrition for the 40+ Runner
As a runner in my mid-forties, I’m beginning to notice a slight decline in my recovery ability and a more pronounced awareness of general muscle and joint pain. This time last year I felt as good as I did in my thirties (or at least I think I did), but now I feel that more visits to my massage therapist are in order.
The effects of aging on muscle function are different for each person, depending on other factors relative to your lifestyle, as well as genetics. But medical research has shown that in general a gradual loss of muscle function occurs, due to a decrease in both the number and size of muscle fibers. These changes may directly affect our ability to run by decreasing our endurance capacity and our overall strength and balance. The good news is that we can minimize the rate of decline by continuing to run (in a modified manner) and by giving our regular training routine and lifestyle a bit of an overhaul.
Try making some of these changes if you feel that middle age is beginning to slow you down and impair your performance and recovery:
Switch to a Quality Over Quantity Mentality
Consider reducing the amount of time you spend running and then add value to your workouts by making each one purposeful. In other words, don’t just run to add miles to your weekly training log, but ascribe to each run a specific objective.
For example, include in your weekly run schedule one HIIT (high intensity interval training) workout, one easy-paced mid-distance run, one tempo run, and one long run. You can also take advantage of the various pace calculators available online and use them to determine specific training paces for any upcoming race goals you might have. Here are a couple of pace calculators you can use:
Learn to Love Strength Training
One of the bonuses of reducing your overall mileage is that it opens up extra windows of time to dedicate toward strength training. Too few runners give credence to the value of strength training and then wonder why they repeatedly suffer from injuries.
Doing a few strength exercises two or three times a week will help to keep injuries at bay by avoiding imbalances in overall muscle strength. Furthermore, stronger muscles improve running efficiency by enabling you to maintain good form when the body starts to fatigue. And of course, greater muscle strength may help you to run faster and longer. A few strength-training resources you might find useful are:
- McMillan’s Strength and Flexibility Training DVD Combo
- Runners World 10 Essential Strength Exercises For Runners
- Quick Strength For Runners by Jeff Horrowitz (reviewed by Breaking Muscle)
Do Exercises in All Three Planes of Movement
There are three planes of movement: sagittal, frontal, and transverse. Movements in the sagittal plane are back and forth, while movements in the frontal plane are side to side, and movements in the transverse plane are rotational. Runners tend to spend a lot of time exercising in the sagittal plane but neglect to do any exercises in the other two planes. This often results in muscle imbalances that can weaken your ability to move and run.
One of the best warm-up routines I’ve seen, which incorporates dynamic movements in all three planes, is Gary Gray’s lunge matrix. It is demonstrated in the following video clip by coach Jay Johnson:
Stretching Might Be Just the Thing for Middle-Aged Runners
In an article on older runners, fitness columnist Jill Barker explained how aging causes muscles to tighten up and lose their suppleness. For runners, this means a shortened stride and consequent increase in risk of joint pain and injury. By stretching after runs, some of the aches and pains brought on by muscle tightness might be prevented.
There are some great short and effective post-run stretch and flexibility routines online, including this short series of inverse poses by Runners World Yoga Instructor, Rebecca Pacheco, as well as her excellent twenty minute recovery yoga video (designed specifically to increase mobility and ease post-run pain):
Find Time for an Afternoon Snooze
The occasional afternoon nap might be just the thing you need to add to your weekly training routine. Napping is obviously not training, but a significant component of training includes recovery and sleep is definitely an essential part of the recovery process. Additional sleep, in the form of daytime naps, is reportedly beneficial in several ways, including the following:
- Improved mood stabilization, emotional control, and mental balance
- Helps to consolidate memory (especially true for newly acquired skills)
- Improved physiological alertness (after waking up from a nap)
- Improved immune system (reduces inflammatory behavior in the body)
These benefits combined, amount to improved athletic performance and overall quality of life.
If an Extra Recovery Day Is What You Need, Then Take It
Runners typically follow their hard or long run days with a recovery day, which could mean a day of rest for some or a short, easy run for others. While one recovery day is adequate for most runners, it may be necessary for middle-aged runners to take two recovery days if performance starts to deteriorate or if fatigue and soreness still linger. Keep in mind though that a recovery day doesn't necessarily exempt you from doing some type of supplementary non- or low-impact cross-training.
Nutrition, Nutrition, Nutrition
I can’t stress enough the importance of eating a well-balanced and healthy diet. As we get older and training takes more of a toll on our bodies, we should be taking just as much interest in our eating plan as we do our training plan.
You probably already know what foods you should be eating, and most of you I'm sure understand the significance of post-run nutrition, but many of you still struggle to practice discipline and consistency in this area of training. It’s much easier to work hard at the physical disciplines of training than it is to resist eating favorite comfort foods. I’m not suggesting that you eliminate junk food altogether, but moderation is better, and if performance and recovery have begun to deteriorate as a result of aging, then less-than-moderate may be better still.
In terms of selecting nutrients that are specifically known to aid in reducing pain and/or inflammation, try these:
- Curcumin (found in turmeric, and therefore in a lot of Thai, Indian, and Indonesian foods)
- Omega-3 fats (found in flaxseeds, walnuts, beans, fish, and olive oil)
- Sulfur (found in eggs, meat, legumes, nuts, dairy, and various fruits and vegetables)
It’s been said many times by many coaches, that the wisest runners are those who train smarter, not harder. For the middle-aged runner like myself, I’d say that this is a great piece of advice to keep in mind.
1. Kirkendall, D.T. abd Garrett, W.E. Jr., “The Effects of Aging and Training on Skeletal Muscles,” Am J Sports Med, 1998 Jul-Aug 26(4):598-602.
2. Barker, J. “Older Runners – There Is A Middle Ground.” Canwest News Service. Accessed July 16th, 2014.
3. Jockers, D. “Daytime Naps Improve Performance." Natural News. Accessed July 16th, 2014.
4. Mercola, J. “Decreasing Post-Exertion Muscle Soreness: What’s the Best Way?” Huffington Post. Accessed July 16th, 2014.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.