The effects of aging sort of snuck up on me. At 39 years old, I was running right around 33:00 for 10K and was looking forward to being a competitive Masters runner. For the previous 10 years I had been running a very consistent 60-70 miles per week, injury free – and although I wasn’t one of the best runners in the San Francisco area, I finished consistently in the top 2-3% of most races I entered.
At age 40 I began to slip. It was gradual. My training hadn’t changed much, but my body was starting to go its own way. Within a year I was having problems breaking 34:00 for 10K. By the time I was 44 I had slipped to 36:00. My friends recommended more miles and more hard workouts. – but in reality I was running on dead legs. Almost every run was an effort. The only thing that kept me going was pure hard-headedness.
Along the way, I read an article in Runners World by Jeff Galloway about how he had shifted to every-other-day training. Galloway was my age and had slipped from 28:00 10Ks all the way down to 33:00. Sure his disappointing times were equivalent to my best, but he was a world-class runner in his day. Our drop-offs were similar. It took me several more months of frustration, but eventually I dropped Galloway a line. He was kind enough to respond, and he had some good advice.
“Forty-year old legs are capable of some amazing things. They just can’t recover quickly… When we over-train we will suffer a much longer recovery period.”
Good advice… And like a typical runner I ignored it and pounded away for several more years. At age 45 I went right off the edge of the table: I couldn’t break 40:00 for 10K.
I decided I needed a change. For me that meant a whole new approach to running. The old way wasn’t working. I recognized that the solution was not more miles or harder workouts. I had done plenty of that. The question was, what was the new way? I obviously wasn’t recovering. Galloway had pointed out in his letter that this was a major problem for older runners.
“It’s the pounding that causes the damage, and the junk miles that keep you from recovering from the hard work,” Galloway said. The words pounding and junk miles were new to my running vocabulary. In addition to Galloway’s advice, I remembered another article about running smarter paces.
I made three big decisions:
FIRST: I decided to run only every other day for at least six months. That literally meant three days one week, four the next. If on occasion I had to run back-to-back days, then I would either take off two complete days before or two afterward. Added to this was a promise to do no racing during that time period or until I felt I could run 37:00 for 10K.
I would allow myself to run more miles on the days I did run. That’s what Galloway said he did. I decided that 8-12 miles was good, and that I could double if need be.
SECOND: I would run slower paces. My problem was that I didn’t know what was slow enough to allow me to recover and get stronger. (More on that later.)
THIRD: No cross training on my rest days. Nada. Nothing. I could lie around, eat pizza and watch TV, but not one step of running, cycling, swimming or using a cardio machine. (Galloway recommended cross training, but this was the one part of his plan that I ignored.)
A group at Furman University in South Carolina developed a three-day training program: three days of quality running; two days for cross training. They wrote a great book about the program, titled Run Less, Run Faster. If I saw it years ago, perhaps I would have tried it. But every runner is different and my goal was total recovery. Plus, I knew myself. I would only do what I wanted to do. I knew I would run every other day, but bike or swim? I had to be real with myself. I could count on running and little else.
I decided to tell none of my running buddies that I was doing this. They wouldn’t have understood. We all ran seven days a week and poured on the mileage. A recovery day was 6-7 miles at a 7:00-7:30 pace. A day off was unheard of.
My next problem was figuring out what power on earth would force me to run the right slower pace, assuming that I could even figure out what that was. Galloway, the erudite expert on the aging runner, recommended that guys like me run two to three minutes slower than our 5K pace. I would be willing to slow down, but two-to-three minutes slower was just short of walking – somewhere around 9:00 pace.
I found an ad in a running magazine for a new technology. It was an early model heart rate monitor. After doing some research on heart rates, I decided to take a leap of faith and buy one.
(Again, I told no one.)
The monitor arrived with a booklet explaining how it worked. Through further reading, I decided that 70% of max was my recovery run rate and that 90% of max would be my AT or anaerobic threshold rate. I already knew that my resting heart rate was around 50bpm, but I had to figure out my max rate. I bashed myself with various workouts until I was pretty sure my max was 195-200bpm. I played it conservative and chose 195bpm. Using a simple formula I was able to calculate my heart rates at the two levels that were most important. I was set to go.
My first step was to a do a three-mile AT run at 90%. I knew that an AT pace should have been about 20 seconds per mile slower than my potential 10K pace in a hard race. My first three-miler on a course I wheel-measured around my neighborhood was quite a shock: I ran right around 21 minutes. Ugh! That meant my AT was 7:00 pace and my race pace was 6:40. No wonder I could no longer break 40 minutes at 10K.
But if that was a shock, my first easy run was a real knock out. I ran my normal morning 5 miler with the heart rate monitor. Typically this took somewhere between 35 and 37 minutes. But I had vowed to keep my effort at 70% of heart rate max. It took me 45 minutes to make the circuit. I was running 9:00 pace after all!
In the afternoon I went out and ran the 5-miler again, and with wind and warmer conditions I had to slow down even more. This time it took me 50 minutes. I was running 10:00 pace!
I was glad to have the next day off to mull my seemingly terminal slowness. But strangely, after the first week I began to realize the following things:
- None of my friends would train this slow, so I had to get used to running alone.
- As slow as I was, I began to feel better. My legs didn’t feel so beat up.
- Everything affected the heart rate monitor. Heat, wind, electric power poles. Even having a cup of coffee before my morning run caused the heart rate to jump.
(Today’s models are much better at handling electrical interference, but back in 1990 and 1991 I felt like the monitor would go nuts every time someone opened their automatic garage door.)
After four weeks I did another three-mile AT run. The time was under 20 minutes. Same course. Literally the same conditions… yet I ran about one minute faster, which meant theoretically I was in 6:20 shape for a 10K.
I didn’t race. I kept training. I needed to keep the faith and see what happened. My daily training runs improved but only marginally. Now and then I ran 42-43 minutes for five miles, but I’d log an occasional 45-minute day too, which made me wonder if I was really improving.
The following month my three-mile AT run was 19:06. This was a 6:22 pace, which meant I was in 37 minute shape for 10K.
I finally decided to come out of hiding and see what I could do. I went to a low-key, local five-mile race. I started conservatively, but as the race progressed I began to pass other runners. At about the halfway point I was running strong and feeling great. Eventually I finished well under 30 minutes. My time predicted a 37-minute 10K. And this was on a hilly course. In the finishing area I queried several other runners who had finished right ahead of me. They were both solid 37-minute 10K guys.
Bingo! I had reinvented myself. But I was still suspicious. I knew I had to go head to head with some of the good age-group runners on my club. Every Sunday they would go out and run 12-13 miles hard. (Hard, of course, is relative for guys in their late 40s and early 50s, but many of them were bona fide 35- and 36-minute 10K guys – strong age-group contenders.)
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Was I at their level? I decided to treat the Sunday run like a race and forget the heart rate monitor. I knew these guys, and I expected sub-7:00 pace for 12+ miles, hills or no hills. The morning I showed up, the course was “The Sheriff’s Trail” – a very hilly 13-miler that snaked through the foothills of Monte Sereno and Saratoga, California. This was a country for old men, and there would be sweat and blood.
At the start, I had no problem running mid-group (about 10 guys). I hung around, surprised at how good my legs felt. As we ascended the hills, I moved up with the leaders. The tempo changed from a friendly, chatty effort to something more race-like. One by one, the leaders dropped off. Finally it was just me and another guy. He pushed; I answered, and he groaned and broke. I ran on solo, making my statement. Cruising into the finish I looked back. No one was in sight.
I grabbed some water while the others staggered in. They all looked beat up, but they would run the next day. I would take a day off. I went back to my new form of training. A month later my three-mile AT run dropped to 18:48. I was getting faster.
Finally, after six months – with only the one five-mile race and the “statement” 13-miler under my belt – I started to race again. I was consistently at 35-36 minutes for 10K. Every now and then someone would ask me what I was doing for training, but when I told them, they would shake their heads in disbelief and walk off muttering. The “new-fangled” heart rate monitor was one thing, but my penchant for running only every other day really got them.
“What do you do for cross training?” was the usual question.
“Nothing,” was my answer.
Someone once said that if you see four runners training together, three are training too fast. With help of the heart rate monitor, I learned that our perception of easy training runs is generally bogus. Real recovery and muscle development takes place at a much slower pace than we realize. For an older runner, given that recovery is of paramount importance, almost no pace is too slow.
Don’t trust the phrase “Listen to your body.” We all fool ourselves. We need a governor. The heart rate monitor is a simple tool that can get you back on track. The best book I read on the subject is John L Parker’s Heart Monitor Training for the Compleat Idiot. Parker also wrote Once a Runner, arguably the great novel about our sport.
We traded emails. Parker believes there are two important heart rate efforts. 85% for tempo runs and 70% for recovery runs. (Parker believes you can run every day if you use the heart rate monitor correctly, but we ran similar times while I was running just three days per week.)
I also corresponded heavily with Brian Clark who wrote two great running books, must-reads for runners at any level: Running by Feeling and 5k and 10K Training.
Brian and I are only one year apart, and at age 49 we both were training seriously to compete well at 50. Brian also used the heart rate monitor. He ran about twice the weekly mileage I did because he trained 6-7 days a week. (We, too, ended up with similar performances.)
I raced well into my early 50s when I finally began to back off on competition. To this day I rarely run more than 4 days a week. And I still don’t cross train. Of the age groupers that I used to train with, I am one of the fastest men still running.
Runners have to find their own way. One thing I learned is that every runner is different, and that as you age you have to adjust. What worked at age 40 doesn’t work at age 60. The roads are strewn with the hopes and dreams of runners who failed to recalibrate.
Richard Stiller has been running since 1968. He is also a published author. These days he coaches runners who want to turn their running around. You can view his blog at: