A masters runner on a training run (© Asics)
What is the key to running well and enjoying it as you age?
I imagine this intriguing question is asked and answered often by senior runners all over the world. As we leave our youth and the physical abilities that accompany it behind, how do you keep running in a healthy and enjoyable way?
These days there are so many runners who are in their forties and beyond. Every one of them, of course, is an individual, and what works for them may be different to the next person. Being not far off 50 now, and eight years into retirement from life as an elite athlete, I often ask myself these questions. If anyone has any good answers, I’m all ears!
The recent London Marathon on 3 October incorporated the inaugural Abbott World Marathon Majors Wanda Age Group World Championships. This race brought together the world’s best marathon runners over the age of 40. The winners of the various categories were deservedly lauded for becoming world champions, and the sheer energy and enthusiasm of all these senior runners was quite something.
After the race, I was fortunate and humbled to meet Koichi Kitabatake (87) from Japan. A relative newcomer to the marathon, having taken it up at age 78, he was a picture of good health. The sight at these championships of fit, healthy and energetic role models left me feeling incredibly inspired.
From coaching senior runners and from my own, admittedly limited experience of ageing, I offer up a few tips which might answer the questions I posed above.
1 Less is more
As we age, recovery takes longer and we may be more prone to injuries as our bodies get older. To maintain the cycle of super-compensation, in which training stimulates the adaptation that makes you fitter and faster, less training and more rest is often necessary.
2 Set new goals
Looking forwards and creating fresh, exciting challenges is helpful for finding motivation. They need not be outcome goals – process goals are a practical and useful tool for organising a sustainable training routine.
3 Leave your young self behind
Comparing your times and achievements to your younger self risks leaving you feeling disappointed. I spent several years unable to accept the inevitable passage of time – and none of that was helpful!
4 Seek out variety and enjoyment
Making running something you look forward to, a sociable activity with your friends, and overall a positive experience will certainly help with motivation. Trying races you’ve never run before, running on a different surface, or in a new place, are all ways to refresh your routine and keep it interesting.
5 Just keep moving
During difficult times when you can’t or don’t want to run, simply doing some physical activity is key. Once you become inactive, it’s much more difficult to restart. Walking, or a mixture of running and walking, cycling, hiking, swimming… any activity will keep your fitness going.
One of the winners from the Age Group World Championships was Yuko Gordon (70). Born in Japan, she represented Hong Kong in the historic 1984 inaugural Olympic women’s marathon in Los Angeles and now lives in the UK. I caught up with her to hear her nuggets of wisdom about running as you age.
A talented youngster at school, Gordon took up running again seriously – almost by accident – at age 28 in 1979 while working for Cathay Pacific as a member of cabin crew. “I was lured into running a company race in exchange for an extra weekend off – something that was a rarity for cabin crew,” she explains.
“I loved running on the beautiful trails in Hong Kong, and I discovered that running was relaxed and enjoyable – quite a contrast from the pressure of my school days. Four summers later I was racing at the LA Olympics.”
Yuko Gordon (© Chloe Emmerson)
She stopped running completely in 1998, becoming immersed in raising her family, and supporting her two children with their sporting activities. In 2012 she returned to running, initially sporadically, but more regularly from 2014 when her beloved dog died.
Gordon – who is a member of the Fairlands Valley Spartans club in Hertfordshire, UK – admits to being very competitive, and when she resumed running at age 61, she says she still had the same mind and mental strength, but an older body. In other words, her drive and enthusiasm to run fast was not matched by her physical abilities, and this led to injuries. She agrees that less is more, and now always does her speed work on flat surfaces because her cardiovascular capacity can’t match her leg strength if she runs on hills.
Another tip she offers is about being the best you can be, now. “I am always thinking about how to improve myself, and I read many books about running,” Gordon explains.
She also experiments with training, and uses trial and error to discover what works for her. For London, she decided to run about 40 miles per week. “I had tried running 70, because I’d heard that was what one of my rivals did, but I couldn’t do it,” she explains. “It was dangerous for me.” She has also ruled out running twice a day, because it takes up too much family time.
Gordon has clearly mastered what all runners need to do: looking around at what others are doing and then adapting that to suit your own abilities.
What about pressure of competition? “Pressure is all up to you,” she says philosophically. “I wanted to break records when I turned 70, but if I couldn’t do it, that’s it. Records come when you’re not really trying to break them.”
She says that running now is a bonus, because when she stopped running, she thought she would never run again. She doesn’t think about what she’ll do when she’s 75 or 80; she just focuses on the here and now. She loves the club system in the UK and the age group categories which give her something to chase and aim for.
Yuko Gordon (© Chloe Emmerson)
Much like her training, Gordon’s approach to her diet and nutrition is varied and diverse. “I cannot live without Japanese food, but our family diet nowadays is a wide mixture of cuisines, including western and oriental dishes,” says Gordon, who left Japan at the age of 23. “I love Indian curry, Mexican and Thai food.” She prefers savoury foods to sweet, but doesn’t have any special rules on diet, apart from no drinking alcohol in the week before a race. She notices that eating too many dairy products and drinking alcohol makes her put on weight, so she keeps on eye on that.
Gordon is from the generation of iconic female marathon pioneers who were racing during the late 1970s and early 1980s, including Joan Benoit Samuelson and Joyce Smith. But despite her 2:38:32 PB and having competed at the Olympics, World Championships and Commonwealth Games, Gordon has never viewed herself as an elite competitor – which, fortuitously, has likely helped in her transition to becoming a club runner.
“I became an Olympian by accident; I have never been elite,” she says.
In the near future, Gordon aims to take up trail walking with her friends, something that will undoubtedly complement her running, keep her active, and bring new challenges. And if Gordon has one piece of advice for older runners, it’s to be led by what brings you joy.
“If you like running, just go for it. You like it, so do it,” she says. “None of us knows how long we will have good health for, and that is a lot to do with luck.”
Mara Yamauchi for World Athletics Be Active