Recovery After 40
“Age is a relentless competitor.” – Bill Bowerman
by Rich Stiller
A few years ago I received an email invite to attend a reunion of many of the top San Francisco area runners of the 1970’s and 80’s. Unfortunately I was out of town for the event but close to 100 runners showed up at a local park for a barbecue and some serious reminiscing.
After I got back to the Bay Area I exchanged emails with Jack, who had hosted the event. He said that most of the former racers were no longer running at all. Many hadn’t run in years. “If we had put on a 5k race, you might have won,” he said. Although in my early sixties, I could still run in the 20 minute range for 5k.
Over the years many of them had simply broken down. Knees, Achilles, calf, back injuries, you name it. Most had run relatively high mileage in their twenties and thirties. Heck, I considered myself a real wuss because I rarely trained over 70 miles per week.
Few runners surrender their fast times willingly and veteran runners who train and compete for the pure joy of it do not go gently into the night of nonrunning retirement. But why could I still compete while others hung up their spikes? Simple: I adjusted to the accumulated wear and tear while many of them didn’t.
In my mid-forties, after 18 years of solid training and racing, I began to crater. I was still running close to 50-60 miles per week and rarely missed a day of training. At 39 I could still run 33 minutes for 10k. At age 45 I couldn’t break 40. No gradual slope. Just a sharp drop off a cliff. For the first time in my running career, I was forced to look at real recovery.
In my twenties and thirties a recovery run was usually 6-8 miles at a seven minute pace. If I was really beat up two weeks of easy running usually put me right. But I never had to miss a day of running. I just ran slower.
In my early forties, a recovery run became what one writer called a “4-6 mile calorie burner.” The pace of these runs was little more than a slog. Hey, at least I was still training seven days a week.
In my mid-forties recovery became something else. With legs that often felt like sacks of cement, I knew that if I wanted to keep running and competing I would need to change up the training.
In 1990, I read an article by Olympian Jeff Galloway who was the same age as me. In the article he talked about going through the same dead legged syndrome I was experiencing. He shifted to running every other day. What this meant for me was cutting back to around 35 miles a week. It was against everything that running had been for me over the last 15 years.
After a few months of mulling this around, I gave it a try. It was the first time I began running a “virtual” training week. I could still run seven training days including tempo, speed and a long run but it took me 14 days to get those seven days in. Did it work? Within six months I was running in the 35 minute range for 10k. As far as I was concerned it worked just fine.
I didn’t talk to other runners about it very often. If I had trouble thinking about the concept, it was a foreign language to my peers.
Here’s what I realized: there are two types of older runners. First, the older legged veterans who have run for years and have accumulated vast amounts of mileage on their legs. Second, the younger legged older runners. These runners either started later in life or took a long period of time off from running–often fifteen or twenty years.
The older legged runners have used up their thirty year, one hundred thousand mile warranties. They may still be able to run if they adjusted for age and wear and tear, but their fast times are behind them. The muscles and tendons in their legs no longer have the resiliency. Many don’t adjust and are taken out by injury or just the plain old plods. Plods is a pace in which the delta between running and walking has come dangerously close to one another.
The younger legged older runner shows up on the scene minus the mileage and wear and tear. If they’re willing to train, they can run fast times relative to their age. Runners who could never have beaten the Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter’s of the world, run right by them these days.
What I have found is that after 46 years of running and well over one hundred thousand miles, a day off from running is not really a day off. My legs and body read that off day just the same as it once read that easy 6-8 mile run at a 7 minute pace. I can lay in bed all day sipping lattes and my legs have run 6-8 miles. So if I go out and run at all, I am simply adding mileage to the 6-8 that’s already there.
If I run an easy 4 miles on that off day, it’s like I ran 10-12 miles and anyone knows that 10-12 miles is not a real recovery day especially as a veteran runner with a penchant for beat up legs.
Now in my sixties my virtual week has lengthened again. Like it or not (and I don’t like it at all), my virtual week is about 18 days now. So if I play it safe, I can do a tempo run, speed workout, and a long run in that cycle. I can also do 4 other easier runs. It just takes me 18 days to accomplish this feat. The other days are totally off. Well, not really. My body “thinks” it has run another 11 days and 66-88 miles.
It’s difficult when you’re young and strong and able to run every day to imagine a time where your body sort of betrays you. In my thirties I knew I would start slowing down in the next few decades. What I didn’t understand was that I no longer would be able to sustain every day running.
In the end I accepted the need for an “adjustment” and bought myself not only another five years of good age group racing but also (to date) another 23 years of running. These days I am as slow as mud but at least I can still run. I rarely ever do the same thing week to week. My long runs are every second or even third weekend. Tempo runs every other week. Fast reps are done on weeks when I am not doing tempo. I run by time and no longer by miles. I no longer even think in terms of mileage. I think in terms of workouts.
Last year I ran into one of those top 100 guys; he even placed 2nd at Boston one year. Like all runners we talked about our training. He had continued to train 6-7 days a week into his 50’s. I was running 3-4 days a week. I explained my rationale but he was having none of it. “I couldn’t do that,” he said. “Never.” Here we were years later catching up. He told me that he rarely if ever ran anymore. His knee had blown out on him.
Real recovery is a selfish act that often requires the older runner to say “no.” You must tell yourself “no” I’m not going on that easy run. You must tell your friends “no” because that very run will inhibit your recovery. In short, “no” becomes a critical tool in the art of recovery.
Rich Stiller has been running and racing since 1968. This article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of Level Renner. Get your free subscription today (box in upper right portion of screen).