Masters Running: A Guide to Running and Staying Fit after 40

Masters Running: A Guide to Running and Staying Fit after 40

by Hal Higdon


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594860218
Publisher: Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale
Publication date: 04/02/2005
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.07(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

HAL HIGDON is the author of Run Fast, Marathon, and Fitness After Forty. In one of his wins, he set a world record that a quarter of a century later remains the American masters record. He lives in Long Beach, Indiana.

Read an Excerpt



It Is Easy to Improve as a Runner. All You Need to Do Is Start

At the end of my junior year at Carleton College, I traveled to California to compete in the NCAA Track and Field Championships. My focus until that time had been more on getting decent enough grades to graduate and squiring good-looking females to Saturday-night dances rather than in achieving success as an athlete. Thus, it was no surprise that I ran poorly, finishing a nonscoring ninth in the 3000-meter steeplechase. I actually finished last the next day in the 5000 meters. One week later at the National AAU Championships I predictably did no better, placing 15th in a 10,000-meter race that also served as the Olympic trials race for that distance.

Despite such poor performances, I persisted as a runner after graduation in an era when few others did. Why? Because I loved running. I loved to feel the wind in my hair. I loved not only the competitive aspects of the sport, but also the opportunity to socialize with fellow competitors and the solitude running provided: the so-called loneliness of the long-distance runner that those of us who run know is more positive than negative.

And as I continued, I improved. I trained harder, but more important, I trained smarter! Thus, at a period of life when my performances should have begun to deteriorate because of aging, I got better. My confidence in my ability to compete also improved. In my 41st year, I traveled to Europe for a series of masters track meets, "masters" being a separate competitive category for older runners. During a period of 4 days, I ran 3000-meter steeplechase and 5000-meter races at the Crystal Palace Sports Centre in London, England, and a 10,000-meter race in the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki, Finland. I came away with a pair of firsts and one fourth, but more intriguing were my fast times. One was a world masters record; the other two were American masters records. Had I run those same times 2 decades earlier, I would have won one race and placed third in two others at the same NCAA Championships where I had failed so badly as a college junior.

As the years passed, I achieved much more success as a masters runner than I had in high school or college or as an aspiring Olympian. After turning 40, I won four gold medals and five silver and bronze medals at the World Masters Championships. In one of my wins, I set a world M45 record that a quarter-century later remains the American masters record. I also ran more than 100 marathons, the 100th coming at the 100th Boston Marathon in 1996. On my 70th birthday, I set my goal as running seven marathons in 7 months and raising $700,000 for seven separate charities. I not only finished all seven marathons, but more than matched my charity goal.

Thus, if you ask me if you can succeed as a masters runner, I am going to respond with a rousing Yes!


You define your own level of success. It's not necessary to win races and break records to succeed as a masters runner. I've done both, but I take greater pride in the fact that at what to some might be considered an advanced age, I enjoy life. I look good. I feel good. If I no longer run every day, it's because I'm engaged in some other activity, whether swimming or cycling or lifting weights or attending a performance of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. You can't attend concerts or enjoy other activities unless you're alive--and running keeps me alive. I live to run; I run to live.

Sometimes the bonuses come away from the track. While writing this book, I attended my college's fiftieth reunion. The first evening on campus my wife, Rose, and I attended a reception for the hundred or so of my classmates in attendance and our spouses. One of the women in the class approached to say hello. Her name was Jean. She had been one of the most beautiful women on campus during our 4 years on the Carleton campus in Northfield, Minnesota. And although few sports were offered for women back in that Dark Ages for female athletics, Jean had been an all-state high- school basketball player in Iowa, where girls played that game. Jean and I had dated once or twice, but the competition was pretty tough for this campus queen's attention.

Jean smiled and said to me: "You're better-looking now than you were 50 years ago, Hal." Both our spouses were standing nearby, so I accepted her statement as it was intended: a compliment to my physical fitness. And while I forgot to ask Jean if she was still playing basketball or exercising in some other way, I confess she looked pretty good, too.

Significant scientific research suggests that if we exercise regularly and follow other good health practices, we'll live longer. Epidemiologist Ralph S. Paffenbarger Jr., M.D., of the Stanford University School of Medicine, proved through his study of Harvard University alumni that those who exercised even a minimal amount (gardening, for example) lived more than 2 years longer than those who did not. That was early epidemiological research. With access to more and better data, Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D., founder of the Cooper Institute, the research arm of his medical clinic and fitness center in Dallas, Texas, now suggests that a prudent lifestyle focused on physical fitness might extend life 6 to 9 years! Whether or not we live longer, common sense suggests we can live better by becoming runners. By "better," I mean not having to spend your final years in a nursing home, a burden to your children. A comedian once joked that all runners achieve by their frantic exercising is to ensure that they will die in good health. Okay, I'll buy that.

You can't attend concerts or enjoy other activities unless you're alive-- and running can keep you alive.

Good health advantages notwithstanding, I know many of you reading these words would like to nibble a few minutes off your 5-K and 10-K times, or maybe even qualify for the Boston Marathon. I'm here to tell you how to do so.

Theoretically, improving performance should prove impossible once you near or pass the age of 40. Although people peak in terms of performance at different points of their life, research with runners suggests that most individuals approach their physical peak in their early twenties and remain near that "best" into their late thirties. After that comes a decline.

According to those who monitor performance, we all should run our fastest 5- K and 10-K times at about age 25. That's when I set personal records for those distances on the track. Ten years later at age 34, I was on the same performance plateau when I ran my fastest marathon time. But 10 years after that, at age 44, I still hadn't lost much. I was that age in Toronto when I won my first World Masters Championships in the 3000-meter steeplechase, my time less than 5 seconds slower than my all-time best from 2 decades before.

I also know masters competitors who achieved peak performances in their forties, fifties, sixties, and even seventies. Norm Green, Paul Heitzman, and Warren Utes come to mind. Of course, they started their running careers later in life, so were able to defeat the decline simply by increasing their training. Warren Utes claims never to have run a step in his life, except to catch the commuter train, until he turned 58. Ten years later, he was still improving while setting age-group records and winning world titles.

THE 30/30 PLAN

If you are a beginner who never ran a step in your life, you probably need to start gently. And even if you were a track or cross-country runner in school, but haven't run a step in 20 years, you also need to act like a beginner. In fact, you may be more at risk than the newest newbie, because you remember how you used to train and may push too hard too soon.

Here's a simple 30/30 plan to get you going, featuring 30 minutes of exercise for the first 30 days. I'm borrowing it from my own Beginning Runner's Guide, a booklet I designed for new runners.

1. Walk out the door and go 15 minutes in one direction, turn around, and return 15 minutes to where you started: 30 minutes total.

2. For the first 10 minutes of your workout, it is obligatory that you walk: No running!

3. For the last 5 minutes of your workout, it is obligatory that you walk: Again, no running!

4. During the middle 15 minutes of the workout, you are free to jog or run-- as long as you do so easily and do not push yourself.

5. Here's how to run during those middle 15 minutes: Jog for 30 seconds, walk until you are recovered, jog 30 seconds again. Jog, walk. Jog, walk. Jog, walk.

6. Once comfortable jogging and walking, adopt a 30/30 pattern: jogging 30 seconds, walking 30 seconds, etc.

Follow this 30/30 pattern for 30 days. If you train continuously (every day), you can complete this stage in a month. If you train only every other day, it will take you 2 months. Do what your body tells you. Everyone is different in their ability to adapt to exercise. When you're beginning, it is better to do too little than too much.

In fact, let me offer you an example: Tina Wirth of Jacksonville, Florida, weighed 265 £ds at age 31, when she decided to become a runner. After a period of walking, Tina discovered my 30/30 plan online. Given her weight, it was too tough. Fifteen seconds was all she could run at first. But Tina persevered. Eleven months later and 110 £ds lighter, Tina finished in front of me in the Gate River Run (15-K) in Jacksonville. If Tina can do it, so can you.

If you continue my 30/30 routine for 30 days, you will finish the month able to cover between 1 and 2 miles walking and jogging. That's the first stage in becoming a masters runner.

That raises an important point: When you're at a zero level of fitness, improvement comes easily. I also must confess that the main reason I was able to maintain peak performance over so many years was that I was a much, much smarter runner at age 44 and beyond than I was at age 25. One of the goals of this book is to motivate you to achieve and maintain a higher level of physical fitness and do so in an intelligent way. Whether or not your goal is age-group victories and records, I can teach you how to run faster and live better, too.

When you're at a zero level of fitness, improvement comes easily.


That there exist age-group divisions is one reason why masters runners are able to define their varying levels of success. Every 5 years--as we move from one age group to the next--we are able to change our goals and remotivate ourselves for success. Masters competition began in the 1960s when David H. R. Pain, a San Diego attorney, started a track meet for competitors over the age of 40. Pain offered separate races in 10-year age divisions, allowing athletes the opportunity to compete against their age peers. Ten-year divisions were used to divide competitors at the first World Masters Championships in Toronto, Canada, in 1975, but by the second Worlds in Gothenburg, Sweden, 2 years later, masters competition had been subdivided into 5-year groups, as it remains today.

Road running as a participation sport began to emerge at the same time. The late 1970s featured the start of the first running boom, reportedly inspired by Frank Shorter's victory in the 1972 Olympic marathon. Frank certainly deserves credit, but a lot of people contributed to the boom, including Arthur Lydiard, Bill Bowerman, Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D., George Sheehan, M.D., James F. Fixx, and, yes, David Pain. More and more individuals, mostly males, who had never participated on their high school track or cross-country teams, began to enter 10-K races and even marathons. Part of the growing appeal of road races to people newly fit was the fact that they could earn a trophy or other award for winning or placing high in their age group, even though they did not win the race overall or even come close.

Success had been redefined for masters runners. As we aged, we could continue to remotivate ourselves every fifth year as we advanced into a new age group where we didn't need to be quite as fast as we had in our youth. Everybody else our age was slowing at approximately the same rate, so we remained equals on the starting line, if not the finish line. Canadian Earl W. Fee suggests in his book How to Be a Champion from 9 to 90 that the secret of success in masters competition is to age more slowly than the other competitors in your age division. Earl had run fast middle-distance times in college, but like many others, he quit competing after graduation to focus on his career. Thirty-three years passed, and he started running again just before turning 55. Within a year after starting back, he set his first world record. Dozens of other world records and titles from the 300 hurdles to the mile followed during the next 2 decades.

Motivation waxes and wanes for many of us. For most of my fifties, I continued to run, but a lot fewer miles than the decade before, while I played around with cross-country skiing and competing in triathlons. Before turning 60, my goals shifted back to my prime sport. I picked up the pace of my training so I could contest for a medal in the steeplechase at the World Masters Championships in Turku, Finland. I was nowhere near as fast as I had been a decade earlier, but I was fast enough to win another gold medal in my new age group.

Jack Foster of New Zealand ran 2:11:19 for the marathon at age 41, winning a silver medal in the Commonwealth Games competing against younger athletes. Foster slowed within the next few decades to a more mortal pace, but nevertheless commented, "I feel like I'm running just as fast as ever-- as long as I don't look at my watch."


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