This post is written by Jennifer Heidmann

This is not an existential how-to-guide for living life fully through running. Nor is it a treatise claiming running as the next fountain of youth or as an uplifting cure for all that ails us in modern society. Granted, it could be about any of those things, but it is not.

It’s about how running can be something done for much, maybe even all, of our lives.

This is on my mind after spending time recently with some old high school cross country team mates, at what we called “running camp”. 26 years after high school’s glory days, we met and spent 5 days running together. We also ate delicious food and talked and sat in the hot tub.

But after all these years, we are still running.

It’s also on my mind after watching grey haired, lanky and frankly elderly people running 100 miles while I did the mere 26 mile version of the same trail race.

Let me repeat that: Elderly ultra runners. And that 80+ year old Japanese woman at my last road marathon, flanked on both sides by people making sure she didn’t lose her way, given she was blind. And that local elderly runner, obviously post-stroke with one side of the body much weaker, running a regular route around the grass at the local track. There, at the track, like clockwork, like it is just another necessary part of his daily routine.

And that is just the elderly.

How about those of us solidly in middle age? Or those in their 30’s starting to pack on a few pounds and in the thick of demanding careers or child-raising? Heck, even those in their late 20’s may find themselves hopelessly out of shape and wondering why certain parts of the body ache in new ways.

How can someone stay motivated? How can one start over or even run for the first time at an older age? How can someone who may have put all of their eggs in the elite running basket as a kid find joy in running slower at an older age?

Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of 80 and gradually approach 18. – Mark Twain

How to Run Like an 18-Year-Old Without Reversing Your Age

1. Eat well. Vegetables, fruit, yogurt, some small amount of meat or adequate protein-heavy grains/beans/rice if a vegetarian. Eat breakfast. Avoid too much alcohol. Get in a routine. The most annoying thing about aging is the need for routine. Eating well may be the most important and effective way to stave off the middle aged middle, the roll of “where the heck did that come from?” around the waist that will certainly add time and effort to one’s long runs.

All that said, when you are over 85, eat and drink whatever the hell you want.

2. Run often. Now one might think this is counter-intuitive (see below re “rest”). But when you are a teenager, and maybe up to age 25 or so, you can run whenever, wherever, however, and probably come out feeling just dandy.

After a certain age, unless you run consistently, you risk doom in the guise of injury, which will inevitably lead to pity-eating and even worse, pool running. If you pity eat, then pool run, you have to face the shame of trying to stuff your middle aged middle into your swim suit next to all the serious lap swimmers who will not be putting on the goofy floaty you will be using to run in place in the deep end of the pool.

Run pretty much every day, even if only a little, and you will avoid the pool run, widening middle, floaty-wearing shame fest.

3. Rest. After my marathons, I have to rest. Not necessarily total abstinence from running (“just say no” works about as well for dedicated runners as it does for hormonal teenagers and heroin addicts), but just easy days or maybe some cross training. I also have to listen to my body regarding what day might not be the best for a killer workout. Not every ache and pain indicates something serious, but fatigue should be respected.

4. Aches and pains are part of normal aging. I treat sick people (as a doctor) but believe that there are a lot of normal parts of being human that have been over-medicalized.

We are truly amazing machines, but we will inevitably have issues with our bodies, and not all of them need major surgery, medications or a stat MRI. Being an aging athlete requires being in tune with how your body/machine ticks.

  • Do you feel better running in the morning or do morning runs make you feel like you’ve been run over by a Mack truck?
  • Do you like running in cushy, supportive running shoes or more minimalist shoes?
  • Do you get massages? Because if you are over 30, you should. Really.

The key to aging is knowing when that ache or pain is more than just a hard, cold reality of older cells. Things should not hurt to the point of making you change your gait when you run (or walk). Sometimes our bodies need serious time off (see above re pool running).

5. Check out the age-adjusted ratings. You can now look at race results with a rating based on your age. I scored 100% on my last trail marathon and I thought to myself, well it has been a really long time since I scored 100% on anything. I think I just bragged a little there.

6. Brag. Or not. I notice that age makes me care less about achievement. Please just ignore the obnoxious reference above to my 100% score.

Seriously though, it feels good to be at a high school reunion and be fit with those guys who wouldn’t even consider you as a prom date now overweight, out of shape and asking you for advice on healthy living.

7. Clothes. You no longer have to conform to the latest style craze, because your self esteem is built upon your strength, wisdom and life experience.

Nevertheless, I do think what you wear is more important with older age than it was in those days when you could skinny dip in a cold lake at midnight and live to tell about it. Some favorites:

Age requires warmth. Age requires good socks. Get new shoes every 300 miles or so. Dress well, and create your own style. Side note: it appears that leg warmers are back

8. Read. A few of my favorites include:

Many of these books do focus on youthful champions. And there is a place for that. How exciting to watch the Ryan Halls and the Shalane Flanagans of the world run impossibly fast! But is there life after running as an elite? I think there should be. My hero is Joan Benoit Samuelson. In her 50’s, she continues to run, to race and to inspire.

9. It is Never Too Late.

“But I am too old.”


George Sheehan started in his 40’s. And there are many who started later than that. 50, 60, 70. Running is a simple sport, and one humans were meant to do. Side Note: Plus, have you seen Meb’s abs?? In the latest Runner’s World he is shirtless in an ad, and even my teenaged daughter remarked “wow, not bad, for an old guy.”

How to start? Visit your doctor and say, “Hey doc, I am going to start running. Can you check me out to make sure my ticker is OK?”

Then, go to your local running store and get some shoes. Eat breakfast. Wear comfy socks. Stay warm. Choose a route with solid footing. Run some, walk some. Slowly increase your distance. Sign up for a race. Brag to your friends. Or not. Find a masseuse, use your hot tub. Learn about your body. And definitely bring up your running habit at your next high school reunion.

In heaven there’s no running, dear
That’s why we do it here!
When we are all gone from here,
All of our friends will be running, and talking about how we used to kick their ass.

Jennifer Heidmann has been running for 30 years, racing every distance from the 400m to the marathon. Her next adventure will be tackling her first 50 mile ultramarathon. She is also a physician, a pianist and a mother of 3 teenagers. Check out her personal running blog, Redwoods and Running, for more great tips and stories.

Photo Credit

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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