30 Year’s Hard Training – Running As You Get Older – Steve Birkinshaw

Next year I am going to turn 50. I have been orienteering since I was seven and training hard for orienteering and fell running since I have been 18. So that is now over 30 years of training hard.

Until I was in my late 30’s and early 40’s I was improving, since then there has been a gradually decline. The decline has been made worse by wrecking my body from running around the Wainwright fells in a record time.

Here is a list of bad and then good changes I have noticed as I have got older; most of them are part of the natural aging process. And the rest are probably just the result of wear and tear from 30 years of hard training!

What’s got tougher…

1. On a lot of runs something hurts. The big toe on my left foot, which I broke many years ago, quite often aches. My muscles often ache, especially until I have warmed up (see 2). I also get nervy pain in my legs, these normally start after an hour or so running. Pain free runs or partially pain free runs make me really happy. However, even if something aches/hurts I still enjoy my run and I always come back feeling great.

2. Warming up takes ages. It takes me about 20 minutes running to warm-up. Up to this point all my muscles are stiff and sore but after 20 minutes everything finally relaxes.

3. Racing takes ages to recover from. In my 20’s I could do long fell races 2 or 3 times a week without any problem. Now I struggle to do one fell race a week. However, I can still do almost the same quantity of training as long as it is steady.

4. Stretching is really important. In my 20’s I was really bad and never did any stretching – I could get away without doing any. Nowadays I feel so much better if I can do 20 minutes good stretching every day. Core strength also seems more important as I have got older and the more of these exercises I fit in the better I feel.

5. Keeping my racing weight is hard. I feel my racing weight is 11st 7lbs (73 kg). It is five years since I have been down at that weight and since then I have struggled to get below 12st (76kg). If I am not really careful with what I eat I can put on a couple of lbs in a week or two and these days it is really hard to shift that excess weight. The key for me is to avoid snacking but I find it hard to resist chocolate.

6. It is really hard to get back to running after a break. I know that if I have a couple of weeks off running everything is really painful when I start. So I try to get out nearly every day- even if it is just for a 20 minute jog.

What has got better…

1. The important thing is just being out running – this is what makes me really happy. Although I am still competitive I am a lot more relaxed if I have a bad run. If this happens now I am still happy that I have been out, in the past I would have been in a bad temper for a while.

2. When something hurts I know whether it is important and it needs a rest or I can carry on running through it.

3. I am much better at pacing in races and I am more consistent. I have always tended to start too fast in fell races. Now I usually start steadily and work my way through the field. In the past if I wanted to pace a run better I would set off following an older experienced runner, that older runner is now me.

4. I know all the good local people that will be keep me running. This includes physios, sport masseurs and acupuncturists.

5. I am better a coping and adapting in a race if something goes wrong. I know what foods and drink I can cope with in a race. However, things still occasionally go wrong and I now have the experience to know what is causing the problem and how to cope. Mentally I am also tougher than when I was younger. I have strategies to cope with the pain of running and racing.

6. I am better at coping in the heat. In my 20’s I could not cope with any sort of heat and used to dread hot summer races. Now I am not the best in hot weather but I am much better than I was. Partly I have strategies for drinking enough and keeping cool but I also think my whole metabolism has slowed so I produce less heat whilst running.

7. Finally, I can reminisce about times I used to do. If a young person just beats me in a fell race I can always be really annoying and remind them about some of my historic times such as how I was a couple of minutes faster back in 1990.

As I approach 50 I am enjoying my running more than ever.

Unless I do something extreme like the Wainwrights it is great for keeping me fit and healthy.

The key thing is staying injury free, which takes some effort (and also a bit of luck). When I am injury free and train hard my times in races are only a bit slower than my peak.

The best thing is that for those that only start running when they are older is they will not see this dip in performance but an improvement as they start to train and run more.