How to start running when you're over 40

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"I wish I could be a runner, but..."

I've heard this lament professed by countless friends and acquaintances. Somehow, running retains an aura of mystique to non-runners, and the older you get, the more true it becomes. 

I understand this, to a point. While I've been active since childhood and have at least run a few miles a week for most of my adult life, I remember meeting people who ran marathons when I was in my 30s and thinking:

  1. I could never run a marathon; and
  2. Marathoners were way tougher/faster/stronger than I'd ever be.

Negative thoughts aren't useful

Sometimes, being negative – even when you don't realize you're doing it – can be just as unrealistic as living in a Pollyanna-like state of denial. (Trust me. I've done both.) Sometimes, we simply say or think things inadvertently, out of sheer habit.

Negative thoughts have tremendous power. They have the potential to shape your actions, inactions, and habits. So pay attention to what you say and think.

Looking back, my thoughts about the marathon were not grounded in reality. Saying, for example,that I could never run a marathon certainly kept me from embarking on the grueling training required to run one. It was basically an excuse. And saying that others were better than me revealed more about my own insecurities at that time in my life than it did about my potential as a runner or a person.

As my life unfolded, I ran my first marathon at age 49. In my very first attempt, I qualified for and have run the Boston Marathon and the more difficult-to-qualify-for New York City Marathon. I've run 3 marathons so far and am scheduled to run Boston again this spring. Turns out:

  1. I actually can run a marathon (!); and
  2. I am way tougher/faster/stronger than I thought I was.
I used to think I couldn't run a marathon. But I could.

I used to think I couldn't run a marathon. But I could.

My point is that you can be a runner and you are likely way tougher/faster/stronger than you realize right now. I regularly see runners during my jaunts who are in their 70s and 80s. I spoke to one woman I see almost daily on my running route. She's 75 (and looks like she's in her mid 60s). She says she runs 5-6 miles three times a week – and her whole face lit up when she talked about her exercise routine. 

Want to start running as a master but don't know where to begin? Consider some of these tips.

10 tips to help you start running after age 40

Running my first 8K. Look at that face! (Classic newbie mistake: I was way overdressed.)

Running my first 8K. Look at that face! (Classic newbie mistake: I was way overdressed.)

1. Run. If you want to be a runner, you need to run, right? (After first checking with your doctor, of course,) If you've not been active, run a little at first - say a few hundred yards or for 2 or 3 minutes – then walk briskly for the same time or distance to keep your heart rate up. Repeat until you're pleasantly fatigued. Sweating is a beautiful thing. If you're a lapsed runner and are just getting back into shape, you know what do do. Yep – run. Maybe you will need to slow your pace or work in walking breaks. But run. Just run.

2. Accept that running may feel "weird" at first. Beginners' discomfort applies to all new skills, not only to running. I remember learning to drive – on a stick shift, no less – and thinking I'd never be able to coordinate all those movements at once: navigating the road, pressing down the clutch without stalling the car, changing the gear, steering the wheel, keeping my eye on traffic and pedestrians, etc. But within a few weeks, I was doing all of the above, plus changing the radio station, chatting with passengers, and fluffing my hair in the rear view mirror. It became second nature to me. The same is true of running. If you keep at it long enough, and run through the "weird" phase, pretty soon, the muscle memory will kick in and it will feel natural, whatever your age. I would give it at least 2-3 weeks before you decide whether or not to keep running in your life.

This also applies if you are a lapsed runner. I've had to stop running completely a few times in my life. I remember running an 11-minute mile on my first run back after 2 surgeries, after I had run sub-7:30s in races. I felt totally uncoordinated and frustrated. But I ran through it. And the muscle memory and speed returned. Consistency counts.

3. Think back to what running felt like as a kid. Remember playing tag in the school yard? Or bolting down the block full-speed and laughing, just because you could? I wonder why adults shed this joie de vivre as we age. After you get past the initial awkwardness of a new physical activity, think about the utter sense of joy you feel when moving. It's life-affirming! Observe animals and you will see what I mean. Sometimes my cats just barrel full-speed across the length of my loft. And they seem to have great fun doing it. Watch dogs as they sprint like furry rockets across the park, chasing their pals. You deserve to feel the same awe in motion. It sure beats sitting on the couch.

4. Dress like a runner. Clothes do NOT make the man or woman. I could care less what runners wear. But I do notice, that when people are just getting back into running or they are trying running for the first time, many times, they lack confidence and wear their frumpiest, schlumpiest, baggiest sweatpants and boxy, tent-like T-shirts. Sometimes, you need a little something-something to boost your confidence. You don't have to go all out and spend half your paycheck on fancy workout gear. But at the very least, go to Marshalls or TJMaxx and pick out a basic, affordable running outfit that you feel good in. Not only will it give your self esteem a boost, but it is also likely practical. "Cotton is rotten," is an old running adage. Cotton is not effective at wicking away sweat. If you wear cotton sweats or T-shirts while exercising, you may feel clunky, sweaty and generally uncomfortable. You'll see and feel the difference when you wear actual running clothes. And on this note, please get properly fitted for a good pair of running sneakers. Resist the temptation to run in basketball shoes, cross training shoes, etc. That's a recipe for injury, not running.

5. Keep records from day 1. Document how far you went and how you felt in a notebook, a spreadsheet or on a free app like TrainingPeaks. It will be great to look back in a few weeks to see how far you have come – literally and figuratively. You'll quickly notice that what was difficult at first gets easier with time. Really!

6. Sore muscles = a badge of honor. Fair warning: If you're doing exercise beyond your comfort zone, some soreness is inevitable. Yes, DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) are uncomfortable. But try putting a positive spin on it. Instead of cursing, I try to think,"I'm getting stronger." Reward yourself with a soak in a tub with epsom salts and your favorite essential oil. Foam rolling is also helpful; it's like a mini massage.

7. Don't overdo it. Once you fall in love with running and see how much you can accomplish, you will naturally want to try to run faster or longer. Careful, kids. A little goes a long way, especially after age 40. Don't increase your mileage by more than 10% a week or you could easily become injured. For example, if you ran 10 miles last week, work up to 11 miles next week. Also, if you are a total newbie, to avoid injury, I suggest holding off doing any speed work until you have a decent running base of at least 20 miles a week for at least 3 months. The more you run, the more efficient your form becomes. You also need to work in more rest days when you are starting out. Try running one day and resting the next day – or doing a lower-impact activity, like yoga or spinning.

8. Don't overthink it. Don't worry too much about how you look, how fast you're going, or your form. Hush your inner critic and instead, applaud yourself for getting out there. "Try on" being positive, just like you'd try on a new pair of shoes, and see how it works for you. Give running a little time to "break in."

9. Recruit a friend. Sometimes, it's easier to stick to an activity when you have an exercise buddy. I often run solo because I find it meditative, but when I'm doing long runs, especially when marathon training, it's wonderful to have a friend or two to chat with and share tips and support. Plus, it makes the miles seem shorter.

10. Stretch. We lose flexibility as we age. But the more you use it, the less likely you'll be to lose it and you can actually improve your flexibility if you stretch regularly. So make stretching gently after running a habit. 

Not everyone is meant to be a runner

It's a no-brainer: to stay active, you need to find an activity you actually enjoy doing or you're not going to do it. (If sports that required hand-eye coordination were my only exercise option, I would probably be a couch potato.) Although I am passionate about running and want to share my enthusiasm, I don't think every one has to be a runner. You may prefer zumba, volleyball, powerwalking or just doing machines at the gym.  But if you are one of those people who said "I wish I could be a runner" and truly meant it, then I know you have it in you.