Starting to run after 40: advantages and disadvantages

I became a serious runner at age 45. I'd always wanted to race, but after going through a divorce, I finally had both the time and the motivation. It was a turning point in my life at which I began running toward something positive – toward my true self and an activity that brought me pleasure and serenity – instead of running away from things. The only thing I run from these days is limitations.  

I've been running competitively for almost 6 years now as a masters runner. It's been quite a journey. I started out cautiously running an embarrassing 9:53 per mile pace in my first-ever race - the Broad Street Run 10-Miler in 2010 (ugh!), scared to death that I would not be able to finish if I ran any faster. Last week, I cranked out a 6:48 mile on the track as just part of an intense speed workout, and I did not even go all out. (And for the record, I ran 7:18 pace at Broad Street last year – good enough to earn me a 5th place age group award in a highly competitive field.)

Wearing my favorite shirt during the freezing-cold Hot Chocolate 15K in 2015. #1 age 50-54 group finish. (Shirt says, "I know I run like a girl. Try to keep up.")

Wearing my favorite shirt during the freezing-cold Hot Chocolate 15K in 2015. #1 age 50-54 group finish. (Shirt says, "I know I run like a girl. Try to keep up.")

You are never too old to learn. You are never too old to improve. But there are definitely plusses and minuses to being a newbie runner later in life.

It’s never too late to turn running into your fountain of youth. An inactive 60-year-old who begins a running program can attain the same aerobic fitness he or she had two decades earlier – as an inactive 40-year-old. Who wouldn’t be interested in a 20-year renovation?
— Bob Glover, The Competitive Runner's Handbook

Advantages of starting to run after age 40

1. You will PR at many races. True, most of those PRs may be at your "firsts," eg, your first 5K, 10K, half marathon, etc. But instead of comparing the times to the glory days of your younger self (which must be a humbling experience for life-long competitive runners), you will feel a flurry of excitement and beam with with pride each time you see your times improve.

2. Age-grading levels the playing field. Or running track, as it were. Age-grading is a formula that takes your actual time for a race and "grades" it to the approximate time run by someone of your gender in their prime. It puts race times in a more apples-to-apples context.  For example, the 1:13:05 I ran in the Broad Street Run 10-Miler at age 50, adjusted for age, means my time would be 1:04:16 had I run it, say, when I was 35. Math is not my forte, but the formula is the approximate world record time for your age and gender, divided by your actual time. So view your age-graded equivalent time and instantly feel more study about your performance. 

A highlight of my running life: getting this trophy in the USA's largest 10-miler amid a competitive field

A highlight of my running life: getting this trophy in the USA's largest 10-miler amid a competitive field

3. Your non-running friends will think you are bad ass, regardless of your times. And guess what? You ARE badass. Whether you are trying to run your first mile without stopping, training for your first 5K or marathon, or looking to get faster and stronger, you are lapping all of your peers who are sitting on the couch, watching Game of Thrones "marathons." People tend to get sedentary as they age. But you, my friend, are running. Bodies in motion tend to stay in motion.

4. Masters runners can reduce age-related aerobic fitness decline by up to 50%. Even though aerobic capacity typically declines by 10% each decade that we age, research performed at the Washington University School of Medicine demonstrated that vigorous endurance training can curb this loss by 5% in master's runners. Younger runners do not enjoy the same benefit. (Please be realistic about what you consider "vigorous.")

Disadvantages of starting to run after age 40

1. You may be running against athletes who have much more experience.  Here's where I struggle. Most of the age-groupers I race against were star college athletes, who also ran high school and/or university track or cross country. They have the muscle memory that only comes with decades of running. They also have the tactical experience that only years of racing can hone. They instinctively know when to surge and when to tuck in. Me, I'm still trying to figure it all out. After almost 6 years of running and racing, I'm learning a few tricks and that muscle memory is finally kicking in. But you still have to pay your dues in time and experience, as is the case with most new skills in life.

2. Running can be intimidating on so many levels. There's a definite youth culture associated with running. There's a lot to learn in terms of form, terminology, etc. If you've never run before, it can be hard to get to the point where you even feel enough confidence to call yourself a runner. It's important to acknowledge this intimidation and to run in spite of it. There can be no courage without the element of fear. 

I'd like to share a case in point from my own life: I joined the Philadelphia Runner Track Club (PRTC) earlier this year. They were looking to include some masters runners on their roster. I wanted to get faster and experience some Philly-running camaraderie. Sponsored by Puma and Philadelphia Runner, PRTC bills themselves as "Philadelphia's fastest track club." This is not hyperbole by any means; PRTC has sent 5 of its members to the US Olympic Trials Marathon. 

Intimidating? You bet. It still is. Most of my teammates are in their 20s and 30s and are all super-talented university running and track stars. I did a particularly grueling (for me) speed work session with the sweet, speedy girls and I was proud that I could keep up for over a mile (I am, incidentally, able to keep up with their easier runs, and they are super warm and welcoming).

The point is that I tried.  Yes, whatever your level, running past 40 can be intimidating. Face it. Feel it.

Then get over it.

Just run. Run with people who are faster than you, and slower. Run with people who are younger than you, and older. Chances are, you will learn something from each and every one of them.

3. Medical pessimism and negativity about aging abounds. The media buzzes with negative stories about age-related strength decline, bone loss and decreased flexibility. Yadda yadda yadda. 

I function best by focusing on the positive, living by my own rules, and looking to my own role models. As Deena Kastor, Olympic medalist, American record holder and one of the greatest masters runners of all time said, “As an athlete I’ve found aside from hard work, the greatest tools for success are optimism and gratitude." Amen, Deena. My Aunt Regina is 94, and she still cleans her own house. (I don't think she got the memo about strength decline.) 

Let me be clear: I'm not viewing aging with a Pollyanna-like naivety. It's important to understand the limitations of your body as you age. But it's more important to understand the possibilities of your body as you age – a scenario that we don't hear enough about or test ourselves. That's what I choose to focus on here. 

I know my limitations. But I also try to push them, tempered with common sense and scientifically proven running advice. I'm here to send you a different message than the one you've been spoon-fed. 

What are some of the plusses and minuses you experienced when starting to run later in life?