Crisp air, clear skies—no wonder autumn is marathon season. But if you consider competing in such a race off the table because you’ve never run before, reconsider! Surprising new research shows you can start at 50+ and soon be as fast and fit as folks who’ve been training since their teens.
A study conducted at Manchester Metropolitan University in England compared longtime competitive runners with those who started at midlife and found both groups had about 17 percent less body fat and 12 percent greater muscle mass in their legs than the control group of inactive adults. And when it came to races, members of both groups had similar finishing times.
The Right Way to Run
Interestingly, a large majority of the relatively new runners in the study were women. “I encourage women to start at any age, even if they’ve never run before,” says certified running coach Gordon Bakoulis, who finished among the top 10 women in the New York City Marathon—twice! “It’s fun, accessible, and requires little equipment beyond proper running shoes.”
It’s also excellent exercise, whether you aim to compete or not. A 160-pound woman can burn 564 calories an hour jogging at five mph, compared to 511 calories for an hour of high-impact aerobics. “As well as being great for weight loss and cardiovascular fitness, running adds impact, which helps bone density,” points out Linda Melone, CSCS, founder of AgelessAfter50.com.
As with any new physical activity, get clearance from your doctor “to rule out any cardiovascular issues and potential joint or foot problems that could compromise you,” reminds Melone. Then:
- Get properly fitted for real running shoes. Any old sneakers will not do. “The right running shoes for you may be as much as full size larger than your everyday shoes to ensure toes aren’t compressed,” says Bakoulis, adding, “Support and cushioning are also important, but heavier shoes and thicker/wider soles aren’t always better—it all depends on your foot type.”
- Walk before you run. In addition to a walking warmup, it’s wise to intersperse periods of walking with your run. “It’s common among older runners to do too much, too soon—especially if they were athletic in their younger days—only to get discouraged, exhausted, injured, or all the above,” says Bakoulis. “A run/walk plan, where you alternate running and walking in a pattern that feels manageable for a total of 15 to 30 minutes, is healthier than trying to hold a steady run pace.”
- Maintain good form. Hit the ground with your foot directly under your body. Keep your upper body erect yet relaxed, arms swinging from the shoulder, and eyes on the ground 10 to 20 feet ahead. To keep a healthy pace, take the talk test. “You should always be able to have a conversation, even on hills,” says Bakoulis.
- Expect soreness, avoid injuries. Yup, you’re bound to “feel it” the day after a run at first. To lessen soreness and mild inflammation, run on soft surfaces, and take it easy in terms of mileage, pace, and frequency (three days a week to start). And Melone reminds: “Don’t neglect your strength training and balance exercises, which go a long way to reduce running injuries.”
- Get a group. For motivation, camaraderie, and the benefit of others’ experiences, nothing beats a running group. “There are running clubs all over the country for people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities,” says Bakoulis. “Many will be newbies like you who are eager to connect.”