7 Tips for Senior Runners

Written by J. Carl Laney, a retired seminary professor and lifelong runner. His articles published in RaceCenter Northwest include “Running with David” and “When a Runner Can’t Run.” Laney’s greatest claim to fame is being the father of ultra runner David Laney who runs for Nike Trail.

I am a runner—a senior runner. I have been running since I joined the track team at Roosevelt Junior High School—nearly 60 years ago! I never won any races, but I remember very well the good feelings and self-esteem I enjoyed after a hard workout or race. During my four years at South Eugene High School, running was an essential component of my training as a member of the ski team. I continued running recreationally through college and graduate school. When I began my career as a professor at Western Seminary, running was simply the best way for me to get exercise since much of my day was spent sitting at a desk.

My competitive running career didn’t begin until I hit middle age. I had a running platform of about 20 miles a week at that time. While sharing a meal with a friend who had completed several marathons, I was encouraged to think about doing a marathon. I had never even considered the possibility, but I liked the idea of a new challenge. With his coaching and guidance, I was able to complete the Trails End Marathon the year I turned 40. It was a life defining experience! I was now a marathon man!

Since 1988 I have completed a dozen marathons, an equal number of Hood to Coast Relays, many half marathons, 15K runs, and 5-mile races. And, at the age of 70, I’m still a runner. But I am not the same runner I was at 40. I have had to adjust my running routine to accommodate my senior years. Here are a few words of wisdom for older runners who want to keep on running for a lifetime.

1. You are not 40 anymore

It can be a bit disheartening to see your mileage decrease and your times increase. How did I ever run a marathon in 3:30? Was that 32:30 5-miler really me? I frequently have to remind myself that I am not 40 anymore. Runners tend to peak in their 30s or 40s and then start to slow down. But that’s OK. It is just part of the aging process. I still keep track of my times on my running routes and races, but I don’t concern myself if I have a slow day or a slower race. The fact is, I am still running! And that is what really counts for a senior runner.

2. Watch your step

We don’t pick our feet up as well as we did in our 40s. It is easy to catch a toe on an uplifted section of sidewalk or to scuff a foot on the crown of a street. This happened recently and I bloodied my knee and the palms of my hands. A fall can prove more disastrous if you go all the way down, face planting on the sidewalk. To avoid falling, I try to lift my feet a bit when running on unfamiliar terrain where I may encounter a root on a trail or a square of raised pavement. This is especially important when running in the dark as I do most winter mornings.

3. Mix it up

We don’t run every day. My pattern in recent years is to run Monday through Thursday, skip Friday, do a long run on Saturday and take Sunday as a day of rest. But I will sometimes substitute an afternoon bike ride for a morning run. If it is icy, I stay off the streets and ride my stationary bike in my basement. During the summer I will substitute a hike for a run or wear myself out swimming in a mountain lake. Running is great exercise, but it is good to mix running with other invigorating activities.

4. Continue competing

Don’t miss out on the fun of competing. As the result of a broken hip about 10 years ago (bicycling on a frosty morning), I am no longer doing marathons. Hip pain and fear of doing more damage to my body has required trimming my distance. But rather than quitting racing altogether, I run shorter distances—half marathons, 15Ks, and 5-mile races. The comradery of the race is energizing and it is fun to be out there on the course with younger runners—even when they are (ach!) passing me. On the bright side, the older you get, the better chance you have of getting a place on the podium. I took first place in my age division in my recent half marathon. Full disclosure: I was the only runner in the group!

5. Keep a journal

I have not always kept a runner’s journal, but in recent years I have found it helpful to record my distance, time, and other details about my training runs. My entries are brief. “6.8 miles in my new shoes and feel great.” “Heavy rain this a.m. and I got soaked.” “I am trending faster on my 2.8-mile loop; nice to see improvement.” “Struggling with a sore knee; will take tomorrow off.” If you have not tried Strava, I recommend you purchase a GPS watch and let Strava keep track of your routes, mileage, times, and elevation gain/loss. There is a section on your daily page where you can describe your run and make personal comments.

6. Stay in the community

As you grow older and friends stop running, it is harder to be a part of a running community. So we have to make an effort to stay in touch with other runners and share stories and news about routes and races. To keep in touch with the running community I have volunteered at marathons and crewed at ultra races. I follow runners on social media and “like” their accomplishments. A few years ago my wife and I helped a friend celebrate her 100th marathon. We bicycled the course and cheered for her at the aid stations and finish line. You don’t have to be doing serious distances to be a part of the running community. It is always fun to talk with other runners and to be inspired and motivated by their accomplishments.

7. Embrace your identity

When I crashed my bike and broke my hip I thought it would be the end of my running career. It took me months to walk without crutches and more months of running in a pool before I could trot the distance of a city block. Sometimes I would see runners go by and wanted to shout out, “Hey, I’m a runner too!” I didn’t look like a runner but I didn’t allow my injury to diminish my core identity. I am a runner. I will always follow the wins and losses of other runners, cheering for my friends and family members who run. Don’t allow a slower pace or shorter distance deter you from embracing your identity as a runner. And if there is ever a time in your future years when you are no long able to run, you can still be a runner in your heart.