Five tips for how to keep running past 40 in Hong Kong, from athletes who are doing just that
Running is a great way to keep feeling stronger as you get older, but with the risk of injury increasing with every year on the clock, longevity requires changes to training regimens
When runners reach their 40th birthday, they are awarded the age-bracket title “Master”. Traditionally, that’s the time elite distance runners step out of the competitive limelight, to coach, write their life story or settle into a TV pundit’s chair – all well-deserved after years of brutal training.
But an increasing number of runners now choose not to slow down so early. They stick to running, and winning, for years after they reach Master status.
In 2014, British runner Jo Pavey, then a 40-year-old mother of two, became the European 10,000 metres champion. The following year, the American Bernard Lagat won the US 5,000 metres trials at the age of 40, beating a man 15 years his junior. Both Pavey and Lagat then went on to represent their countries in the 2016 Olympics.
The trend extends to amateur runners, who are also increasingly unwilling to slow down with age. Hong Kong’s Charlotte Cutler, who works as a strategic risk analyst, is 44 years old, and has been running and racing for 32 of them. A former national level 400 metres hurdler in the UK, she is a multiple winner of the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon’s 10km race, and was crowned Asian Masters 1,500 metres champion last year.
Cutler finds age irrelevant to athletic performance and is looking forward to racing in the 45-50 age group when she turns 45 this October. She is aware, though, that training must be age-adjusted to make it sustainable.
Ageing translates into a number of visible symptoms that can stop us from performing athletically. For Cutler, the main one is the growing ease of injury.
“Strangely I have found that my basic speed has not tailed off as much as I thought it would,” she says. “But I tend to get injured more easily these days and it takes longer to get over [injuries]. If I string together about a year of injury-free training, I think I can get back to my personal-best level.”
Maggie Man-yee Chan-Roper, 41, is a Hong Kong record holder at multiple distances. She represented the city in 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres races at the 2004 Athens Olympics and then earned a master of science degree in exercise physiology. She agrees that injury is the number one hurdle for older runners.
“My heart and lungs still function well, and I am still in shape. My legs just don’t support me for the kind of training I want to put them through,” she says.
It is usually the smaller, connecting parts of an athlete’s body that fail. Overloaded by the forces that the large muscle groups exert on them in intensive training, they give way – cruciate ligaments tear, Achilles tendons snap.
Strengthening these connectors is key to avoiding injury, especially as the years of wear and tear accumulate.
“I now do a lot of strength work in the gym, and a weekly strength session with a personal coach,” Cutler says. “I also do regular sessions on the elliptical [training machine].”
After retiring from competitive running, Chan-Roper worked as a cross-country team manager at her alma mater – Brigham Young University in Provo, in the US state of Utah – where she now lives and works as a private coach. “There are many things I make my runners do that I didn’t do myself when I was running professionally – like core and hip exercises,” she says.
Successful older athletes also emphasise the importance of rest and recovery and have learned how to use those precious windows of injury-free time to the full.
American Jason Mayeroff, an Asia-based elite distance runner who often trains at altitude in Yunnan, China, is a frequent visitor to Hong Kong. He set his 10km personal best of 28:40 (faster than the Hong Kong road record of 31:17, held by triathlete Daniel Lee Chi-wo) at the age of 39. To achieve running longevity, he has learned to curb his drive. Mayeroff’s current goal is to run a marathon in under two and a half hours after he turns 50 – two years from now.
“Running fast is basically a great stress on your body,” he says. “I have had six surgeries from doing too much when I was younger. Now I know that the magic does not happen when you are running, it happens when you are resting after running hard.”
He adds that listening to your body is essential in preventing injury. “You must ride your body’s energy wave, go at the pace your body wants to go on the day. If you are having a bad day running – exhausted, or feeling sore – just slow down. Or walk. You will make up for it when you are having a good day.”
Chan-Roper metes out equally encouraging advice. “If someone older is just starting out running, I would recommend alternating biking and running. Biking strengthens your quads which is vital for injury prevention. Also, this gives your joints the time to recover from the impact of the pounding [from] running,” she says.
Cutler notes people can take up running at any age, as long as they are sensible about their training methods. If they can do that, “no distance is off limits”, whether you want to be a sprinter or an endurance trail runner.
“I feel stronger, mentally and physically, through racing and training,” she says. “Running and racing is as part of my routine as having breakfast. I would not know what to do without it.”
Five tips for runners in their 40s and beyond
1. Consider rest days an important part of your weekly routine. Always alternate hard days with days of full rest or of very easy running.
2. Do not neglect strength training.
3. If you feel a niggle or an injury, take a day or two off.
4. Be prepared for bad running days. If you have one, take it easy and make up for it later.
5. Set a realistic goal, whether it is to get fit, improve your personal best time, win in your age group, or just to complete a race. Focus on that target.