Growing Older: Part 1, the Downsides

AJW's Taproom[Author’s Note: For my first two articles of the new year, I am reflecting on aging. As I am now firmly making my way through my 50s, this seems to be as good a time as any to share some thoughts on the ups and downs of growing older as an ultrarunner. When you’re done below, here’s Part 2, the Upsides.]

It all tends to creep up on you: month after month and then year after year, the inevitability of aging and the inexorably ticking clock.

Over the past year, I have felt my age. Flipping the calendar into my 50s has not been easy and at times it has been downright depressing. It’s not any single thing that makes what my good friend Kevin Sawchuk calls the “decade of decay” such a downer, but rather a variety of things that challenge previous assumptions and force regular reassessment.

With running, several of the downsides are obvious. First, there is the slowing down. Like many older runners, I forcefully resist the temptation to compare my present self with my younger self. But that is really, really hard, especially for those of us who always pay attention to the clock. It was not that long ago that I could make my way around a track in 75 seconds, but now I am lucky if I can break 100. Glancing at my watch on a smooth, buttery downhill, I recall a time when the mile splits dropped into the fives. Now, I am lucky to hit the sevens. And then, of course, this being the modern era, there are the constant reminders that technology provides when Strava tells me how fast I ran to the top of Jarmans Gap Road back in 2011. Ugh. Getting slower is no picnic.

Then, there is recovery. There was a time that I could bounce back quickly from a long, hard day in the mountains. Back in my early 40s, I distinctly recall jumping out of bed on a Tuesday morning after a back-to-back weekend and running a brisk tempo run on fresh legs. A 70-mile week was a piece of cake not too long ago, especially since I could run hard every day. Those days are most certainly over. Sure, I can still get out for long weekends in the mountains, but those long weekends are now followed by even longer weeks of resting on the couch, soaking in the hot tub, and three-times-a-day wrestling matches with the dreaded foam roller. Recovery, plainly and simply, has become my steady state.

The third challenge of aging is perhaps the most painful of all, injury. Out of nowhere last week on a beautiful long run in the George Washington National Forest, I clipped my toe on a rock and went flying into the air. For what felt like an eternity, I floated into a trailside rock garden and slammed my hip, elbow, and shoulder. I was a full-blown yard sale. After checking my vitals, I dragged myself back to my feet and hobbled through the last three miles to my car. I felt okay but knew the worst was yet to come. When you’re in your 50s, recovering from a fall takes weeks, sometimes months, and it is often is accompanied by aches and pains in places where you didn’t know you could have aches and pains.

All of this combined produces a domino effect which tends to discourage future trips to the big mountains which, in turn, leads to greater feelings of despair and regret. It’s basically a big downward spiral.

What the aging ultrarunner needs to do is to accept all of this. We need to come to grips with being slower, taking more time to recover, and knowing that when we get hurt it will really hurt. Then, we need to make peace with all that and find contentment within it. Along the way we will certainly find good days and bad days, but the downsides of aging can be, at times, overwhelming. To get us through those times, we must empower the mind and will to continue enjoying what we love. We must seek out the positives, the silver linings, and the golden experiences that give us all hope for something more promising down the trail, in spite of the always-ticking clock.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Grumpy Old Men Brewing in Blue Ridge, Georgia. I had the opportunity to visit their taproom last year on a trip to Florida and they make some good stuff. Only available locally, their beer is worth stopping for when you’re in the area. Of the several beers I tasted, one of the best and most unique was their Hell’s Holler Porter. Mildly reminiscent of Deschutes Brewery’s popular Black Butte Porter, Hell’s Holler Porter is dark, smoky, and rich. This beer is a perfect complement to a cold, winter day deep in the heart of Appalachia.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • As a runner, do you also experience downsides in the aging process? Can you share your experiences?
  • Like AJW, are you slowing down, recovering more slowly, or staying hurt longer as you get older?

There are 38 comments

  1. Volker Hagedorn

    Hi AJW, good thoughts, but no need to accept all without doing what may help us older ones.
    I am 53 and made good experiences in recovery drinking a recovery shake with a lot of proteins and amino acids after
    every training session.
    To train speed it helps to do special work outs – jumps/ for running efficiency etc.
    Helps to find 75 sec on the track again.
    But you are right , we lose speed. Only running long runs will not help against, we have to do some more.
    Keep well
    best regards from Germany
    Volker

  2. Jonathan Gardner

    I feel this too, AJW. What I’m finding absolutely strange is how slowing down has been so inconsistent. For example, I’m now only about 40s/mile slower at the 5K, but >1m/mile slower at the marathon. I would have thought the opposite would be true, and I have no explanation for it.

    The nice bit of shifting my focus to ultras as I age has been the fact that I can go into a race with no baseline expectations, so every finish still feels like a victory.

  3. Sean

    I’ll be 49 this year, and I’ve been telling myself I won’t slow down until I’m 55. I only started taking running seriously when I hit 40, though I was an endurance athlete for years (adventure races and the like). The past year has been a bit tough on a few levels, so maybe I was off by a few years. I am stronger now at the end of long runs, but not necessarily faster. But I’m finding contentment in the process. And I think that’s key. At some point whether it’s now or in 5 years, I won’t be as fast I once was.

  4. Brad William

    Jonathan Gardner – that makes sense to me. You’re going to lose more of that top end speed 1st. That’s why you see more of a drop off in your 5k than you do your marathon.

  5. AT

    Well said AJW. By the article’s standards, I am a young buck, but if I look at my age vs an NFL running back, I am an old man. Perspective is the damndest thing. One thing I’ve found more common in discussion with aging athletes, whether elite or the average joe, is their consistency with full body strength and mobility work. I run with a few men in their later 50s, and the ones who strength train vs the runners who don’t, it’s a pretty bold difference. Aging is inevitable for all of us, but I am beyond intrigued seeing those stay at it, and finding ways to adapt with time. Stay strong my brother!

  6. Tara Vanselow

    Yes to all of this! Frankly, I was looking forward to flipping the calendar into my 50’s as there are lots of good things that come with that – children turning into awesome adults, less professional pressure, more financial security, less giving a shit what others think etc. That said, I felt at the top of my game in my late 30’s and 40’s with running and kind of assumed that feeling would continue. ha! Now I have to work twice as hard to keep doing the things I love in terms of running and mountains. But it’s worth it. And slowing down, well…more time to take pictures. And I have to admit, still beating women much younger than me gives me great joy. I recently finished a race in 11th place and ALL of the women in the top 10 were in their 20’s and 30’s, so I felt pretty good holding my own. Even better, the woman who came in immediately after me (and gave me a run for my money in the last 2 miles) was 61!! Goals!!!

  7. Andrew Trippel

    Great article! Volker Hagedon identified post-workout recovery drinks and supplements as a tool to address age-related physical impacts of exercise. My experience is also that recovery nutrition can play a tremendous role in reducing impacts, and I would love to read more about post-workout recovery drinks and nutrition for aging athletes. I also agree with Hagedon and others who have identified strategic adjustments to workouts to compensate for age-related impacts. Thanks!

  8. Joseph

    Crap. I feel that way now, and I’m only 42. This is, of course, highlighted by the fact I’ve been battling a herniated disc in my back and now a ripped tendon in my ankle that has kept me from running for over 3 months, after arguably my worst year performance wise yet. That said, this gives me hope for the next 5-10 years that maybe I have some decent days ahead…but I’m already thinking about changing recovery and pacing…I guess my 50s will be even worse. :)

  9. Kent Green

    Hey AJW! I’m noticing a trend recently with specific long-term overuse injuries, such as hip resurfacing. I know you’re no stranger to that. I’m aware of a very accomplished ultra runner who had their hip resurfaced at 38 years old! Susan Donnelly just had hip surgery, although I’m not sure of her exact procedure. Is it possible that these ultras are negatively affecting us, while we are ignoring it? Or at least downplaying it? The multiple accounts from elites about injury, surgery, second surgeries, etc that I have read don’t seem to include any opinions or studies on the long term affects of running these distances. In my eyes it’s the elephant in the room. Or have I missed something?

    I’ve ran my share of ultras, including a 100, and got into States this year. But I will never say 100 miles is “good for you.” I’ve always believed you can live a normal life and still run them, maybe with some extra rest and genetics on your side haha.

    I guess my main question is: at your age after all your experiences, do you believe there’s an element of premature decay to our bodies that we are ignoring?

    Thanks!

    1. AJW

      Thanks for the comment Kent! I can assure you that we are not ignoring the long term impact of ultras on our bodies as I’ve spoke with many in the sport who know how harmful it can be when not managed correctly. As for me, you are right, 3500-4500 miles a year for about 15 years simply wore my hips down to such an extent that I needed invasive surgery on both, once in 2015 and again on the other in 2018. I am still recovering from those surgeries and will likely be compensating for them for the rest of my life. And, I am sure, this has accelerated my particular aging process. But, it’s also taught me a thing or two and for that I am grateful and hopeful. Thanks again for the comment.

  10. John P

    Wise words. I’m reminded of the late George Sheehans musings on aging as
    a runner. For me, though the though the decrease in speed can be depressing,
    the awareness of our own mortality that comes with aging can bring a much greater
    appreciation for what we’re still able to do.

    As you’re finding, what worked for you as a 40 year old probably will need some modification
    as a 50 year old. I think one of the great challenges as an aging runner is figuring out what
    you can change, and knowing what you probably can’t. We’re all going to slow down, but
    perhaps we can slow that inevitable slide by training and resting smarter, and knowing
    what your body will allow. Here’s hoping you find that new place and much happiness on
    the trail in your fifties.

  11. Robert

    Started running when I was 53, did my first Ultra at 57. I’m now 61. Diet is paramount. I’m actually faster now than I was at 58. I’m averaging 40 to 50 miles per week. 2018 I ran 1850 miles and 350,000′ vertical. If you stay fit and listen to your body age is just a number.

  12. Albert Shank

    Andy, great article. I remember you from the times when we’d run into each other in the Phoenix Preserve, and we also ran some miles together. I turned 50 last year so I’m right there with you and totally get it. Recovery takes longer than it used to, even 5 years ago. I’m most certainly am not as fast as I was 20 years ago, but I am stubborn and still try to compete at all distances. Knock on wood, I’ve been able to maintain my health and be injury-free, and I attribute it to these practices: 1. Virtually all of my running is aerobic and I do very little anaerobic running anymore. For me that means keeping my heart rate below 130, and I save hard running for when I get ready for a shorter race, and even then I limit the hard running a lot. 2. Sleep. Sleep is more important than training, so I try for 8 hrs/night. 3. Diet. I hardly eat any junk food anymore and yes, it makes a HUGE difference. 4. Strength training. I have always lifted weights and rock climbed, and I think that being strong in other ways has helped prevent injury. It’s great to see you out there, dude. Keep it rocking!

    1. AJW

      Hey Albert! Of course I remember sharing some miles with you out in Phoenix. This time of year I really miss those desert trails. Thanks for your comment, your 4 keys to success seem to be working very well for you. Nice!

  13. Mark Y M

    I usually like “the bad news” first. But when I have to wait a whole week for “the good news” I’m not so sure.

    Anyway, I’m feeling your pain…more than you can know. And I’ll be looking forward to next week’s article.

  14. Rachel Browning

    I didn’t start running until I was 49 and my first long run was 50k. It hurt a lot. Last year I had knee surgery but managed an 87k. That hurt even more. This year I plan on completing a 100k even if I have to crawl home, which is a distinct possibility. Thankfully I don’t have a golden past to look back on and am thrilled to keep running every time I go out. I may be a snail on the trail but just being able to get out there is more than enough for me! :)

  15. Erik

    Thanks for providing this perspective, and especially providing the downsides in the first article. As an almost 53 yr old lifetime athlete, I find it a little tedious to read the typical pollyannaish articles about being only as old as you think you are. I am also (maybe primarily) a mountain biker, and struggle with accepting the risk limitations that come with aging–reflexes are a tiny bit slower, and consequences much greater.

  16. Doug K

    59 now, running since I was 15.
    If you started running seriously later in life, it’s still possible to get 10-15 years of improvement even when running while old. As Indiana Jones observed, it’s not the age, it’s the mileage.
    Most old runners who have been running steadily without a break, find they go off a cliff at some point after 50, speed goes and consistency is impossible.

    I’d sort of gotten my head around running 20-30% slower than in my 40s, but still having problems with all the injuries old and new that simply prevent running at all. As you say, recovery is now the steady state.
    Most of my older injuries are under control with a continuous set of prehab exercises. The new injuries add new requirements. There’s lots of swimming and cycling in my routines now.. and walking isn’t so bad ;-)

  17. Markus

    Getting slower might be a downside.
    “Listen to your body” is my mantra and it worked well so far. 54, running for more than 34 of them. If you are gentle to your body, eat well and give body and mind enough time to recover from though challenges you can run forever.

    Don Winkley, 80 ran just yesterday a new record over 6 days. 326+ miles at Across the Years in Phoenix.

    26 more years to go.

  18. Jeff Mac

    It think aging on the trail is a good time to remember why we trail run (into our 60’s for me!)….fitness, adventure, seeing some of the most scenic wonders our trails can take us too, spending time with our kids as they tear up the trail ahead of us…in my case I am lucky to stay in the same zip code as my daughters or on longer runs finish on the same day! Yes, I do sneak looks back on UltraSignUp to see how fast I ran a race in the past compared to this year’s run, but “at the end of the day” I feel blessed being healthy enough enjoy getting out with my kids and friends on single track in the woods around the lakes and hills in middle TN,…albeit walking more!

  19. Rick

    Running and training with younger partners is key to keeping me a front pack, competitive runner at most distances even as I hit 60. Just can’t expect to put in their weekly mileage and have to spend lots of recovery time/techniques as AJW so rightly points out. Pick your spots to lead or push the pace and it is still a thrill to run, race and be part of a supportive group of runners who don’t think about my age anywhere near as much as I do

  20. Lynne Drakos

    Having run my first 50k and 50m at 50….after competing in trail running up to the marathon distance in my 20’s and taking my 30’s and early 40’s “off” to be a single Mom to my now trail running son….I have some insight! My key to staying as injury-free as possible is cross-training in the form of yoga, spin biking and strength training. And being flexible in that if I feel that I should not run one day and give my body a rest from that sore ankle or just being tired….I do! Recovery definitely takes longer and requires patience but I find the rewards of running in my 50’s are significant too. I love knowing I am fit and can accomplish running a hard course thru the mountains or desert even if I am now a mid-packer! And I love sharing my journey with my son and his trail team at Western State Colorado University. The journey truly is my destination….

  21. Aleksandar Radan

    https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/the-tim-ferriss-show/id863897795?mt=2&i=1000417502784

    I’m not a big Tim Ferris fan, however his interview with George Raveling is the quintessential guide to approaching aging with mastery and relevance.

    Not trying to recapture the magic of yester-year; rather creating opportunity and evolution based on years of experience, insights and collected wisdom.

    Here’s to the road ahead, not inproved personal times, rather improving the sport, the folks growing up in it now, the possibilities of new challenges, formats and experiences for all.

  22. Graham Jones

    I turned that page in the calendar recently too. I seriously thought of deleting all my old Strava entries and starting again. Not done it year, but even in 2014 I seemed much faster than now.

  23. Colin Trower

    AJ, this is an interesting take. Maybe aging runners are ready for something new. I just spent the past week circling a 1 mile loop at a 6 race in AZ. I didn’t see many “fast young” runners but I had the best week of my life talking to folks in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. In my opinion it was a “Timed Social” event. Ann Trason was there wearing a variety of costumes and always in a good mood. I’d love to hear her opinion :) Cheers!

  24. sheldon

    i’m 63 and i have just started longer distances completing my first trail marathon (moab u.s.a.t.f. championships). before i would run 10k’s or less trail races. i don’t have to try and go all out anymore making my training more enjoyable….

  25. Steve Pero

    Come on up! I am 67, have been running for 45 years and ultrarunning since my first in 1989. I am entered in Bighorn for a HRH qualifier and will most likely go back to Grindstone in the Fall.
    Back in the 80’s I could run 100 mile weeks on roads…now it’s an hour every other day with a walk the other days and of course a long walk/hike/jog on one day. I’m a lot slower but it keeps me going and like Albert, I keep the HR low.
    Some strength workouts, but I don’t overdo it due to possible tendon issues.
    I retired last year and that just makes things worse with recovery because I’m out doing things all day on our small farm with Deb.
    I wouldn’t change a thing because life is good! My running mentor was/is John Dewalt who showed us how to do it into his 70’s.
    Best of luck with the aging and see you a trail somewhere!

  26. Andy M

    Well, AJW, with 30+ comments you have certainly hit a nerve! Of course there are individual differences, with some folks still logging huge miles after decades and others not, but I agree that all genetics being equal (which they’re not) it’s part age, part miles in the bank. For those of us who were never fast, the slowing down starts to pose cutoff challenges in long ultras, which can be very discouraging. Now turning 55 next week, with 20 years of running and heading into my 10th ultra season, my biggest focus is trying to maintain enough speed to avoid the dreaded missed cutoffs. My mile repeats are not nearly as fast as they were, but have become all the more important. Like others, I eagerly await your upside perspective on Friday. In the meantime, all the best for a slower, more “mindful” 2019 season!

  27. Kathrine

    As someone who started running in her 50’s…ditch the watch. You’ve been running long enough to be able to know by feel when you are working where you need to be. Use the smarts age has given you to step back if “today’s planned workout” isn’t working. If you are having a good day, run hard, if you are having a bad day, re-direct. Add strength workouts – not just core – you need to be tossing a little iron around to help slow down the loss of bone density. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but concentrate on the body zones that aren’t getting work running, basically everything from the waist up. Add some Yin style Yoga to maintain flexibility and fluidity. Keep moving…Most of all, enjoy the run – for older runners there’s no such thing as “junk” miles – every run is a precious collection of being outside and new memories.

  28. GMack

    Everyone is different. I celebrated turning 50 running WS in 19:17 which was 2 1/2 hours faster than my time 8 years earlier.

    Marco Ohlmo won back to back UTMBs in his late 50’s after running for 30 years, mostly uncompetitively. I ran with him at UTMB when he was a 60 y/o until he blew past me, light, a leaf blowing uphill.

    I think it’s about where you are in your running. If you have the stoke and no major injuries, you can definitely crank it through your 50s. There’s absolutely no other reasons to give up being competitive.

    And there are a lot of 50+ age group records out there waiting to be busted.

    I’m about to turn 57 and running hurts. But it hurt in my 40s, 30s, 20s and especially when I ran in high school. Running just hurts.

    When I ran WS as a 50 y/o, I was definitely looking at Doug Latimer’s record. I fell short because that’s a stout record, but if someone like me can get in the ballpark, it’s do-able for a more gifted runner. Same with many other records.

  29. Jack Pilla

    Hey AJW, great article. Yes as you get older things may change but you really are only as old as you feel. When I hit 50, I was just peaking with my running. Now 10 years later, I’m in a new age group and still have goals. Yes those goals have changed and times are slower but I’m still competitive and enjoy chasing down the young ins. And if you want to run fast, you have to run fast. Not every day, most of the runs should still be slower but challenge yourself by running with others occasionally who are faster, sign up for a 5k race to push your limits or be part of a senior’s team. I just got back last month from competing in the USATF National Club XC Championships in Spokane with our 60’s team. These guys are fast!

    With recovery I find it best just to keep moving even the day after a hard workout or a big race. I feel better doing an easy short run than to take it off and do nothing. And mixing in other activities I find is key. To just run, run, run does not work all the parts as it should. Mix it up, have fun, run smart and keep looking forward to new races and new adventures!

  30. Bill H.

    This is a great topic which (we hope) affects everyone eventually – thanks for the candid sharing, AJW. And it generated so many insightful comments. I’m 63 and didn’t start ultras until my late 50’s. I was never elite, but was able to put out sub 18:30’s in the 5k in my 40’s. Now I *maybe* could do a sub 20 min. 5k if I focused training specifically on that distance. But, frankly, why? I find it a disincentive and somewhat depressing to compare times to my earlier years. My body no longer can handle fast races. So I focus on what makes me happy running – distance; and my body can handle that.

    With the ultra (again, no elite here), I have challenged myself to do greater distances in order to enjoy more experiences. Five of the last 7 years I’ve posted my highest annual miles (having run for 35+ years) and all my top monthly miles (avg. over 200 mi./month each year). These aren’t elite number, but do prepare me for the local and international ultras I want to do. I live in the flatlands, so it also means MUCH harder work on strength and flexibility (via pliometrics) to deal with vert (and more work needed every year). I have fewer injuries now then the years of lower miles focused on shorter distances and speed.

    I will often win my age group, but that’s nothing to brag about – I’m usually the oldest male to run the race and have no age group competition. It’s not about that; it’s about seeing unbelievable trails in countries I probably wouldn’t go to otherwise; it’s about time with my running partners and experiences that only the fit will ever get – or be able to appreciate. My coach and running mentor IS elite – and at 78 he shows me that hard work and determination get results no matter what your age. I was privileged to run 3 ultras with him (actually only ran the same ultras as he did, I couldn’t keep up) where he set American age group records – all after he was 70!

    We just have to keep moving – the joy is in the distance, even when the speed drops.

  31. Alex

    It’s all so true. As a 52 year old (young?) runner, I really notice the slow recovery effect. I spend a LOT of time lying down, when I’d maybe rather be doing other stuff, because experience tells me I won’t recover if I spend all day on my feet. Certainly didn’t used to be that way.

    The saving grace for me is age-grouped competition. If I was expecting myself to actually win races, I’d never be anything but disappointed (because I never do). Going in hoping to win the age group is a very different story. So it’s the only thing I ever think about. It helps too that I was a bike racer in my 30’s, so I don’t have running benchmarks from my salad days to compare to.

  32. Lungstretch

    AJW, great stuff! I hope you don’t take this wrong, but it’s actually kinda good to know that you legends experience some of the same frustrations as us normal beings. I’m 56 and can’t run a quarter mile at the same pace I could once run for a half marathon. But, for the most part, I still love it. Really looking forward to reading the “good.”

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