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You're Not Too Old to Run a Marathon

You might think that being over 50 means you’ve missed the opportunity to complete your first marathon, that you’re too old or too out of shape to run, jog or walk 26.2 miles. Fortunately, that’s not true. As an over 50 runner and someone who has coached hundreds of people of all ages across the finish line of the Los Angeles Marathon, I will tell you that being over 50 is an advantage.

Strides in Recovery Founder, Leslie Gold, age 60, in the Finish Zone of the 2021 NYC Marathon

Training for and finishing a marathon is more mental than physical. As someone over 50, you have wisdom gained from life experience which makes you mentally strong. You may need more time to prepare physically; but mentally, you already have a head start over the majority of younger runners.

You are old enough to know that there are no shortcuts to success, that it requires hard work, self-discipline, and consistency. You know that you have to be committed to the process, but you also know that overdoing it doesn’t work in the long term either. You know what burnout is, and you won’t make that mistake again. You have learned that “everything in moderation” is the key to achieving meaningful long-term goals.

The many challenges you have faced and seen others face have taught you that a setback isn’t a failure. You realize that a setback is temporary. It is an obstacle to overcome, and that once you get past it, you feel stronger and more confident. You may have setbacks in your training, but you won’t let that stop you. You will keep going.

Because you are over 50, you have many life experiences that have helped you develop the mindset and wisdom to finish a marathon. Most people think training for a marathon is all about how much to run every day. Yes, that’s certainly an important part of it, but that’s just a small part. You have to train your muscles; but you also have to train your mind.

I am therefore not going to use this article to focus the physical training plan. If you search online for “marathon training plans for beginners” you will find lots of good plans that have been written by reputable and experienced coaches. Here’s what the good ones all have in common, and things you should look for when choosing your plan.

1. The first few weeks include no more than 3-4 days/week of walking/jogging

2. Initial distances/times are no more than 2-3 miles or 30-40 minutes.

3. There is one day each week, typically the same day, devoted to a longer run.

4. The total weekly mileage will increase by no more than a few miles or 10% each week

5. The long run will increase by no more than 1-2 miles each week, and may decrease or stay the same every few weeks

6. The longest training run will be about 20 miles, 3 weeks before the marathon. Mileage during the last 3 weeks of training will taper off, leaving you well rested and strong on Marathon Day.

7. The program will be at least 21 weeks long.

Don’t stress out about choosing the right plan. If the plan follows the guidelines above, it will work. The most important aspect of any training plan is that you actually follow it. And that’s all mental.

As promised, here are the eight tips to help you stick to the plan and set yourself up for success.

1. Choose your goal event, one that is at least 6 months away so you have plenty of time to train. Choose an event that’s big, one with lots of crowd support. The energy you’ll get from being surrounded by other runners and a cheering crowd will power you through the tough spots.

2. Set aside time in your weekly schedule to train. Put all of your training sessions on your calendar and treat them like you would any other appointments that are important to you. Show up for each one because your goal is a priority.

3. Write down your “why”. Why do you want to finish a marathon? Dig deep. What does it mean to you? Why is this goal important? Write it all down and post it where you will see it often. There will be days when you don’t feel like training. Remembering your “why” will help you get motivated.

4. Find an accountability partner. Your accountability partner can be someone you run with, or anyone else who wants to see you succeed. This individual will help you stay motivated. When looking inward to find motivation isn’t working, you can look externally for support. If your “why” isn’t inspiring you at that moment, your accountability partner will.

5. Buy properly fitting running shoes. Everyone’s feet are different, and people have different body mechanics. You need a shoe that’s right for you. Go to a running shoe store and get fitted by an expert.

6. Follow the training plan: Complete all of the training sessions, no more and no less. Sure you can vary it a little but don’t deviate too much. Following the plan is important not only because it helps you get stronger, it also helps you avoid injury. Adding mileage too quickly by doing extra workouts or longer runs increases your risk of injury. Skipping workouts also increases the risk of injury. Your cardiovascular system may be able to handle the additional stress, but your joints need more time. We aren’t teenagers anymore. Be kind to your body by following the plan and gradually increasing the distance and time as directed.

7. Pay attention to any pain and address it. Running while injured makes the injury worse, not better. Assuming you have good shoes, most other running-related pain is a function of improper body mechanics, tight muscles, or weak muscles. Most aches and pains can be easily relieved with stretching, foam rolling, and/or strengthening; but some are more serious. When you feel pain, stop running and seek attention from an expert. That expert may be a more experienced runner or a coach familiar with common running ailments. If that individual can’t help you, seek medital attention. Sometimes, you may need to skip some training in order to heal. You may not want to, but remember that you only have two choices: keep running and make your injury worse so that you miss even more training; or take some days off, heal quicky, and get back to training. Keep training and pretend your injury will magically heal is not one of your choices.

8. Prepare to overcome your excuses. We can always find reasons not to train, but most of them are just excuses. You know yourself. Make a list of all the excuses you expect to use to avoid training. Then, for each excuse, write down your plan for how to prevent those situations, and what to do if you find yourself in that situation anyway. For example:

Excuse: I’m too tired.

Prevention Plan: I will go to bed earlier.

Overcoming My Excuse: I will run/walk anyway. I may not feel great and I may be slow, but I’ll feel better than if I hadn’t tried at all.

Excuse: I’m too sore.

Prevention Plan: I will do all of my run/walks at an easy pace.

Overcoming My Excuse: I will do some extra stretches to warm up and energize those sore muscles. I’ll take it slow so I don’t overdo it, and afterwards, I will stretch and drink plenty of water. I will feel good about of myself afterward.

Excuse: I’m too busy.

Prevention Plan: I will rearrange my schedule to make time for training. This is an important appointment because my goals are important.

Overcoming My Excuse: I will go anyway. I know that by working out, I will recharge and be more efficient at all the other things I need to do. I will be able to fit in my training and everything else on my to-do list. I will be proud of myself for overcoming an obstacle.

Excuse: I don’t feel like it.

Prevention Plan: Look back at your “why” and review it as often as necessary. Turn to your accountability partner for motivation.

Overcoming My Excuse: I will remind myself that I am stronger than my momentary urges. I will stay focused on my long-term goals no matter how I feel at the moment. I will go anyway, and I’ll be glad afterwards that I did.

Remember, you are older and wiser than someone half your age. You have the mental advantage. Your body can handle it as long as you take it slowly and stick to the training plan.

And remember too, there are lots of people over 50 who run marathons. You are not alone. You are working toward a goal that is very achievable. For example, over 22% of the nearly 25,000 2021 NYC Marathon finishers were age 50 or older. Among these 5579 older runners, there were 8 people in their 80s. The oldest female finisher was 81 and the oldest male finisher was 83. If you are only in your 50s, you have lots of good running years in your future.

Finishing a marathon is all about training your body and training your mind. You can do this.

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