On 17th April 2017 a special moment in history will be made. Kathrine Switzer will line up on the Boston Marathon start line with a bib number pinned onto her front. The same start line she stood on 50 years before in 1967. In that famous race, the race official tried to manhandle her off the course, simply because she was a woman. She ran on to the finish and began devoting her life to being an advocate for women in sport.
Boston 2017 will be a time to reflect on all that Kathrine has achieved but also a huge celebration of the new world of women’s running. It’s by no means the end of Kathrine’s journey as running with her will be women from her new running movement 261Fearless; a non-profit organisation that works to bring strength and empowerment through running, to all women, all over the world, no matter what their speed, background or age.
I love the idea of running a marathon 50 years after my first. My marathon debut was the London Marathon in 2013 when I was 40. I wonder what the chances of me running it again age 90 are?! I’m going to make that a life-time aim.
I asked Kathrine how she felt about running a marathon 50 years later and how she was approaching her training:
I can’t believe 50 years have gone by! Honestly the 1967 Boston Marathon feels like it was yesterday, and here I am training up for it again. What I have found again and again over the years of running, is that the body responds to training no matter what your age, no matter when you start or how long your lay-off has been. Improvement is in direct correlation to the consistency of the work, and the body always improves when you move it!
To get ready for Boston, 2017, however, I am training differently from what I was doing when I was 25! Mainly, I’m training every other day whereas before I was running at least every day and when I was super-competitive, I was training twice a day (but this is a whole other realm!). Now I am training to FINISH a marathon with joy in my heart and a smile on my face and no injuries. This marathon will not be about time, but about completion, and a celebration of 50 years.
So here are some basics: I run every other day, from an easy run of 45 minutes up to a long run, which I’m gradually increasing every two weeks. Right now, the longest very slow run I’ve done is three hours, and that will get up to a few five hour runs. Then, once every two weeks I do a speed workout, which is repeat 800m or 1 km at a much faster pace, which gets my legs used to moving faster. I will do, say 1 km fast(er) with a 3 min walk rest. I’m up to seven of these. When I get to ten of them, I’ll work on making them longer, say eventually 1500 meters. The rest will probably stay the same.
I keep most of my training on dirt surfaces and save the road for when I get into a race. I will enter a race as part of the training to get my legs used to pounding the pavement again as I will have to do in Boston. I did my first road half marathon four days ago and my quads are very sore, and it wasn’t a particularly hilly course, so I know I have mechanical work to do. On the opposite days, (but I haven’t been very good about this, often several days go by and I put it off!) I work on my core, with weight lifting, planks, lunges and other exercises. And I stretch, stretch, stretch! – using variations of pilates and yoga.
Exercise has now been proven to forestall the ageing process. When I run, I often feel just like that 25 year old, only I look down at my legs and wonder why they’re going so much slower! It doesn’t matter, it’s the doing it that counts, and while I’m lucky to be able to do it, one reason I have luck is because I kept at it all my life. Not hard, just doing it consistently. Oh yeah-important: when it hurts (like an injury hurt, not an effort hurt) -I stop. I never run through an injury. Give it a week to heal and save yourself a year.
We need to get out of the mindset that retirement means ‘take it easy’. (Not that Kathrine has retired, she works harder than anyone I know!) Activity levels drop off dramatically in those over 60. As Kathrine says, exercise has been proven to slow down the ageing process but this means more than reducing wrinkles and grey hair. We’re talking about life-changing benefits. Reducing our risk of dementia, heart disease and strokes. Guarding against muscle wasting, bone thinning and lowering our risk of falls and immobility. Keeping active could be the thing that helps us maintain our independence and prevents us having to rely on others. I’d list that as number one in my hopes for my future.
Of course we’ll need to adapt what we do but that shouldn’t stop us. I’m still getting faster, I came to running late so I often wonder how I’ll feel when my times start declining. It’s inevitable that at some point they will. I’ve heard runners say that actually it takes the pressure off, brings a new dimension to running and they’re able to enjoy it more.
There are however a few things that you need to bear in mind if you’re an ageing runner or want to start in your later years:
- It’s never to late to start BUT you need to do it slowly. The mind is often more willing than the body and it’s tempting to throw yourself into strenuous exercise with the passion of a teenager. Just be patient. Your injury risk is high. Start with walking and build up slowly. The NHS Couch to 5k programme is a great way to get into running. You can spread it out over as many weeks as you need to.
- Rest days are crucial. It’s when you rest that the body heals, repairs, adapts and strengthens itself. As Kathrine advises, don’t run everyday. Age slows down the repair processes, such as those going on in your knee joint and you need to give them enough time to do their work before stressing the joint again. If you don’t, you risk damaging the joint.
- Mix up your surfaces. Taking care of your joints is so important. The repair processes are a bit slower, so minimising the damage done is beneficial. Good shoes (Kathrine’s wearing Reebok) and correct posture will help reduce stress on a joint but so will choosing a softer surface to run on. Katherine’s rightly sticking to the trails for the bulk of her training. A slightly uneven surface also helps to strengthen knees and ankles and keeps your sense of balance sharp too.
- Strength and conditioning are essential. As you age your muscles naturally lose mass; it’s a process called sarcopenia. The only way to counteract this is to build them and use them. Making time to use weights and do strengthening exercises is an invaluable way to keep running safely. Stronger muscles around a joint means less pressure on the joint itself and less chance of injury when you wobble. Don’t get carried away, a couple of times a week is enough; muscles adapt and strengthen when you rest.
- You are what you eat. It’s extra important to make sure you’re fuelling your body well. You’re asking a lot of it so ensure you give it the vitamins and minerals it needs to function and carry out all the repair processes. Choose a variety of colours of vegetables and fruit to get a good range of nutrients and include plenty of protein for muscle repair.
- Listen to your body. After many years living in it you know when something isn’t right. Watch out for fatigue and take a break when you need to. Get new or unexpected symptoms checked and if you have any health problems or risks that you think might interfere with running then take advice from a doctor before you start.
Looking at this list I’d say Kathrine’s got it spot on. If you want more of her wisdom and advice, she’s written a wonderful book called Running and Walking for Women Over 40. I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll be one of those 261Fearless runners starting the marathon with her. I want to be there when history is made. You can apply to be at the start with Kathrine too and help raise money for the 261Fearless movement. Click here for information. You can read all about Kathrine’s story in her book Marathon Woman .
I’ll keep you posted on my Boston dream and if I make it to London age 90 I’ll blog about it I promise!