‘I expect you’d call me a late bloomer,’ says Rosemary Beach, a 69-year-old marathon runner from Oxfordshire.
‘I completed a degree at the age of 54 and started running when I was 56. I began my running career by going for a short walk in the countryside near my home. However, I soon found walking boring so speeded up until I was jogging.
‘My little jogs got longer and longer until I was eventually able to complete a two-mile circuit. Five months later I completed a 10K race and after running for about three years I ran the first of eight marathons with my niece. Since then I’ve also done two triathlons and 10 half marathons. I simply love the camaraderie in races – it makes all the training seem worthwhile. And it’s lovely when fellow competitors say they can’t believe I’m old enough to be my niece’s aunt. Running makes me feel fit, healthy and happy – my only regret is that I didn’t start doing it sooner.’
Middle age is a time when many women first consider taking up running. But Rosemary’s story is proof enough that even if you’ve left getting active until you’re older, you have not missed the boat. ‘It’s never too late to start’, agrees Level 3 athletics coach Alan Dolton, but Chris Donald, a lecturer in sports science at Thames Valley University and head coach at Purple Patch Running, still urges caution. ‘Like anyone starting out running you need to follow the same principles of buying a good pair of shoes, starting slowly and then building up your endurance gradually,’ he says.
Dolton advises following a walk/run programme to get your body used to the stresses running places on it, and training for a 5K race or Park Run (free weekly timed runs), before attempting to increase your race distances. And don’t forget your rest days, says Donald. ‘Opt for three or four good sessions per week with adequate recovery in between rather than four or five days of average sessions with no recovery in between.’
Won’t it be a lot harder to get fit? Surprisingly, no. In fact you’re likely to find it easier. According to research conducted at Yale University, runners over 50 actually improve their performance more quickly than younger runners. The 16-year study of top runners in the New York City Marathon found that the top women runners aged 50 to 59 showed the greatest improvement, running the marathon as a group more than two minutes faster each year from 1983 to 1999.’
Another misconception is that older runners are more suited to slower, longer events rather than faster, shorter ones. ‘Most people would probably think older people would be better at endurance than speed but this isn’t necessarily the case,’ says Donald. ‘It’s really determined by genetics – those who naturally have more slow-twitch muscle fibres are more suited to long distances whereas those with more fast-twitch fibres suit short-distance sprints. This idea probably stems from the fact that we’re used to seeing silver-haired runners on the streets and in races but hardly anyone watches the Masters Athletics Championships where you get 75 year olds doing the 100m!’
Already run but keen to coax your mum, sister, aunt or friend into taking it up too? Could you be putting her health at risk? ‘It’s always sensible for older runners to have a medical check,’ says Dolton, ‘and if your mum’s overweight it’s crucial that she wears the appropriate shoes and tries to run on grass or trails rather than Tarmac. I’d also recommend doing some swimming as well as running as it provides cardiovascular exercise without any impact on the joints.’
And bear in mind that the benefits far outweigh the risks: research conducted at the Stanford University School of Medicine, which showed older runners lived significantly longer, healthier lives, also found that, contrary to what they expected, elderly runners did not have greater rates of osteoporosis and also did not require more knee replacements than non-runners. So if you want your mum to be fit and active at 90, take her shopping – for running shoes!