How to Run Strong for Decades Like Molly Barker, Founder of Girls on the Run

The Ironman competitor credits a healthy diet, strength training, and gratitude for helping her run into her sixth decade.

run strong into 60s
Courtesy of Molly Barker

In July 1993, Molly Barker went for a run. Going for a run wasn’t out of the ordinary for Barker, considering that she regularly finished Ironman triathlons—she excelled at the half Ironman distance, specifically, achieving a PR of 4:45. While a thunderstorm loomed in the distance, Barker knew that this run was different. The night before, she had considered suicide. No one knew that the three-time Ironman Hawaii competitor had a secret beyond her fit physique and sunny demeanor: She was an alcoholic.

Her rock bottom led to an epiphany during that run. At mile five of her six-mile run, it suddenly hit the 32-year-old that she had allowed outside influences and people define her.

After that transformative run, her life immediately began to turn around. She got sober. Her workouts were suddenly filled with joy, instead of mentally beating herself up or analyzing her appearance with every foot strike. During this time, it dawned on her that she wanted to share this gift of healthy self-confidence with others.

Three years later, in 1996, Barker started the international non-profit Girls on the Run, which is still going strong today with its self-esteem-building curriculum for third- through fifth-grade girls. She wanted to create “a safe and brave space,” as she puts it, where girls could express their whole selves through running.

It should come as no surprise that Barker’s high level of enthusiasm and resiliency has allowed her to work with passion, and keep running, into her golden years.

How Barker Keeps Running and Supporting the Sport Into Her 60s

Now at 61, the GOTR founder continues to be involved with the organization by supporting councils at a local level. She’s a frequent public speaker; she’s working on a memoir; she’s facilitating women’s groups and mentoring founders of other non-profits. And she’s still training for Ironman races, taking on five triathlons this year.

While Barker attributes a portion of her success to “plain and simple genetics,” she also makes a point to treat her body like a temple—and give herself some grace.

“Sometimes, I feel better, and sometimes, I feel worse,” Barker says as she compares this time of her life to her younger years, admitting that she would probably respond with this same answer if asked if she feels good running during any year of her life.

“That’s what makes running so interesting,” she says. “Some days I feel so fluid. The effort feels effortless. The flow is there. And other days, I feel like I’m fighting the air with each step—creaky and cranky.”

Barker recalls a quote she shared with Runner’s World a decade and a half ago: “Running is like celebrating your soul. There’s so much it can teach us in life.” She says that the phrase still rings true for her today.

Barker’s upcoming Half Ironman will be her first since 2001. She thinks her swim times may be similar, or even faster. Her bike times will be different by one to two miles per hour. And her run is where “the largest gap exists,” she says.

“I’m likely to be about 1.5 minutes slower per mile than I was in my early 40s,” she says. “But I will keep pushing to bridge that gap, too. And yes—I’m totally happy with my results. Every day I get to train is another day of joy for me.”

If you have yet to hit your sixth decade but want to make sure that you have a running career as long as Barker’s (that ebbs and flows but still feels exciting), read on for her practical tips that focus on both mental and physical health.

Embrace an anti-inflammatory diet

Barker says that in recent years, her biggest game-changer has been tweaking her diet. It has greatly leveled up her running, and it’s something that everyone can do in anticipation of running into their retirement years. Studies prove time and time again that good nutrition increases life expectancy.

“Nutrition is everything,” Barker says. She focuses on whole foods—things like veggies, beans, sweet potatoes, oats, brown rice, and tofu. The hefty leaning toward carbs and protein fuel her running.

Focus on core and leg strengthening

Barker does something that all runners should be doing, even if you’re nowhere near 60—core and leg strength training.

“Don’t wait until you’re my age,” she says. “Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, I was struck by a car, while out on a run, when I was 48. The recovery from that incident included core, glute, and leg strengthening exercises, along with yoga. I’ve carried that practice with me since then, and I’m convinced that maintaining strength and flexibility has allowed me to keep running.”

Try something new

Start now, and especially as you age, to incorporate trail running as much as you can into your routine. “The soft path beneath your feet will feel so good,” Barker says. Plus, just switching it up can be good for the mind.

To level up the effectiveness of a trail run, Barker suggests adding a mindfulness component, something that she also believes has aided her longstanding running career. “Put down your Garmin and quit timing yourself,” she says. “If you’re really daring, leave your earbuds in the car or at home and listen to your feet sync up with your breathing.”

Another way to make a change on the run: Train with a running newcomer to breathe new life into your routine, Barker suggests.

Listen to your body

As runners, a lot of us grin and bear it when it comes to aches and pains. But “no pain, no gain” won’t serve you as you approach your later years. Barker says that the second she senses an injury coming on, she backs off, or stops altogether.

“The moment I feel a tweak, a twinge, or something’s just not right, I slow down and assess the situation,” she says. “If I sense that whatever’s going on might lead to an injury, I just stop, take a day or two off, and voila—I’m back at it again.”

She adds that when she was younger, she tried to run through injuries, medicated with over-the-counter pain relievers, and tried to “will them away.” “Injuries would last much longer,” she says. Now, in her 60s, it seems counterintuitive, but she shares that it actually takes her less time to heal from an injury with this approach.

Prioritize rest

“Take a day off when you feel like you need one, not just when the day-off is on your training schedule,” she says. “I don’t run every day. I run every other or third day and bike or swim on the in-between days.”

She emphasizes that it’s okay to take off multiple days, months, or even years. This can be an effective way to address burnout, she says, something that can certainly become real as the years go on.

Practice gratitude

“I know it’s totally cliché, but gratitude is an attitude,” Barker reflects. “Gratitude runs deep in my being—you can see it woven all throughout the Girls on the Run program.”

Barker believes that gratitude is the top reason why she’s still running today, and it’s something you can start practicing now.

“My running is better because I appreciate it more,” she says. “I appreciated it when I was younger for sure, but now…now there’s a deeper sense of gratitude for it. I have been known to break out into tears of joy right smack in the middle of a run, just feeling the gratitude that I’m still ‘at it.’”

To put this into practice, Barker suggests that at the end of each run, “pause and say three things you are grateful for, as they relate to your run.”

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