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This Decade-by-Decade Training Guide Will Help You Run Strong for Life

Research shows you can stay in the game and—contrary to popular belief—keep crushing it far longer than you may think.

Large group of athletes talking while having a road running race.
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Eighty-one? I shook my head and surreptitiously leaned over to get a better look at the number Sharpie’d on the calf of the tall, lean, and considerably older woman setting down her running shoes in the transition area next to mine. Yep, I’d read right. She was 81 years old. I was 26, at my very first triathlon. My primary goal was just to survive. The next: grow up to be that woman, still lacing up and toeing the line in her ninth decade of life.

Turns out, that’s not such a far-fetched goal. Research on aging runners shows that you can not only stay in the game but also—contrary to popular belief—keep crushing it far longer than you may think.

We’ve all heard that athletes peak in their late 20s and early 30s, and then it’s all downhill. But that’s based on dated data collected decades ago when someone running a marathon in their 50s would make headlines, explains Iñigo San Millán, Ph.D., associate research professor in Human Physiology and Anatomy at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. “We have to look at aging differently now,” he says.

Like radically differently. When scientists studied track athletes aged 50 to 85, they found only a small decline in performance—less than 2 percent—between the ages of 50 and 75. It wasn’t until they hit 75 that performance in events ranging from the 100-meter dash to the 10,000 meter run started slipping by about 8 percent per year—more pronounced, but still not show stopping.

In fact, in athletic events like the marathon, masters athletes over 70 years old have surpassed the winning time at the first Olympic games held in Athens. Ed Whitlock, a 73-year-old Canadian, ran a record-setting 2:54:48 marathon, which beat the winning time at the first modern Olympic marathon in Athens: 2:58:50, set by 23-year-old Spyridon Louis in 1896.

We’re not only living and staying active longer, but we also have more knowledge on how to train, recover, and fuel to keep us in the game. It’s never too late to apply it, and maybe even set a personal best, says San Millán, who recently helped a 60-year-old client shave 75 minutes from his marathon PR. Here’s a decade-by- decade guide to keep you running strong for the rest of your life.


This is a time you can get away with not worrying much about recovery, says Nicholas DiNubile, M.D., orthopedic surgeon and best-selling author. It’s also the age when you’re building a foundation you’ll carry with you through life, so play it smart.

Start cross-training.

You may not realize it, but you’re developing stresses and imbalances that build up and can reach a breaking point. “Stresses accumulate silently. But like a heart attack, it’s not a sudden thing. It’s been building up,” says DiNubile. If all you do is run, you’ll develop more issues that can haunt you down the road. “Cross-train twice a week with another sport or strength-training to create balanced fitness,” he says.

Listen closely to your body.

Injuries are the number one reason runners stop running. Getting hurt now sets the stage for more serious injury down the line. “For runners, 98 percent of those injuries are overuse,” says New York City-based sports medicine doctor Jordan Metzl, M.D., author Running Strong. “You have to learn to be a good body listener now, picking up on and addressing pain cues early, so shin splints don’t become stress fractures and tendinitis doesn’t become chronic tendinosis.” Recognize what running patterns lead to injury now.

Feed your bones.

Maximize your skeletal strength now. Both men and women hit peak bone mass by age 30. Though women are at higher risk for low bone density, research finds young, lean active men like runners in their 20s are also at risk. That doesn’t mean you need to stop running; it means you need to eat enough to fuel your recovery, which in turn maintains bone mineral density and testosterone and for women prevents menstrual cycle dysfunction, says exercise physiologist Stacy Sims, Ph.D., of University of Waikato in New Zealand. “Amenorrheic athletes have a 8 to 31 percent lower BMD than normally menstruating athletes.” Follow hard runs with a protein and carb rich snack like a whey protein fruit smoothie to refuel right.


Life can get a little complicated in this decade: You’re growing in your job, maybe starting a family, and settling into a house. Balanced intensity and recovery are key to maintaining form on a time budget.

Train with intervals.

VO2 max—how much oxygen your body can use during exercise—slips 10 percent per decade after age 30. Running can help you stem the decline to about half of that, but intervals may even boost it, says exercise physiologist Paul Laursen, Ph.D.. When you do high-intensity intervals, your heart rate stays elevated during the recovery periods, so you’re still tapping into and developing your aerobic energy system. Go for short, hard intervals like 400s to 800s to build your aerobic system while also recruiting fast-twitch sprint fibers, which diminish with age. Performing three to six of these leg-burning efforts, allowing one to two minutes of recovery in between, can have impressive effects. Then

Prioritize recovery.

Intervals are like medicine—they only work if you also rest and allow your body to recover—something too few goal-oriented runners do, says San Millán. “They wake up early, go to bed late, work long hours, and train way too hard all the time. Then they fall apart,” he says. The solution: Limit hard workouts to twice a week; take one rest day a week, and make sure 50 to 75 percent of your training is endurance intensity, in which you can talk easily.

Practice body maintenance.

Get thee a foam roller and use it daily, says Metzl. “The 30s are when you need to be vigilant about maintaining your body. Consider foam rolling like flossing: necessary to prevent unwanted breakdown,” he says. Roll out all your leg muscles—calves, hamstrings, quads, adductors, and abductors—to prevent knots that can restrict movement and lead to injury.

Adjust your diet.

Your metabolism starts dipping to the tune of 5 to 10 percent a decade during adulthood, so even if you’re still active, you can notice weight creep if you don’t fuel accordingly, says Sims. “Protein is key. Getting 30 to 40 grams per meal will help maintain muscle integrity and body composition,” she says.


The risk of running-related injuries jumps significantly after 45. This is the time when you need to stay strong to stay in the sport.

Strength train year round.

Muscle mass starts declining at age 40, so start strength-training twice a week year-round. “[Losing strength] may be imperceptible at first, but it’s happening, and it sets you up for injury since your muscles support your joints,” DiNubile says. For instance, running doesn’t build your quads, which support your knees—a high-risk injury spot,” he says. It also doesn’t build upper body bone, which can slip away at a rate of up to 2 percent a year in women after age 40, 3 percent after menopause. Strength training twice a week all year can turn back the odometer, says DiNubile. “It’s non-negotiable for master’s athletes.”

Let injuries heal completely.

Sixty-nine percent of masters athletes try to push through pain in order to stay active. You might’ve been able to get away with that when you were younger, but not now. “Little nagging pains can become full-blown injuries,” warns DiNubile. Prevent injuries through cross-training, strength-training, and recovery, but if they do crop up, it’s important to let them resolve fully so they don’t become chronic.

Eat lean and clean.

It’s common to notice your waistline widening, as body composition tends to soften during this decade. Strength training helps, but you need to pair it with sound nutrition. “Now is not the time for extreme or trendy diets, which can backfire by increasing cortisol [a stress hormone], which encourages abdominal fat storage, ” says Sims.

“Eat healthy carbs from whole food sources like veggies, fruit, and ancient grains, have protein at every meal, and consume plenty of inflammation-fighting healthy fats from nuts, seeds, fish, and avocados, all of which also keep you satisfied longer so you avoid overeating,” she says.

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Muscles get tight and connective tissue loses its elasticity, a one-two punch that can cause injury and force a shortened stride, slowing you down. Make range of motion a priority.

Prep your body.

Warming up is essential now, says DiNubile. “Get the blood and synovial fluids flowing to lubricate your joints, especially before hard training or racing a 5K.”

Stretch it out.

A survey of masters athletes by Vonda Wright, M.D., author of Fitness After 40, revealed that half of them spent 5 percent or less of their total training time stretching, most of them less. “You can lose 10 to 15 percent of your range of motion and not even know it,” says DiNubile. “Runners commonly develop tightness in the calves, low back, hip flexors, and hamstrings,” he says. That hinders your stretch/reflex response, literally removing spring from your step and slowing your pace. “Yoga is a great complement for runners. At the very least, perform a static stretching routine in the evening.” And keep foam-rolling.

Get a jump on it.

Maintaining functional strength and elasticity is essential for performance and injury prevention, says Metzl, who is a huge advocate of plyometric-based training (explosive hopping/jumping movements) to do both. “Running is plyometric. You’re jumping from one leg to the next so you need to train that.” Incorporate moves like jump squats into your strength routine:

Stand with feet wider than shoulder-width, feet turned out a little. Clasp hands in front of chest. Send hips back and bend knees to squat down until your butt drops below knee level but chest remains lifted. Quickly extend your legs and jump into the air. Land softly, immediately dropping into another squat. Repeat 10 to 12 repetitions

Establish a bedtime.

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Your body pumps out human growth hormone, repairs tissue, and builds muscle while you sleep, particularly during Stage N3 deep or slow wave sleep, says, Ellen Wermter, a family nurse practitioner at Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine. “Stage 3 is also when physical energy is restored and when our immune system does its best work. This stage of sleep is most altered as we age, particularly after the age of 50,” she says. To maximize yours, hit the hay before the late shows. “The majority of secretion is between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., especially for men—women have little spikes during the day—and then it starts shutting down,” says neurologist and sleep specialist W. Christopher Winter, M.D., author of The Sleep Solution.

Trouble sleeping? Sims advises drinking tart cherry juice before bed. “Its melatonin-producing properties will help you drift off, and it also has anti-inflammatory properties to help you recover.”


Maintaining balance and proprioception, the ability to sense the position of one’s body in space, are essential. Both start to decline during this decade and put you at risk for trips, falls, and orthopedic injuries.

Try Tai Chi.

Tai Chi—a traditional Chinese low-impact, slow-motion exercise—can keep balance and proprioception sharp. It also builds total-body strength and can help you maintain your stride. In one study of active 60-somethings, those who practiced Tai Chi had significantly better proprioception than their peers who ran or swam. Plus, it can relieve joint pain from arthritis, which affects almost half of adults age 65 and older.

70s +

Good news! If you’re still running now, you’ve avoided or successfully overcome injury and disease that can sideline runners in their later years. This is the decade when most runners notice performance decline, but these tips can help you keep going.

Prioritize strength work.

Lean muscle slips away precariously quickly after age 70, at which point you can lose 40 to 50 percent of your strength, so it’s important to lift weights two to three days a week. And you’re never too old to start: A study of adults ages 85 to 97 found that after 12 weeks of strength-training, leg strength improved up to 47 percent.

Watch the weather.

Your body’s heating and cooling systems start to conk out due to decreased circulation and sweat rate, leaving you more susceptible to hypothermia and heatstroke. Your perception of how the temps affect you also diminishes, so check your weather app daily and hydrate and layer appropriately for indoor and outdoor runs.

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