Training for Women Over 50
I am always impressed when I talk with and read about women over 50 and their running. For the past few years, I have been coaching a team of women that are all over 50. Women over 50 were for the most part, denied the opportunity to participate in sports while they were in school, both high school and college. They tell me that running has made them different, given them strength, made them part of a team, or club, and made them feel like they belong. Pushing their bodies to the limit is a wonderful feeling. Younger runners and most men have experienced that many times in their lives. But, those women that grew up before Title IX, typically were not offered that opportunity.
Sports were not readily available in high school and college before Title IX. Women were still expected to be the home makers. Remember, women over 50 graduated high school in 1972 the year Title IX was passed. The “Women’s Movement” was new and changes were not yet being made. Women were still not permitted to run the marathon with men, if they were allowed to run that far at all. In 1971 women first ran a sub 3 hour marathon, women still had not broken 4:30 for the mile and the 1500 meters was first contested by women in the Olympics. The 3000 meters was added in 1984 along with the marathon, the 10,000 meters was added in 1988.
The first woman to run the Boston Marathon – Roberta Gibb (she ran Boston in 1966-1968) ran without a number. Kathy Switzer ran with a number in 1967 and officials attempted to physically remove her from the course. The national governing body of the sport (AAU) at the time, did not sanction women running the marathon until 1971. Nina Kuscsik won Boston the following year becoming the first official winner of the Boston Marathon. This was the same year Nina and 5 other women protested at the start of the NYC Marathon – sitting down until the men’s race started. The AAU still refused to let women run in the same event as men.
Compare that to today – a typical weekend race, run on the same course as that 1972 NYC Marathon – Central Park – will draw almost as many women as men!
I had prepared a questionnaire to collect data for this article. I e-mailed it to every one I knew that had anything to do with running. I received a torrent of responses. So many that I was overwhelmed. I had hoped to collect some data about women over 50 that ran. What I collected was much more – moving stories of women reborn. These women denied the opportunity to experience the benefits of physical activity and running in particular when they ere younger, where now running races from the mile to the marathon and beyond.
I coach a team of women – all over 50 – the Mercury Masters, in NYC. I have watched them get stronger, more confident and faster. They have run workouts that men have cringed at. And these are not special women. They are mothers, grandmothers, executives, teachers, lawyers and home makers. They do not look like Paula Radcliff. They look like any other women in NYC. But, they are different. Oh, so very different. For once a week they get together on a hill in Central Park and run and skip up that hill over and over and over again. They have won the New York Road Runners Club Championship the past two years. At an age when most people are thinking of slowing down, they are speeding up and running faster than ever before. One of them has run 6 personal bests in 7 races this year. Last year one of them at the age of 58 ran a half marathon in 1:48! That is a time many men 20 years younger would be happy with.
Most of them started running later in life, after their kids were grown and on their own.
Here is the training strategy I use with them. It is not very different from what I use with any other runner. It all starts with The Training Pyramid:
These are the five phase to training. Each phase develops a different physiological attribute and provides a part of the building blocks needed to perform optimally.
Endurance – cardiovascular fitness or the aerobic engine
Strength – muscular fitness, the development muscle fiber, capillary beds, mitochondria
Speed – neuromuscular system, the refinement of technique and improvement in speed
Racing & Maintenance – reaping the benefits
Recovery – allowing for recovery and regeneration
You should categorize athletes in two ways – based on their experience and based on their goals. A training program must be adapted to the experience and goals of the runner.
Based on experience, runners can be categorized as:
Beginner – less than 3 years training and racing, goals are about going the distance – finishing.
Experienced – more than 3 years training or racing, goals are about improvement, enjoyment and life style.
Based on goals, runners can be categorized as:
Recreational / Fitness – goals are about health benefits and social aspects.
Competitive – goals are about racing, time and place.
Women Over 50
Everyone over the age of 50 is losing strength. Muscle mass and muscle strength most notably diminish after the age of 50. With the loss of strength, runners experience a loss of speed. Women that have not been active – been running – will experiences less of a loss of strength, mainly because they did not build-up strength before. This can and should be reversed.
Injury is a concern of all runners. For women over 50 it is even more of a concern. There seems to be an increased risk of injury for them. It may be related to the lack of strenuous activity through the prior years. Recovery from injury is typically slow. Injury and recovery from injury should be a major concern for women over 50. Osteoporosis – the loss of bone mass – make development of strength critical. This is an issue that is unique to women. Not many doctors have experience with women over 50 being athletes. The coach needs to be supportive and a source of information and guidance on these issues.
Men have an easier time devoting time to training. Women find it harder to leave a career they fought hard for, to train 5 to 10 hours a week. Connections to family and feelings of family responsibility are harder for women to relegate to a lower priority in order to train. A supportive group – either a club or just a training group – is often critical to women remaining in the sport.
Lack of experience in sports, many are starting for the first time after they pass 50, adds to the difficulty. Training is a new experience, the pain, soreness, the effort required are not familiar. They need to first learn the different types of pain – sore muscles from a good workout, the pain of over doing it, and the pain of injury. They need to learn to push their bodies in a physical / sports setting. Learn how their bodies react to training.
Going out for a 5am run, or spending Sunday morning doing a long run are not as easily accepted for women. Competitive aspects are usually new. Social aspects of running are more important. Running as part of a group, sacrificing their training pace or plan for others needs is a natural reaction for many women over 50. The daily run is as much a social activity as a physical training workout.
There are increased differences as runners get older, and this is truer for women over 50. Workouts need to be designed to accommodate all women in the group. Coaches need to be extra creative. Instead of doing repeats of a fixed distance, use various distances so that all runners finish the repeat at the same time. For example when running mile repeats, have the fastest runners do 1 mile and the slower runners three quarters of a mile. This will keep the runners starting at the same time. Remember, the social aspect of running and training is very important.
Building up endurance and distance should be slower – should be measured in months or years, not weeks. Spend lots of time doing aerobic runs as a group. The faster runners can circle back to pick-up the slower runners. This way the faster runners will be getting more distance in and the slower runners will not be left behind.
Do not increase the weekly distance and the length of the long run during the same week. Use a four week cycle:
Base Week – average weekly mileage and average long run
Distance Week – increase the weekly distance, but not the long run
Long Week – keep the weekly distance the same, but increase the long run
Recovery Week – return to the Base Week distances for the week and for the long run
This approach will allow for a gradual increase in weekly mileage and long run without the risk of injury. There is only one long run every four weeks and there is a recovery week every four weeks. A more aggressive approach would include a long run during the Base Week.
There is an extra need for strength – building strength is critical for all women over 50. Recreational and fitness runners need to pay attention to strength building workouts and drills to avoid injury as well as to their enjoyment of the sport. Competitive runners will use the strength building phase to increase their performance.
The best way to build strength is to do hill running and drills. Find a hill that has a grade between 6% and 8%. The hill should be long enough that it will take the runners at least 4 minutes to get up the hill.
Start with just jogging up the hill four times. After a few weeks – when they can speak at the top of the hill – increase the number of repeats. This will usually happen after 2 to 4 weeks. You can also use skipping, bounding and springing drills on the hill. These are all designed to get their feet off the ground. Skipping drills have worked the best for me. Slow skipping builds muscle strength and has a low incidence of injury. The goal is getting their feet off the ground, not getting up the hill fast. Note – any pain or injury should preclude skipping or any drills. If they can run pain free with the injury, just running at a comfortable pace up the hill will be a good substitute.
We also use Curb Steps – stepping up on a curb and lifting the opposite knee. Do 10 with each leg and repeat 3 times (for a total of 30 with each leg). This drill improves the knee lift and the strength of the push-off.
Then add Jumps. Have them work in pairs – holding hand for support. One runner jumps up 10 times as quickly as possible – not remaining on the ground to prepare to jump, but jumping up as soon as their feet hit the ground. Do 30 repeats in sets of 10. As they get better – stronger, better balances and better coordinated – have them kick their heels up to their butts as they jump. This drill will build explosive strength and also teach getting their feet off the ground.
You can add Butt Kicks – alternating kicking one leg up to their butt as they jog down the hill. The pattern is – right step and kick, left step, right step, left step and kick. This again teaches getting their feet off the ground quickly.
The final drill we use during the strength phase is Side Skipping and Crossover Skipping. At the top of each hill repeat they do side skipping – a shuffle skip at first. First with the left foot leading and then with the right foot leading. This is not done fast, but at a comfortably slow pace. After they have mastered the Side Skipping, begin Crossover Skipping. This is the same as the shuffle skip, except the trailing foot crosses over – first behind, then in front of the leading foot. Again, lead with the left and then the right. This is also a good way to learn to get their feet off the ground.
These drills increase physiological attributes and increase enjoyment of running. After 8 weeks of these drills, they will no longer be shuffling. You will be able to see the bottoms of their shoes as they are running.
Most women over the age of 50 remember that old slogan – “Speed Kills.” Well, it is more true now than back in the late 60s. Traditional Speed work is not recommended for women over 50. Traditional speed building drills – track workouts – will only cause injury. Many times, just increasing strength provides more speed than any other training technique. True “Fartlek” workouts are ideal for women over 50. But there are a few ways to greatly increase running speed. The following workouts build speed, do not require a track and have reduced risk of injury. One Speed workout a week is usually sufficient. Speed should be controlled, never all out. We use the term “Comfortably Fast” to describe these workouts. This speed is faster than normal training, but slower than race pace (for that distance).
Caterpillars – running with a group at a comfortable pace for the SLOWEST member of the group. Run single file. The last woman in the line “sprints” to the front of the line. When she reaches the front, the new “last” woman does the same thing. There are two keys to this workouts. First, the line must be short enough to allow the slowest person to reach the front in 2 to 4 minutes of fast running. Second, each runner should not do more than 8 “sprints” during one session. Start with 2 to 4 “sprints” per session and increase every two weeks.
Time Trials – these are typically shorter than your goal race. After a sufficient warm-up – between one and two miles – run at less than race pace. This is moderately hard workout. This is NOT a race effort. For example, run a mile Time Trail at 10 Km race pace, a half mile at 5 Km race pace.
Short “Quick” intervals – these are all under 100 meters. You can use a measured course or just mark off segments on your favorite running route. Running “Light Posts” is a good alternative. Do not stop between intervals, keep moving at a slow run or jog.
Competition should be focused internally – doing one’s best, finishing strong. I have found that most women and especially those over 50 tend to keep the competition internal. Although they do want to and enjoy doing better than their rival, making it public is not something they enjoy.
PRs are not out of the question. Usually, there is an 8 to 10 year span from the start of training to the end of improvement. But, fast times can still be run as long as the training addresses the increased risk of injury, lost of muscle strength and increased need for social aspects of training.
Training must be keep fun. Ignoring the social aspect of running with women over 50 is a mistake. Although some women can and do train alone, when training in a group the social aspect of each workout needs to be considered.