Mature(ing) Runners…Lessons from the MASTERS!

This is an article about running. It is a collection of wise practices from a group of runners. If you are interested in running for life, and staying healthy and competitive as you get older, please read on.

However, if you are not into running, or health, or longevity…you may not be enthused to explore the pearl-rich nature of this piece. In fact, you might even lack the endurance to go the distance and make it through this diatribe. If so, run — quickly and as far away from this post — as your non-running self will allow.

Full disclosure here. This project came out of the blue as part of a strategy to ameliorate some of the impacts of social distancing during the current COVID-19 pandemic. I wanted to connect with some old friends, guys who I have known for decades and with whom I’ve logged a few miles. So we set up a Virtual Pub in which we gathered from around the country across our computer screens, shared a beverage of choice, and shot the sheeyott. 

More disclosure. This group of men ages 40-70 and numbers a dozen. Technically we make up a Million Mile Club, when you add up the total number of miles we’ve all run over a lifespan. So there is some real experience here. Actually, I’m kind of the “lite” member of the club because my totals don’t match up with the rest of the group. But they always let me play with them anyway. Classy dudes. Of course, I make up for what I lack in talent, dedication, and consistency with a healthy dose of passionate enthusiasm for health and performance…and fellowship.

Now we should probably talk about the “MASTER” word. Historically, this has been a label given to athletes who are basically just old. Yes, we are wise, experienced, and grisled…but mostly just old. “MASTER” is ostensibly a nicer way of recognizing old runners who are fighting the battle against getting slower. But this group is doing that gracefully and successfully, with equally impressive quantities of results and perspective. So they really are masters at running, health, and life. Consequently, in reading further, you will sitteth at the foot of the masters and learn from their sage-like teachings. 

The initial meeting of the Old Runner’s Virtual Pub consisted of myself, Craig, Dan, and Pat. We enjoyed each other’s company and banter, and discussed responses to the following 4 questions:

  1. What is your favorite running workout of all time?
  2. Why do you like this session, and what makes it so valuable for you?
  3. Can you name the single most beneficial supplemental exercise that you rely upon to keep your body functioning well?
  4. What have you found to be the most effective lifestyle practice that supports your health and performance?

I’ll go through all of our responses, highlighting the conversation as each member of the club shared their insights.

Craig offered up that he really finds it valuable to do his more intense or focused sessions in group format with his local track club. The team atmosphere and social uplift seems to make high effort somehow more tolerable, and we all agreed with this point. We also lamented that such a training environment is not currently available due to isolation requirements. Craig’s fave sesh is 12 minutes at tempo pace/3 minutes jogging/12 minutes at tempo pace. He described how the 3 minutes of active rest in the middle of the session (as opposed to just doing a continuous tempo run with no break) allows him to focus on consistent effort more easily as well as adjust pace in the second rep as needed. Craig has found that he does best in training, and avoiding breakdown, when he limits his total amount of quality running to a maximum of 3 miles in a given workout. He’ll usually do this or a similar session once per week during periods of the year when he is building conditioning. 

I only asked for one workout but Craig was generous enough to share another. His alternative go-to workout is 18 x 40 seconds fast/20 seconds easy. Of course this workout, as well as the one mentioned above and any other session that is not an endurance or recovery run, is always bracketed by an adequate warmup and cooldown. Naturally I like it that he chose the number 18 for reps, as opposed to caving in to convention and going for 20, but the rebel in me would prefer a range of 15-19 reps. In this way Craig could quit when the body says it’s time to quit more so than what the mind thinks. Plus, ending a workout on an odd number like 17 sticks it to the man, proving he doesn’t own you by compelling you to think in an overly linear fashion. But all of my peanut gallery BS aside, Craig keeps the number of reps static while adjusting pace if needed to keep the workout safe and effective. 

Up next was Dan, and in a half-joking/half-serious fashion (his usual way) he stated: “My favorite workout is the one I just finished!” After we all chuckled, Dan went on to explain how he really values the win of “getting it done,” whatever “it” happens to be. Whether the workout was hard or easy, Dan considers the survival of “non-fatal adversity” to be an additive feature to all aspects of life. It makes him confident that difficult things can be overcome. I’ll add here that this is really a part of the athlete’s mindset, and it’s also why every human beast has something to be gained by living athletically. No victory is insignificant, and the effect of piling up wins is multiplicative in self-confidence, productivity, and life satisfaction. 

Inspired by these guys, I threw my favorite workouts into the mix. Since Craig went with 2, I figured I’d do the same. Numero uno for me is 6 x flying-start 30-meter sprints, on the track, in spikes. This is a pure sprinting workout which I absolutely adore. Here’s the interesting thing about this workout. Even though the actual focused sprinting time of the workout is a total of about 20 seconds (hitting 9 meters-per-second during each 30m section at 95+% max velocity), it takes me a full hour to get through this sesh. I’ll start with some walking, and then a little jogging. Next up is a series of exercises. This is followed by running technique drills. After that there are several acceleration runs to gradually get comfortable with flooring the gas pedal. Then I set up cones on the track for the take-off zone, the full sprint section, and the float-out. Full rests of several minutes are required between reps to be ready to go again. After the sprints, a few mobility exercises and general conditioning work is done. The amazing thing about this workout is that it activates and energizes me so much. The sprints are so short and so few (sometimes I’ll only do 4 or 5 reps depending on how I’m feeling) that I’m not tired or sore the next day.

I have to resist the urge to run a bunch of longer reps after the sprints because doing so would defeat the true max speed stimulus of the workout. Even more so than when I was younger, I’ve found that brief workouts stimulate and exhilarate me, while long grinder sessions inhibit and exhaust me. I’ve learned to prefer freshness over fitness, to some degree. I’m happy showing up at a track meet or race not quite as fit as I could be, or as the guy on either side of me. But I’ve found that being fresh, energetic, and aggressive usually serves me quite well. 

My other cherished running workout, which I’ll do once or twice a week in the warm weather months, is my super-slow 30-minute barefoot grass jog. I’m a big advocate for barefoot running on natural surfaces like fields or beaches. There are many benefits to this practice such as foot strengthening and injury prevention, stride and strike improvements that enhance performance, and even hippy-dippy grounding benefits that can balance hormones and reduce inflammation. I run super-slow (thus the name), starting out at 11-12  minute-per-mile pace, and then sometimes getting under 9-minute pace toward the end. I’ll keep my heart rate under 130 beats per minute and really just enjoy going easy. This is a totally oxygenating training bout that helps me with recovery as well as in building my modest aerobic fitness base. And, as is typical with me, I’ll sometimes go 23 minutes or 38 minutes, depending on how I feel. I almost always do this run alone, not so much because I’m trying to protect my moving meditation time, but because most people hate this session. A lot of runners won’t take their shoes off, they just can’t stand to run as slowly as I do, and they get pissed that I don’t run exactly 30 minutes. 

If Craig is the Tactician, Dan is the Philosopher, and I’m the Rebel of our group, then Pat is definitely The Director. Using his skills and career experience in organization and leadership, Pat is a master at designing and executing a training session. In a group situation, everyone defers to his authority, because you know intrinsically that he is going to manage the situation most effectively for the benefit of everyone. 

Pat likes the 2 x 1 mile Uptempo Experience. Sounds like the Jimi Hendrix Experience in some ways to me. Essentially, this is 1 mile @ tempo effort/pace, 1 mile easy jog, and 1 mile @ 5k race effort/pace. Pat has found that running two strong miles on occasion in training, allows him to run harder in races. It makes pain a non-foreign entity that can be dealt with during competition. Because he is familiar with the discomfort of this workout, when similar sensations appear in a race, Pat knows how to handle it. 

Now let’s move on to key exercises in conditioning. The point that came up was that while we all recognized that having a handful of solid moves was beneficial, we wanted to identify the 1 exercise that each of us has found to yield the greatest benefit. Maintaining strength and mobility, staying injury-free, and enhancing performance were some of the considerations. 

Craig has become a big fan of the weighted carry. He likes to walk several hundred feet with heavy dumbbells at his sides, or light ones held overhead. He’s found this to really increase his durability, particularly when running trails and hills.

Dan has a circuit of basic functional movement patterns that he likes. Even though it is more than one exercise, it all fits together as a block so we’ll let that slide. He even suggested that my input on training the basic patterns has influenced him, so all the better. Dan does trunk work, pullups, pushups, and squats in a body blaster routine that has served him well. He actually looks like a very slim bodybuilder and rarely gets hurt, so this sesh must be good.

I chose the trap bar deadlift. The trap, or hexagonal bar, is easier on the back than a straight bar, and this exercise arguably activates more total body muscle than any other. Honestly, I do a lot of other exercises in my training, but I try to hit the TBD once or twice a week. I’ll usually do a half-dozen sets, working up to a heavy double or triple. That’s plenty for me. 

Pat has a workout that he calls the 100-40-10 and it consists of 100 crunches, 40 pushups, and 10 pullups. He travels a lot for work and finds that this is a quick session he can bang out in just a few minutes while on the road. This workout helps Pat maintain conditioning so that when he is home he can go to the gym and train without straining muscles.

The take-home message with these supplemental exercises is the mutual agreement between our members that you can’t just run if you want to maintain a healthy, functional, athletic body. Just like only doing yoga or only lifting will cause you to come up short in a few categories (I make enemies with statements like that all the time), runners have to be careful not to become weak, stiff, brittle, old shufflers. These guys are kicking ass because they are working on total health and fitness.

Finally, we had a nice chat about lifestyle practices. No rules were set. You could be as woo-woo as you wanted. 

Craig went with two items again. First he said the Captain Obvious elephant in the room has always been sleep. Now it is getting the press it deserves and he practices many of the sleep hygiene tactics we’ve highlighted previously in many TLA resources. Craig noted how he could get away with a small, temporary amount of compromise in the sleep department in his youth, but now he finds there is no tolerance in his body for deficiencies with this critical process. He also said being out in nature, particularly running in the forest along streams, is so vital for providing a natural renewing experience.

Dan went with music. He’s an accomplished violinist, and he has found that the concentration required of an art form like music is incredibly beneficial for the soul. “It’s something other than running that helps me to feel creative and engaged.”

I had no choice but to go with nutrition. In general, eating the healthiest, whole-foods diet I could experiment with to get my best results. Specifically, that’s a diet with a lot of animal products, a limited amount of plant foods, and one that is relatively low-carb. This has made maintaining my health status, blood markers, and weight relatively easy. It’s also really helped with recovery from training. I’m not rigid in this approach and I certainly have a few indulgences, but I’ve found that cutting out most of the pasta, cereal, energy bars, and sports drinks that I used to pound has helped me quite a bit.

Pat touched on the enjoyment of a brew with your blokes at the Pub (virtual or otherwise) and it’s benefits, proven by science, in relaxation and companionship. Then he swung back to choose another exercise, stretching, as his regular lifestyle practice. Pat stretches about 30 minutes every evening and this helps to keep him going. We had an engaging discourse on how some folks need to stretch more than others. Unlike many ballerinas, Pat lives on the stability end of the mobility-stability continuum. He is actually an outlier whose tissues have more of a tendency toward concrete than willow branches. For Pat, stretching makes a huge difference. 

In summary, the first meeting of the Old Runner’s Virtual Pub was a complete joy. It was great to reconnect with friends and yuck it up. It was also quite enriching to really listen, and learn from people that I care about and respect. I’m enlightened about how each of us share some general wisdom gleaned from fairly vast experience. Keeping workloads absorbable, shoring up the body, and valuing sleep, recovery, and relationships was a central tenet of the discussion. Plus, living in, and learning about, our individual bodies…and how to best train them, was an especially important topic. I hope you took many pearls from this missive. I’ve got some more of the guys to interview and I might make the next one more about men’s health and less about running. And there is a women’s discussion (with me as note taker) in the works as well. Cheers and stay healthy, fit, and peak performing…for LIFE!

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