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Three types of Masters Athletes

This is an excerpt from Faster Road Racing by Pete Pfitzinger & Philip Latter.

Types of Masters Athletes

Not all masters runners are created alike. Because of differences in training background and motivation, some masters athletes experience a period of record-setting racing while others struggle to ward off a steady decline. A separate group is just happy to be lacing up the flats again, thrilled that the sport they quit has something to offer them again.

Figuring out what type of masters athlete you are is more than just semantics. It gives you the best chance to set appropriate goals and better adapt to the effects of aging. The following are three categories that embody the bulk of competitive masters runners.

Serious Lifetime Runners

Runners who have seriously pursued their sport since their youth often continue to compete into middle age and beyond. These runners have experienced all the highs and lows running has to offer and continue to push their physical limits. Decades of training have given them an enviable aerobic background and a firm understanding of where they fit in the running hierarchy.

In many ways the aging process is hardest on this group because its effects are most visible. Assuming consistent training and a normal progression, most serious lifetime runners recorded their PRs in distances of 5K and up from the ages of 25 to 35, saw a small drop in performance through their 40s, and then followed that with a more accelerated slowing thereafter. If they are to find continued meaning in the competitive side of the sport, most serious lifetime runners need to shift their focus to age-group racing and age-graded performances (discussed later in this chapter).

That's not to say that lifetime runners can't succeed at the highest level as masters. Haile Gebrselassie, the former world record holder in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters and marathon, immediately set masters world records in the 10K and 10-mile after turning 40. American legend Joan Benoit Samuelson has kept up superior racing even longer, winning gold at the 1984 Olympic marathon as a 27-year-old, then running in her eighth Olympic Trials marathon in 2008 as a 50-year-old.

Legendary Bill Rodgers: Aging Gracefully
AP Photo

Bill Rodgers, the legendary four-time winner of both the Boston Marathon and New York City Marathon, remained remarkably successful through his 40s and 50s. He still holds three U.S. records for 45- to 49-year-olds in the 8K (24:41), 15K (48:00), and half marathon (1:08:05). In addition, he once held the masters world record in the 10K with a time of 29:47.

As with many aging runners, Rodgers' path to masters glory has not been all smooth sailing. At the age of 56 he had his first major injury, breaking his right tibia, and at age 60 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Undeterred, Rodgers returned to the Falmouth Road Race at the age of 65 and won his age group - 40 years after winning the race outright. "These two ‘injuries' have provided me with good excuses for why I'm not as fast as some others my age," he says with his characteristic charm.

Rodgers still travels to 25 to 30 races per year in his longtime inspirational role to legions of younger runners but is more selective about how often he competes. "Seriously, I still like to race, but find I'm content to race less often now," he says. "I have run a half marathon this year in 1:44 and 10K in 47 minutes. Occasionally I can win my age group."

Rodgers conservatively guesses he's run close to 175,000 miles (280,000 km). "The tough thing for me is [the effect of] so many miles on my body after nearly 50 years as a runner," he says. To maintain his fitness, Rodgers still runs six days a week (although he believes he should only be running half that), runs on trails as much as possible, and hits the pool and lifts weights weekly. "I do some stretching but should do more," he says. "Overall I feel I need to do more cross-training. I also take naps probably three days a week for recovery, and have a deep-muscle massage every two weeks or so."

The one thing that doesn't seem to be in the cards is retirement. As Rodgers says, "It's still great to be a runner!"

New-to-the-Sport Masters Runners

Runners who begin training for the first time after the age of 40 often believe they have found the fountain of youth. In a short time they lose weight, improve their cholesterol profiles, and get fitter and faster from week to week while most of their peers are slowing and packing on the pounds.

As their love for the sport increases, new-to-the-sport masters runners are able to increase their training volume, improving their aerobic fitness. As their neuromuscular and cardiovascular systems adapt, these runners often seem to reverse the effects of aging by setting personal bests. When combined with the lack of accumulated wear and tear on their muscles, tendons, and joints, runners in this category often enjoy a five- to eight-year window in which they continue to set lifetime personal bests.

Kathy Martin
John Keklak

PRs since age 40: mile 5:14, 5K 17:23, 8K 28:57, 10K 36:31, half marathon 1:22:24

Age-group world records and American records at distances from 800 meters to 50K

There is inspiration. Then there's inspiration! Kathy Martin is the latter. It's hard to talk about her career without resorting to italics and exclamation points. Who, after all, goes from struggling to run around the block at age 30 to holding multiple age-group records at almost every conceivable distance? And who does it while working 60 to 70 hours a week as a real estate agent in high-demand Long Island, New York?

A relative latecomer to the sport, Martin didn't go for her first run until she was 30. Tagging along with her soon-to-be husband, Martin lasted all of 10 minutes before she was completely out of breath. "That was a huge ‘A-ha!' moment when I realized if I could not run a mile at 30, I would probably not be walking by the time I was 60," she says. "So I started running." After winning her first race, Martin flirted with the sport for more than a decade, taking time off to have a child and start her real estate career. But once she was introduced to masters track competitions, everything changed. "I like the rhythm of the roads, but the track distances are shorter and faster," she says. "I love that feeling as well. I love the variety that each provides."

Martin clearly loves variety. After turning 60 in 2011, she immediately went on a tear. She set American age-group records in the half marathon and marathon and won national championships in everything from the 1,500 meters to the 10,000 meters. She added world indoor records in the 1,500 meters and 3,000 meters. Perhaps most impressively, when she set the 50K American record for the 60 to 64 age group, her timed splits for 20K, 25K, and 30K were all American records as well.

That incredible range is the product of consistent training that touches on all the energy systems. While her mileage varies greatly depending on her race focus, Martin generally runs seven days per week on the roads and trails. Her husband, Chuck Gross, plans her training and includes a steady diet of lactate threshold runs, hill repeats, lots of V\od\O2max intervals, and a weekly long run. When preparing for shorter track races, Martin likes to include 1-minute pickups during her general aerobic runs to keep her legs feeling fast. Yoga, stretching, plyometrics, and weightlifting have all contributed to keeping her healthy and chasing records.

"I truly believe we need a posse of help as we age," she says. "So many runners I meet think they can just train through injuries. You can and need to incorporate into your training whatever is necessary to compete at a high level." In Martin's case this posse includes a chiropractor, physical therapist, massage therapist, and personal trainer to help with cross-training. She also pays extra attention to her nutrition and hydration compared to when she was younger.

Martin has one last bit of advice that she believes allows her to train at such a high level despite being in her 60s. It is simple, is available to all, and, not surprisingly, has an exclamation mark punctuating its end. The secret? "Keep it fun!" she says.

Born-Again Masters Runners

Careers. Families. Other interests. The reasons high school and college runners give up the sport during their primes are as diverse as the runners themselves. So, too, are the reasons for picking the sport back up after turning 40. Many born-again masters runners begin running again for health purposes, only to find the old competitive flame still burning as their fitness increases.

Born-again masters runners share many attributes with the other two groups. Like their new-to-the-sport friends, runners in this category often experience a period of rapid aerobic development and sustained period of improved performances. Those gains may have a different context, however, because born-again runners have a deeper background in the sport from their younger days. And as runners like Pete Magill (profiled at the end of this chapter) show, some born-again masters runners can turn in world-class performances upon returning to the sport, regardless of how long a hiatus they took.

Learn more about Faster Road Racing.

More Excerpts From Faster Road Racing