A Beginner’s Guide to Running in Your 40s, 50s, and 60s
Whether you used to run when you were younger or you’ve never laced up a pair of sneakers before, you can start running after 40 and enjoy the benefits for years to come. The secrets are to prepare properly, have realistic expectations, and have a strategy that sets you up for long-term success.
It’s no secret that running is great for your body. For people of all ages, running has cardiovascular benefits: A 2019 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that people who ran at least once a week had a significantly lower cause of death from heart disease and cancer than those who didn't run. But there are many other reasons to take up midlife running, too.
The Benefits of Midlife Running
Runners and running coaches agree that one of the best things about running is how it helps manage stress—which is particularly important for women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, who are often juggling the demands of work and family.
"To start running, you have to find your ‘why,’” says Sarah Snyder, 45, a runner based in Iowa City, Iowa. “Even though I started to be a role model for my kids to have a healthy lifestyle, it ended up being ultimately for myself.” Studies have shown that running improves mental health including relief of tension, improved self-image, and better mood.
There are specific physical benefits of midlife running, as well. In addition to burning calories and improving cardiovascular health, it can help build strength. "Especially when you start talking about women hitting middle age, what becomes more important with running is the fact that it's a weight-bearing activity," says Natasha Trentacosta, M.D., a sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles.
Although bone density starts to decline as women get older and estrogen levels drop, "running can help counteract the loss of bone density that happens and help stave off osteoporosis," Trentacosta says. This decrease in risk of osteoporosis and increase in muscle strength will help reduce the risk of falls and the subsequent risk of hip fractures.
Along with a healthy diet, running in your 40s and beyond can also help you maintain a healthy weight, which puts less stress on your joints as you get older. What’s more, a March 2019 study published in the journal Cardiology suggested that becoming physically active in midlife (between ages 40 and 61) can provide long-term health benefits that are comparable to those enjoyed by people who have been exercising since their 20s or 30s.
Common Challenges of Running in Your 40s, 50s, or 60s
For many women, the biggest challenge to taking up running after 40 is making time for it. Taking time for yourself can be tough if you’re used to prioritizing other people’s needs ahead of your own.
But by consciously adding running to your schedule, you may be able to shift this mindset. The best thing about running is that you can do it anywhere, like around your neighborhood. And you don’t need to waste time driving to a certain location to start running.
“I recommend mapping out your day, making space for working out, and scheduling it on the calendar,” says Natalie Mitchell, 48, a running coach based in Southern California. “However, don't be afraid to be flexible in the schedule, and remember to give yourself grace.”
Another common challenge can be feeling that you’re too old to start running after 40. It can be intimidating to see young runners on the cover of magazines, or sprinting around your local track, especially if you’re not currently in marathon shape.
But there’s no expiration date on running. “We need more women in midlife being an example that you can be fit, healthy, glowing, and beautiful at any age,” Mitchell says. Adds Jacqueline Stephens, 60, a runner based in Houston, “I would tell women I know, it’s easy to say you can’t run, but until you try, you will never really know—even at this age!”
How to Start Running After 40
A mistake that many beginning runners make is to start too aggressively, which can lead to injury or to a quick burnout in your fledgling routine.
"The biggest challenge I see with new runners is an imbalance of expectations,” says Rebekah Mayer, 40, a nutrition and running coach in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. “They think they should be able to go out and run a mile or run 3 miles and just do it. And it isn't that simple."
Starting slow and working your way up is the key. The following tips can help you prepare and get your routine started safely, whether you start running in your 40s, your 50s, or beyond:
1. Check with your doctor first
"Before you do a new exercise program, start with talking to your physician to make sure that you're healthy enough—especially when it's a higher-impact activity like running," Trentacosta says. If you've had hip or knee pain, or an injury from running in the past like shin splints, you might also consider seeing a physical therapist for gait analysis before you start running after 40.
2. Get 2 pairs of good running shoes
A running store can fit you with a shoe that works for your foot structure. There are many factors that go into picking a good shoe, including the arch of your foot, shoe drop, and how your foot moves when you run. A properly fitted running shoe can prevent injury.
Mitchell recommends getting two pairs and rotating between them to help extend the life of the shoes. It’s also good to pick up some running socks, too.
3. Don’t push yourself too hard
"Any time you undertake a new activity, especially one that has high intensity like running, you need to go into that activity gradually," Trentacosta says. She suggests setting a long-term goal, such as running a 5K or 10K in five or six months, and working your way slowly up to that distance. "Don't go from never running to running a 5K in two weeks!"
Setting up short-term goals to reach your long-term goal can help make it less daunting. For example, a short-term goal could be running for 10 minutes three times a week, and then next week, running for 20 minutes three times a week, until you slowly reach your long-term goal.
4. Walk before you run
First, make sure you can do a brisk walk for 30 minutes three to five times a week, suggests Sarah. The run will build from the walks, but the walks are the foundation and get you used to the routine, the terrain, and all the other aspects of running.
Even before walking, it’s important to stretch your muscles to prevent injury. Stretching is a type of warmup for your muscles, and it’s important that you target your hamstrings, calves, and quadriceps.
5. Begin with a short run-walk
Mayer suggests starting with 20 minutes broken up into five-minute intervals, like so:
- Run for one minute,
- Walk for four minutes
- Repeat the process four times
From there, you can increase the running—start to run for two minutes and walk for three minutes, and so on. “Once you're at four to five minutes of straight running, stretch out the total duration of activity,” Mayer says. “In about eight weeks, you should be able to run a 5K [3.1 miles].”
As you run more, you’ll still want to incorporate some walking. Concentrate on the number of minutes you run, not the miles.
6. Try to run every day
As you start to build the habit of running in your 40s, 50s, or 60s, it’s important to acclimate your body. “It's going to be hard at first, especially if you're not used to it,” Mitchell says. “But know that if you just stick with it, you're going to see the benefits and you're going to feel better.”
It may take four to six weeks before your body gets used to running, Mayer adds. Try to run every day if possible. If not, at least try to run 30 minutes a day for five days a week, as this is the recommendation from the American Heart Association for a healthy heart.
7. Incorporate cross-training and strength training
As you get more established, consider cross-training a few times a week. Activities like aqua jogging or riding a stationary bike can help you become stronger. Plus, strength training is important. "This is critical for every runner—and women entering midlife, who lose muscle mass," Mitchell says. A coach can help you set up a routine.
8. Join a running community
Although running alone can provide you with some valuable alone time, many runners love running in a group to help motivate them and to socialize.
During a solo run one day, Jacqueline was stopped by a woman who asked whether she wanted to join Black Girls Run. Although she was used to running 3 miles a day, the group pushed her to do far more as she ran with them three times a week, including more than 20 half-marathons.
"It was a competition without being competitive, believe it or not,” she says. “You're challenged to do your best but run your race at your pace."
Sarah agrees that community is important. Although some groups with a lot of younger, competitive runners can be a turnoff for some women in midlife, there are many options out there. Indeed, Sarah started a virtual running-over-40 club and has a podcast, as well. “I wanted to create a community that was more people running for fitness, but who also wanted that accountability and connection,” she says.
If you prefer to go it solo, running apps or listening to music can help you stay motivated, as well.
9. Stay hydrated
When you’re starting out and running for 20 to 30 minutes, you probably don’t need to bring water with you. But it’s important to drink water both before and after your run to help the recovery process. If you go longer than 30 minutes, it may be worth bringing a water bottle of some kind.
10. Run safely
Be mindful of where you're running. "If possible, running on bike paths that are off of the road is ideal so that you're not dealing with traffic,” Mayer says.
If you’re running on roads, stay on the left side with other pedestrians, facing traffic, and wear bright clothing so that you’re easily visible, especially if you're running in dim lighting. If you’re running in the city, be sure to make eye contact with the driver when crossing the street so that you know for sure they see you.
Finally, to help you stay motivated over time, it can help to write down why you run on an index card and keep it in a visible place. Your card might say, “To show my kids how to stay healthy,” “To run a 5K,” or anything that rings true for you.
Midlife Running: It’s Never Too Late
Running is a highly accessible sport that can help you feel better physically and mentally, and potentially introduce you to new friends. Best of all? It’s something that can be started at any point in your life.
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