How to keep fit as you age

Runners zoom out of the starting gate in the 4×100-meter relay for women 40+ and men 70+ during the Penn Relays at Franklin Field in Philadelphia. (Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Monitor athletes in their 40s and 80s by sharing exercise tips as you get older

Staying active can be challenging as you age. Priorities change, and injury prevention and recovery from exercise often become more difficult for aging bodies.

Professional athletes 35 and older offer a look at how to stay fit as you age. The Washington Post spoke to masters athletes who competed in last months Penn Relays in Philadelphia, the oldest and largest track and field competition in the United States.

Here’s their advice on how to keep moving into your 40s, 50s and beyond.

Emphasize rest and recovery

An important part of running the masters is listening to your body. When 78-year-old Roger Pierce was younger, he thought he could train despite his injuries. Not anymore.

When you’re older, you have to be really mindful, she said. When you have pain, you have to deal with it; treat it, rest, don’t try to get over it.

Pierce, who is retired and lives in Rowley, Mass., ran cross country and track in high school and was a sprinter at Northeastern University in Boston. After about 15 years of absence from the sport, he started racing masters track at 39 years old and set several world age group records.

Recovery is just as important as your workout, she said. I’m fine with backtracking and taking a couple days off to recover.

Charles Allie, a 75-year-old retired shop teacher from Pittsburgh, agrees. The former Hampton University track and field athlete said it’s important to understand your body. You have to do what works for you, he said. Know your body and know what you can do. You don’t have to practice every day.

Focus on accident prevention

To avoid injury, many master runners incorporate other forms of movement into their routine. Jen St. Jean, 48, of Darien, Connecticut, does prehabilitation exercises like yoga, core exercises and foam rolling. St. Jean, a former University of Massachusetts at Amherst track and field athlete and former pro runner for Reebok, also sees a physical therapist once a week.

St. Jean, a mother of two, said she began focusing on strength and flexibility after having a hysterectomy about a decade ago. She opened my mind that there was more to do than run every day, she said.

Nathalie Jones, one of St. Jeans’ teammates at the Central Park Track Club, uses weight training as part of her injury prevention routine. I didn’t like doing weight training, but I finally got into it four years ago, due to a torn meniscus, the 48-year-old Manhattan resident said. Leg curls, squats, hamstring curls. I do a lot of weight training of my glutes and core.

Professional runners take warming up seriously due to the explosive work required by some track disciplines. For William Yelverton, 62, of Sewanee, Tennessee, that means lots of dynamic stretching like jumps and leg swings.

Muscle activation is important, he said.

Be kind to yourself if you can’t run like you used to.

Andrea Collier, 56, is a four-time All-American from Florida State University and competed at the 1988 United States Olympic Track and Field Trials in the 100 meters. The Orlando resident, who works as a safety officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, now has different goals and expectations.

You have to realize that you’re getting older, that you can’t do the things you did when you were younger, she said. For me, my mindset is that I’m just mentally competitive. I want to win as much as I did when I was young, but within reason.

Last month she finished third in the women’s 40m and over 100m in 13.68 seconds, a competitive time for her age but several seconds off what she ran in college.

Don’t try to compete with your 20-year-old self, Collier said. Set goals for where you are now and keep building from there.

Sleep deprivation can impair the functioning of the body. Easter Grant, who turned 40 in March, tries to get nearly eight hours of sleep a night. Toney, Ala., resident and applications programmer competed at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and said when she was younger, she could get away with a few hours of sleep, party all night, and then a track meet in the morning.

It’s not like that anymore.

If you don’t get enough sleep, you run like trash, she said.

Some master runners learn the sport late in life.

Racing at the Penn Relays, which include races for high schoolers, collegiate athletes, Olympians and masters athletes, had been on Nyok-Kheng Lim’s wish list ever since she moved to Philadelphia in 1970. But for decades, Lim thought that the master race was only for riders 80 and older.

So I waited until I was 80, said the 81-year-old originally from Malaysia.

Lim attended the event for the first time last year. I was more or less competing against myself, she said. Lim finished seventh of seven competitors this year in the women’s 100 meters aged 60 and over, but she was the only woman aged 80 or older.

Josh Buch, 86, started playing tennis in the mid-1960s, and it would be another decade before his first track and field event. We should always keep looking forward to doing new things, said Buch, a professor of finance and international affairs at La Salle University. Now, I’m hooked.

The oldest runner this year was 96-year-old Ed Cox, who finished sixth of seven runners in the men’s 85-and-older 100m in 24.04 seconds. The winner, 85-year-old Bob Williamson of Lawrenceville, NJ, finished in 17.50 seconds, a time many runners a quarter his age would be happy to run.

Don’t count your age. Forget what number it is. That’s the main thing, because it’s mostly in your head, Williamson said. Realize that the key to getting older is to keep moving.

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