Marathon Runners Stop Aging Out of the Race

More People Over 50 Are Finishing the 26.2-Mile Races; Health Benefits, But Training, Injury Concerns, Too

Adrienne Lotson, who turned 50 this year, is running her first marathon race on Sunday, and no one is more surprised about it than she is.  The New York lawyer only started running in spring of last year and so far has participated in just a few shorter races. "I clearly remember saying that I would never run a marathon," says Ms. Lotson about the grueling 26.2-mile footrace, which mostly attracts younger runners. "I thought marathon runners were certifiably insane," she says.

In fact, runners 50 years and older represent one of the fastest-growing age groups participating in the increasingly popular events. As the total number of runners finishing marathons in the U.S. doubled to 518,000 in the 20 years ended in 2011, the number of finishers age 50 and older nearly tripled to 92,200, or about 18% of the total, according to Running USA, an industry-funded research group. At the ING New York Marathon, in which Ms. Lotson is running this weekend, more than 1 out of every 5 finishers at last year's race, or 9,710 athletes, ran in 50-and-older age groups. 

Of course, the stresses of long-distance running are harder on aging joints, feet, muscles and backs, leaving older marathoners more prone to injury than younger competitors. Some coaches say aging marathoners need to adopt different techniques than younger people when training for a race, including more cross-training sessions in the pool and on a bike and allowing extra time for rest and recovery between practice runs.

Older runners also may need to use different strategies during a marathon, consuming extra water and nutrition and interspersing walking and running. And most aging marathoners must come to peace with slower finishes, accepting that their best race times are probably behind them.

A growing body of evidence shows running can reduce the risk or delay the onset of cardiovascular disease, dementia, cancer, depression and other diseases—big concerns for many aging baby boomers. Older people also are more likely to have the free time needed to spend long hours training and the financial means to afford the high costs of race-entrance fees, coaching, running equipment and travel expenses to races.

Still, there are greater risks for marathoners in the 50-plus age groups. Risk of sudden cardiac death is nearly twice as high for older marathon runners than for those under 40. But the rate is too low—barely 1 in 100,000 marathoners die during a race—to warrant general warnings to runners older than 50. And a study published in September in the Journal of Cardiovascular Magnetic Resonance showed that one consequence of marathon running—a swelling and weakening of the right side of the heart shown to heal within days in younger people—also dissipates just as quickly in runners over age 50.

"There are dangers [for older runners]—you shouldn't experience severe chest pain during a marathon—but the research is clear that running is good for you," says Paul Thompson, a veteran former marathoner and sports cardiologist at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut.

When Ms. Lotson turned 50 in January, she decided to become more physically active in honor of her mother, a smoker who lived a sedentary lifestyle and who had died several years earlier at age 73. Ms. Lotson signed up for an organized walk in Manhattan's Harlem neighborhood, where she found herself next to two elderly women. They mentioned having walked several marathons.

"I was shocked—I didn't know you could walk a marathon," says Ms. Lotson, who began preparing to do it. While walking during a four-mile race in Central Park last year, Ms. Lotson was encouraged by a fellow runner to try running the last mile. To her surprise, she pulled it off with ease, and since then has become a 12-minute miler alternating walking with running. She also has joined an online group called Black Girls Run!, saying she loves its motto: "Preserve the Sexy." Since securing a spot in this weekend's New York marathon, she has competed in some shorter races, eventually shaving 19 minutes off her initial half-marathon time. Ms. Lotson says she expects to cross the finish line Sunday in about six hours.

Jeff Galloway, a 1972 Olympian and a proponent of running well into old age, says he believes the crucial question isn't how fast a runner crosses the finish line but how painlessly. The 67-year-old, who has written books and leads clinics on running, developed a run-walk-run system he says can help avoid the leg and feet pain that leaves many marathon finishers crippled for hours, if not days. Together with his wife, the Atlanta resident says he still completes a marathon every month.

Older bodies generally need more hydration and nutrition, particularly during long runs. "If you're in your 40s or 50s or older, you should be taking in something at every water station, ideally a sports drink if your stomach can handle it," says Alan Culpepper of Boulder, Colo., a two-time Olympic distance runner who specializes in training older marathoners.

To reduce injury risk for older people, coaches recommend more stretching, including light yoga, and more rest and recovery, particularly after the long training runs that are the staple of any marathon-preparation program. Mr. Culpepper, for instance, recommends eight longer-than-half-marathon runs. Following those, runners older than 50 should either take the day off or do another activity such as swim, bike or yoga, he says.

Some older runners give up the marathon circuit to compete in shorter races. For marathon runner Russ Patrick, 67, that means less competition. Mr. Patrick, a public-relations executive in Beverly Hills, Calif., ran his first marathon in his 20s. But most of the 46 marathons he has completed have been after turning 50. Since turning 60, Mr. Patrick has won four plaques for finishing near the top of his age group. That is a recognition that eluded him when he was younger. "I think a lot of the competition decided past age 50 to cut back to half marathons, or maybe 10Ks," says Mr. Patrick, who plans to keep running two marathons a year.

For a few people who come to running late in life, there is the discovery that they are naturally gifted. After running her first marathon at age 52—and barely missing qualifying for a spot at Boston's elite race—Debbie Clark hired Mr. Culpepper as her coach.

This spring, at age 59, she set a personal record in the London marathon of 3 hours, 33 minutes—10th out of 388 women in her age group. "My knees are still good, maybe because I started running late," says Ms. Clark, owner of a Dallas property management firm. "I believe I have another personal record in me," she says.

By Kevin Helliker, The Wall Street Journal
Reviewed / Posted by: Scott W. Yates, MD, MBA, MS, FACP

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