Here's a situation I find myself in pretty often: Someone sees me post-run, or about to go on a run, or just in running clothes (these circumstances make up about 85 percent of my waking hours). They strike up a conversation with me about running, then utter some variation of these dreaded words: "I used to run. I can't anymore. My [fill in the blank—knees, back, ankles, feet] just couldn't take it." Ugh. Then, there's the twist of the knife, "Just wait until you get older." (Add that to the list of things you should never say to runners.)
I'm a reformed sloth who found running in my 20s, and I already regret the years I wasted avoiding the gym and the trails. So to hear that my running days are numbered is a blow. I mean, I get that I won't always be able to head out the door whenever I want for a few miles. Life gets big—you have kids, your responsibilities add up, you run less often. But not being able to run because my body revolts? I'll say it again: UGH.
The good news is, it doesn't need to be that way, says Jordan Metzl, M.D., a sports medicine doctor who's also an avid runner. "I plan on running for the rest of my life," he says. "And I know it's possible. In my practice I see 10-year-old runners, 82-year-old runners, and everything in between. My goal in life is to keep my patients and myself running as long and as far as possible."
To make that happen, he's found success in a four-step plan.
First, pay attention to your body. "Runners are notoriously tough, but you get no extra points for turning a minor injury into a major one because you didn't listen to the cues and go to a doctor," he says. "If you experience pain that changes the mechanics of your movement, get it checked out." Meaning: If that sore hip is making you put extra weight on your other side, get to a doctor stat. (Know the signs of these five super-common beginner runner injuries.)
Next, tune into your stride. "We're increasingly understanding the importance of using a short stride, high cadence run," Metzl says. Over-striding creates more pressure and strain each time your foot hits the ground, which increases your risk of injury. Testing your stride is a pain,but it only takes a minute...literally. Start a stopwatch and run, counting how many times your left foot hits the ground in 60 seconds. You're aiming for 80 to 90 times.
Third, be smart about your training plan. "So many of the injuries I see are caused by people who decide to ramp up their activity really quickly," says Metzl. If you want to add more miles to your schedule or you're training for a race, great! But follow a training plan to be sure you're not adding too much too fast and are taking enough rest days, devoting enough time to cross training, and so on.
Finally, take care of your "kinetic chain," says Metzl. He's referring to the succession of joints and muscles that all play a part in your ability to move and run. "A stronger kinetic chain means there's less loading force when you run, which protects you from injury," he says. Taking care of your kinetic chain means strength training, like the ones in this 9-minute workout for runners.
The bottom line, says Metzl: "You don't need to stop running when you're older. You may need to start doing more strength-training days and less days of running in a row, but beyond that, you should be able to run into your 80s without any problem." (After all, this 71-year-old runner completed 81 marathons!) Color me relieved.