Last January, Jasmin Paris became the first woman to win Britain’s grueling 268-mile Montane Spine Race. What makes her feat more remarkable is that the 35-year-old smashed the course record, set by a male runner, by 12 hours - while stopping to pump breast milk for her 14-month old at aid stations along the route!
There have always been inspirational runners who defy conventional beliefs regarding aging and human performance. Their stories are not so wonderful and encouraging just because of their superlative race times. They demonstrate a huge heart and spirit, one that embraces the fact of aging and celebrates it rather than trying to fend it off or conquer it.
Can I Run Forever?
Coaches and competitors alike are constantly grappling with the question of making concessions to age. Some people insist that aging is purely a mental affair, and the only reason we think we can’t run after a certain age is that of our societal conditioning and beliefs.
In the late 1990’s I met several 70-something runners who joined me at the starting line of the Leadville Trail 100. I was deeply moved. I knew from that day forward I would be a lifer. Hence my original coaching slogan was born: “Run Forever!”
Now, at 64 years young, I’ve become more of a realist. Even if I were to advance some novel argument touting the merits of running to attain long term health and longevity, the truth of the matter is that the biopsychology of aging remains largely a mystery. I personally believe it is entirely dependent on one’s individual human experience.
As we get older, we discover changes — sometimes dramatic changes — in how our bodies move and behave. If we can accept the reality of life after our prime years with ease and grace, if we can decide to “intentionally age” with optimism and humor, we can turn our golden years into a time of personal renewal and deep satisfaction.
Do You Know Your Fitness Age?
How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?
Current research suggests that a person’s “fitness age” — determined primarily by a measure of cardiovascular health — is a better predictor of longevity than chronological age alone. And your body’s capacity to transport and use oxygen during exercise (VO2 max) is the most precise measure of overall cardiovascular health and fitness.
Thankfully, one’s fitness age is not set in stone. Many older athletes are amazingly young in terms of fitness age. Sports like running can dramatically slow the rate of decline from aging. Many of the masters ultra runners I know have stayed remarkably young. Some older athletes can even improve with age – if they learn how to adjust their training expectations in order to compensate for the inevitable effects of physical aging. It’s not unusual to meet runners who exude the glow of fitness well after the chronological age of 50.
The wisdom older runners have gained over the years and decades allows them to mentally cope with the challenges of longer-distance training and racing. Their strength is found in their ability to concentrate and endure. In this way, they run well beyond their prime years.
When Life is in Balance, Everything Works Better
However, the quantity of exercise is not the same as the quality of exercise. In fact, master’s endurance athletes and weekend warriors who spend an inordinate amount of time getting fit may actually be harming themselves by pushing and sacrificing their bodies beyond their limits. By training smarter, not harder, one can maintain optimum health while achieving impressive levels of physical performance.
An injured knee, an irregular heartbeat, recurring respiratory infection, chronic fatigue or other health problems should not be considered “side effects” of training hard. These symptoms are all indicators of an imbalance between fitness and health. It is vital to acknowledging and pay heed to our bodies, no matter how old we are. – Phil Maffetone
The Importance of Relationships
Researchers far smarter and more eloquent than I am have recently reported some very interesting findings. The three-decade Harvard Men’s Health Study indicates that the strongest determiner of longevity by far is not cardiovascular health, but the quality of relationships, friendships and family ties that one has cultivated throughout one’s life.
The better the quality of our relationships, the longer and happier our lives. Thus my current coaching mantra: “Run Together.”