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Returning to Running?


Welcome back!

If life were a Hollywood movie, a running comeback would play out something like this – you’d struggle for a bit, get beaten by the bad guys in a few races, consider giving up, but then, against all the odds, everything clicks and you return to former glory and win.

Well, we have some good news for you. With careful scripting such a role is available to you, the runner who used to put in the miles in school and perhaps beyond, but for the last decade or so has enjoyed a slightly more sedentary existence. It may not seem possible as you stop exhausted after a couple of hundred metres on your first run this century, but science and physiology has just one message for you – it is possible to get back. Things will definitely get better. A Hollywood role as the good guy returning to beat everyone is possible.

“If you’ve been a reasonably good runner that usually says you have the physiological capacity to run,” says John Brewer, sports professor at St Mary’s in London (and a not bad runner). “If you stop that genetic capacity doesn’t just go away. It may get hidden by layers of body fat and a decline in cardiovascular capacity, but it is still there.”

Needless to say that doesn’t mean you that on day one of your resolution to get back to fitness you head out of the door and attempt to relive the exploits of your youth. You body and its higher fat content, combined with a reduced ability to process oxygen as well as a teenager and tighter muscles and degenerating tendons will tell you straight away that was a foolish move.

“You need to understand your body will not respond how it used to,” says sports scientist Dr Sarah Rowell, who ran a UK record for the marathon of 2:28:06 back in 1985. Put simply, you will take longer to recover because of hormonal depletion and damage running does to muscle fibres or connective tissues. However, she’s keen to point out that once you’ve been checked by a GP to make sure there are no underlying problems, there is no reason physiologically why with time you cannot return to a good training level. 

There is no excuse

Every runner will have heard the line ‘ I used to run, but my knees can’t take it any more.’ And while that may indeed be true for some unfortunate athletes out there, be assured, running is actually good for you. For most of us, that’s not a valid reason to don our shoes once again. “All the evidence says that,” confirms John Brewer. “And it doesn’t cause damage,” he adds. That’s an interesting point. Marathon great Bill Rodgers (2:09:27 in 1979) recently quoted cellular damage as one of the reasons he doesn’t compete so well in age-group. “No research behind it,” Sarah Rowell says flatly, while John is of the same opinion. “When it does occur, it repairs very quickly,” he says. And actually Bill himself should use a different line for his declining speed as the stats tell us he could break 70min for the half marathon aged 50!

More likely reasons for decline – aging aside – include training regimes followed, diet, lifestyle and motivation. “Inevitably there is a physiological decline – speed and power mostly. You just cannot produce the same you once did. You cannot stop that decline, but you can slow it down,” says John.

Strength training is something that will do exactly that. Runners (of yesteryear and currently) are notorious for just going out for a run and leaving it at that. “A focused gym-type programme is important,” says Sarah. Research tells us that men who lift weights a few times a week in their 50s and 60s can maintain their muscle mass, not simply slow the rate of decline. No more excuses, get strength training. 

Sarah also has some valid opinions on short, sharp speed work, again something ‘runners’ tend to ignore. “As you get older, tendons do not respond as well, so sprint-type work can ‘regenerate’ (slow their decline) them.”

Of course, it goes without saying all this hugely personal. Sarah readily admits that 2:28 is obviously beyond her now, but so is the training required to produce an age-group time on a par. Her biomechanics have changed as years of sitting behind a desk has shortened muscles. Indeed the latest research suggests sitting passively all day long at work is nearly as bad as smoking. Motivation has also gone. “Could be there are some inbuilt receptors that tell you to slow down because of the pain you could inflict on yourself when you were younger,” she speculates, quoting Tim Noakes, a world leading authority on the physiology of running. 

Or you’re just a bit wiser. But don’t ever use the excuse ‘it’s too late’ because it isn’t.

Science has changed

If you’ve been away from running for a while, science has much to tell you. Runners of a certain vintage didn’t drink, or use energy gels; there’s a big change there. Equally the understanding of how effective short, sharp speedwork can be, even for older runners, has changed. The science behind running shoes has altered dramatically as well. And make sure you know what you’re looking for when it come to breathable fabrics – they really do make a difference. Don’t forget stretching. Used to be that was good, but not any more. Dynamic movement before a run is great, static (old fashioned) stretching good afterwards.

You will get beaten

Chances are, if you’re returning, you’re a little older and well, younger runners will beat you – physiological fact. Runners who don’t look like runners will skip away into the distance. Worry not, you’ll still beat many, find your own level.

It’s not wrong to rest

Understand the importance of recovery and you’ll reap the benefits. It is possible to do the same kind of training you used to but when you return to running, you must realise you have to take longer between races, long runs, short runs… heck everything…. to allow your body to repair. Forget the ‘no pain, no gain’ mantra and get your feet up.

You probably like a beer or two

Lifestyle is hugely important and clearly alcohol may play a role in this. Do you have a mortgage, kids, an important job? These all play a role in your life, more so than when you gave up running (to get married etc). But don’t feel bad; have a beer and reassess your goals.

You’re no longer 18

Sessions that you could do on a whim will cause damage; muscles have shortened, tendons have become less pliable. They can still work, but with time and care. And as for your heart, well put simply, it will not beat as fast as it did when younger due to a steady fall in the number of receptors in your heart to tell it do so.

Forget those sausage rolls

A controversial area that has a simple (and complex) result; lose weight and you will run quicker. Indeed 1lb lighter is roughly 2sec per mile quicker on a long run. Of course, starving yourself is not the key and nor possibly is shedding pounds. But if you do want to run quickly again, you’re going to have to do something about it from a diet point of view.

Paul Larkins, author of this piece and sub four-minute miler in the late 1980s has his own come-back experience...

Ever the willing guinea pig, Paul embarked on, not a return to running, but a return to training. Days (and years) of easy 30min runs were replaced by a move back to world of fast mile repetitions, long runs and even racing. Initially, things were tough and racing was, at best, moderate. But given time (12 weeks in this case), the change, while not strewn with world records, was very encouraging. Times dropped, run length increased all the way to 20 miles and race pace dropped to below 6min per mile for shorter events (5km).  

The secret? Forget what you’ve done training-wise in the past and come at from a new angle. Still train hard, but don’t be afraid to take a day or three off. And above all, enjoy it!

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