How to Run Past 50—and Keep on Going

If age is just a number, distance can be, too.

Billy Simpson pretty much embodies the “youth has no age” approach to running. The 10-time Hardrock 100 finisher, now 62, has long silver hair arcing back from his forehead, cowboy-style, and talks about trail running with more enthusiasm than a first-time finisher. His times and rankings, consistently in the top 50 at Hardrock, also betray his age. Even so, he feels the effects of aging.

“Everything is harder,” he said. “Anyone who says otherwise is full of it.” He gets his warm smile and easy drawl from his hometown of Memphis, though he now lives in Silverton, Colorado, home of the Hardrock and the wild, trail-crossed San Juans, where he plans to settle down for a while. Simpson is living proof that it takes more than a few gray hairs to shake the trail run bug.

Whether you’re looking down at 50+ birthday candles or noticing new aches and pains, races and training are bound to feel a little more daunting than they did 20 years ago. Here’s how to keep up, have fun, and give injuries the slip as you rack up the miles and log more years.

Run for the Sake of Running

Running is a mental sport, and the patience and inner calm that come with age are often a distance runner’s greatest asset. “I felt like I was running my best ultras when I was 50,” said Simpson.

In fact, the median age of ultra runners tends to skew older than other areas of the sport, and peak performance generally occurs right around age 40 for men and women, according to a 2012 study.

Some of that has to do with time and financial resources, but wisdom and experience can take credit for a big piece of the pie. “In your twenties, appearances are pretty important,” said Meghan Arbogast, 55, who’s run Western States 10 times and competed in the World 100K Championships eight times. “After a while, you just don’t care what other people think anymore. You can relax and let go, and being able just to run for the sake of running is pretty huge.”

Treat Training as a Gradual Crescendo

Arbogast had run all her life but didn’t get into ultras until her daughter, now 30, was teenager. “As she got older and more independent, I would have maybe 10 extra minutes I could run one day. Then 20. When she got in high school and proclaimed her need for some space, I used that time to run even more,” Arbogast said.

That gradual approach is one physical therapists and coaches recommend, especially for 50+ folks without a history of competing. “You should take three to four months to work up to a 5K and six months or more to do a 10K,” said Alice Holland of Stride Strong Physical Therapy.

AJ Gregg, a physical therapist and strength and conditioning specialist at Flagstaff’s Hypo2 High Performance Sport Center, said older athletes should steer clear of big spikes in mileage. “Definitely avoid anything more than a 20-percent increase week over week,” he said, though he questions the scientific basis behind the popular “10-percent increase per week” mantra.

Gregg also recommends older athletes with little history of physical activity get cardiovascular health and bone density checked by a physician first to make sure there’s no underlying issue that might hold them back.

Emphasize Cross-Training

Aaron Mares, a physician specializing in sports medicine and an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said cross-training can be a valuable tool for easing into the impact that running places on the body. Activities like biking and swimming will whip the cardiovascular system into shape without stressing joints. “You can switch it up and still reach your goals,” said Mares.

Both Holland and Gregg advocate a regular strength training routine to help combat sarcopenia, or age-related muscle loss, and prevent injury.

“Strength training is absolutely crucial,” said Holland, who recommends hip, core, and lower extremities (think calf and ankle) exercises at least twice a week. Hip strengthening exercises like forward bends and deadlifts as well as squats, planks, and balance exercises on a Bosu Ball are some of the most effective. And strengthening your core is never a bad idea.

Guiltlessly Indulge in Plenty of R & R

Regardless of the activity, rest is critical. As the body’s repair mechanisms naturally slow with age, proper rest, hydration, and nutrition become vital to keep the body on the go. “If an older athlete does develop an injury, they need to deal with it much more immediately than a youngster would,” said Holland.

Soft tissues dry out as they age, and the low water content both weakens the tissue and dramatically slows the healing process. “I would recommend taking a rest day to rebuild the body after every single run, especially starting out,” Holland said.

To speed recovery, Gregg suggests athletes eat within the 30-minute post-workout window, avoid running on an empty stomach, and practice good sleep hygiene.

That means keeping the bedroom below 70 degrees, turning off all lights (even digital clocks), and reserving the bedroom for sleep only—not work, TV, or even reading—to maximize the brain’s ability to associate the room with deep rest.

Staying hydrated and including enough fiber in your diet become especially important as you age, according to Harvard Health. Aim for 14 grams of fiber per every 1,000 calories consumed. (Active adults over 51 should get anywhere between 2,000 and 2,800 calories per day.) Drink 30 to 50 ounces of water—downing more on long-run days.

Mares also recommends taking your Flintstones, paying special attention to the vitamins that boost bone density: calcium and vitamin D.

Keep Smiling

The facts: The years will eventually catch up because we’re all human and humans do age. “It was 58 to 59 when I could really tell my body was changing,” Simpson said. “It happens.”

Laughing about those changes and maintaining a positive attitude about getting older goes a long way toward keeping running enjoyable for those who might otherwise be pining for past PR’s.

“The first thing you need to do is approach it from your mind. Ask yourself why you want to start running. I would hope the answer is to be outside, to be with nature, and to move in this really cool kinetic way that running is. It’s a process. Enjoy the milestones.” Simpson said. He said it helps to have a community—or at least a partner you can talk to about the journey that trail running is.

“Get your mind right, set some goals, and be easy on yourself. Forgive yourself,” Simpson said. “You will have so much to be proud of at any age.”

For him, forgiveness came in the form of cutting back on hard workouts, reigning in unreasonable expectations, and being satisfied with doing his best rather than compulsively driving for a PR or place. Do that, and you can run forever. “I will get slower and do races for different reasons,” Simpson said. “But I don’t ever plan on stopping.”