What I Learned Becoming A Runner In Middle Age

About five years ago, I came to a major crossroads in my life. While work was going OK - I'd left a lucrative but unenjoyable job because I was so desperately unhappy and decided to freelance - my physical, mental and spiritual health were smashed. And, after messing around with my teenage son during basketball training, I spent the next two weeks walking like I'd been shot in the butt, having given my hamstring a decent twang.

Something had to change. On 6 January 2013 I decided to do something about it. Here's how I became a runner.

Although I'd been pretty fit until my 30s - I played a pretty decent level at squash and went to a gym from time to time - I'd let things slip and my weight ballooned from the low-80kg range to about 110kg. I was unfit, prone to powerful bouts of hay-fever in the Spring and pretty unhappy in how I looked and felt. My long-time GP looked at me and told me I was heading down the same road as my father. He was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes at about my age, had a litany of different conditions that were largely brought on by an unhealthy lifestyle and died from heart disease.

Faced with all this information, I decided to do the simplest thing I could.

Run.

Where Did I Start?

As a professional nerd I decided to look at the world of tech for some guidance and assistance. After about an hour of research I decided on two things.

The first was a free Couch to 5K (C25K) application. There are a bunch of these around now, many of which have added some fun elements such as escaping from zombies and other types of gamification. I had a reasonably simple app that simply told me when to walk or run.

As I was very self-conscious, I ran at a local park that had a track that's about 700m long. I went early in the morning so there were very few people and often ran just before sunrise in order to hide a little more.

Those first "runs" were hard. Even though the C25K program guided me gently - 30 seconds of slow jogging was as much as I could handle even with 90 second walk breaks between shuffle-runs - it was tough going. My calves burned, my feet hurt and I was knackered after each session that first two weeks. And having spoken to lots of beginning runners since then, it seems that's one of the hardest things to get past. That pain isn't necessarily injury - it's adaptation. Muscles, ligaments and tendons need time to adapt to changing workloads. And the buggers can be quite resistant.

That said, if the pain last more than a day, then checking in with a health professional is a good idea and any chest pain or other acute pain needs to be checked out. I'd also suggest talking to a doctor before embarking on an exercise program just in case there's something going on you aren't aware of.

Progress

After those first two weeks of C25K, something happened.

Running was no longer "hard". I don't mean that in the physical sense - I was still battling to run for a minute without feeling like death warmed up - but I started to like the early mornings and the feeling of being out and moving around. My weight started to drop - the only major change I made to my diet was dropping the after dinner chocolate I enjoyed each day, reducing that to a weekly treat - and I started to feel better about myself.

I started to feel like a runner even though I was still plodding through those 30 minute sessions. I bought a decent pair of shoes, through a specialty running store that fitted me out after getting me to run on a treadmill and conducting a gait analysis. I even bought "proper" running shorts and a couple of shirts to wear instead of the old t-shirts I'd been wearing.

The park I ran at had a rear exit that added a few hundred metres to the loop so I started to venture out onto the streets for a lap as I became more confident.

It's Not Really C25K

Couch to 5K sounds a little threatening in my opinion. If you've never been a runner, five kilometres is a long way. The more accurate description of C25K is Couch to 30 minutes. The weekly progressions of the C25K program don't get you to running 5km. The program gets you running continuously for 30 minutes. I find time goals easier to work with than distances

There's No Magic Bullet

One of things that became apparent to me early on in my running journey is that my body needs time to recover. The C25K program is built around three runs per week. But the sessions are structured so that after a couple of sessions where the running intervals become longer, there's a "recovery" session where you actually spend a little less time running and more time walking. That keeps you active without taxing your body.

I started my running journey in my mid-40s. I've now crossed over the big five-oh and am learning the importance of recovery and not doing the same thing all the time.

After finishing C25K I took the lessons I learned there about slowly adding more intensity while balancing that with some easier sessions. I used it as the basis for a program that helped me run a couple of marathons as well as a number of longer events like half marathons and intermediate distances. And, that's the thing. There's no magic formula to becoming fitter. It's a matter of starting modestly, slowly building up endurance and intensity, allowing yourself rest and taking the time to transition from the initial discomfort to a place where you can enjoy what you're doing.

It's Not A Competition

I freely admit that there are moments when my ego writes cheques my body can't cash. Sometimes that's when I see a faster runner. Other times it's when I feel like I should be able to go faster but I'm tired or not feeling great. I've learned to not treat every run as a race but as an opportunity to be outside and enjoy the fresh air. I don't listen to music or podcasts, as many of my friends do, when I run as I prefer to hear what's going on around me.

I like trail running and the sound of a bird or the rustle of leaves as a small animal moves is enough for me. I often recite phrases or mantras in my mind that help me maintain a rhythm and when I'm at a running event. - it's not really a race at my pace - I like to chat with other runners who are just out there because it's fun.

I've also joined a running group that meets once a week. I don't get there every week because of work and other commitments but it's a great way to meet people with a common interest. For added fun, we start running at 8:00PM so we're all decked out with head torches at the moment. But there's great camaraderie with the faster runners circling back and forth to ensure the slower folks, like me, don't get lost, and we all encourage each other along.

It Does Get Harder But It's Still Fun

It's like my body flicked a switch earlier this year and said "You're 50 - I'm slowing you down". I'm finding my pace this year is down and I'm just not recovering as well as I was. But rather than chucking it in in frustration, I'm focussing on running shorter distances so I can recover more and doing some different things. For example, I try to fit a couple of short, sharp strength training sessions in each week.

I use a skipping rope, a 7-Minute Workout app and some cheap kettlebells I got on sale from Target and Aldi a while ago.

I start with five minutes of skipping, do the 7-minute workout and then some simple exercises with the kettlebells. The gear takes very little room, I can do my workout outside and it gives me a break from running. And it's simple enough that I can ask the kids to join me with a slightly modified program so I'm modelling healthy behaviour.

Habits

When I schedule my week out, I plan my exercise sessions. I make sure there are three running sessions and a couple strength workouts in my plan. That helps to make healthy activities habitual. It also means I may have to prioritise running over other things. But by putting it on the schedule I'm making a decision about where I plan to spend my time.

And once exercise becomes a habit, you do reach a point where not exercising feels weird.


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