Marathon training tips for the over 50s

Posted on April 25, 2015 by Guest Writer
Jeff Galloway leading a group of marathon runners in training

Are you over 50 and thinking of running your first marathon? Good on you! If you’ve ever watched a gruelling 26.2 mile marathon, you’ll know that finishing one is no mean feat. Thousands take part and every year there are countless over 50 first time runners who prove it’s never too late to sign up for your first marathon.

We spoke to American Olympian Jeff Galloway, who specialises in training the over 50s for their first marathon, has been preparing runners for their big race day for over four decades – and has written several books on the subject too. We caught up with the veteran runner to get some advice for those who are thinking of stepping up to the challenge.

Q. What’s the attraction of running a marathon for the first time?

A. The marathon is the ultimate distance challenge in the Olympics and has set the standard as an endurance goal. While the physical benefits are substantial, the mental enhancements are greater. Thousands of new marathoners tell me each year that the achievement from finishing any distance (especially the half marathon) is amazing – but the marathon experience is often life-changing.

Q. Is there anything stopping people over the age of 50 from running a marathon?

A. Almost anyone can finish a marathon – at almost any age. In my experience of having heard back from over 300,000 who have used my method successfully, the human body is designed to adapt to long distance movement with the right combination of running and walking.

Q. Are there any ways in which training is different for the over 50s?

A. There are a number of adjustments that help runners over 50 stay injury-free – such as a shorter stride and more non-running days per week. The most significant adjustment has been reducing the run segment to only 5-15 seconds, and increasing the frequency of the walk breaks.

Q. Are there any typical health complaints for this age group when attempting a marathon?

A. Almost all running injuries can be avoided with the right arrangement of running and walking. Even when runners get too exuberant and push themselves into the common aches and pains of running, the right adjustment of walk breaks has allowed most of my over 50s runners to continue while the injury heals.

Q. How should people get started?

A. Gradually increase a gentle walk to 30 minutes. Start running by doing a gentle jog or “shuffle” for 10 seconds, during the 10 minutes in the middle of the half hour walk. Every other day, gradually increase the number of minutes doing the 10 sec shuffle run/50 seconds walk.
Jeff Galloway running through the park

Q. How long should people expect to need to train before doing their first half or full marathon?

A. Most of my over 50s runners who came off the couch, have been able to complete a half marathon within six months and a marathon within a year.

Q. What are the best ways to keep motivated whilst training?

A. The right training group can make the experience fun. Putting a race date on a calendar and having a training program that is not intimidating, bestows the confidence to keep going further.

Q. What would you say to people who think they’re too old to start training for a marathon?

A. According to the research, the human body is designed to adapt to endurance movement at any age. I’ve helped dozens of runners over 70 get started and keep going.

There have been several men and women in their 80s who told me that they only started running because I told them they could take walk breaks every few seconds. Most have gone on to half and full marathons.

Q. What kind of time should people over the age of 50 aim to run their first marathon or half marathon in?

A. Adjust long run training pace so that there is no huffing and puffing. Run the first 20-23 miles of the marathon at the training pace that kept you from huffing and puffing. Then, you can run as you wish.

Q. What are the health benefits from running as you get older?

A. Studies show that runners extend their lifespan two hours for every hour they run. Endurance running with walk breaks stimulates the primary systems of the body to keep working at optimal capacity for better cardiovascular health, stronger bones, better joint health, better energy flow and much more. One study showed that runners over 50 who had been running 20 years or more had less than 25 per cent of the orthopaedic complaints compared with non-runners of the same age.

Q. Should you change what you eat when training?

A. Radical changes are not recommended. Fine-tuning of meals reduces the chance of exercise-related digestion issues.  According to research, when people get into running they tend to naturally change their diet for the better.

Jeff Galloway’s top 10 tips for over 50s training for a marathon

1. Enjoy every run
2. Don’t run anything fast – no huffing and puffing
3. Use a short stride, feet low to the ground
4. Take the appropriate walk breaks
5. Use energy drinks and gels during longer runs
6. Long runs only need to be run every 2 to 3 weeks
7. For best results, build the last long one to 26 miles, three or four weeks before the marathon
8. Between long runs, the minimum necessary is 30 minutes, every other day
9. Pick a marathon with a course closing time that does not pressure you
10. It helps to recruit a friend to either train with you or go with you to the race

If you’re now planning to sign up for a marathon then good luck! To see a selection of marathon training guides from Jeff Galloway visit his website here.