How to Go Further, Faster and Still Stay Healthy as We Age

Amy Clark has run more than 20 marathons since 2002, including qualifying for the prestigious Boston Marathon. But about five years ago Clark sought out a new challenge. “For me personally, I was bored,” says Clark, who is the editor of UltraRunning Magazine. “I needed a new challenge.”

Clark set her focus on ultramarathons — any race longer than a marathon distance — and hasn’t looked back. She completed her first 100-mile race this year, the renowned Western States 100.

This mother of two is part of a growing number of middle-aged athletes pursuing longer and more challenging endurance events in running, biking and beyond. An astounding 113,500 people finished an ultramarathon in 2018 compared to 33,000 a decade ago. The largest age group of competitors? 40 to 49 years old, according to data from UltraRunning Magazine, provided by Clark.

An age wave

Not so long ago, conquering a feat as difficult as a 50-mile or 100-mile run was mostly reserved for an elite group of athletes. It just wasn't on the radar for most amateur runners. Now, Generation X and the inaugural batch of 40-something Millennials are redefining what it means to age athletically. While some may think that the ability to participate in physical activity — and even extreme physical activity — decreases with age, a new wave of athletes in their 40's and 50's are disproving that myth and putting out some of the best performances and longest distances of their lives.

In one sweeping global study of 3.5 million marathon records, the 40 to 49 age group was not only the largest, but also the fastest. In the U.S., the age of people completing the New York marathon has been slowly creeping up, with people in the 40 to 44 age group representing the largest portion of competitors. And in ultramarathons, runners in their 40s represented 35% of the finishers last year, the most of any age group, according to data from Clark.

The trend isn't just with running — other endurance sports, from biking to triathlons to obstacle course races, report more middle-aged athletes taking part. The marathon study also revealed that the fastest-growing group of runners was those in the 90 to 99 age category. 

A different mentality

Many experts and authors have speculated on the driving force behind this heightened interest in endurance sports, especially for older athletes. Amy notes it may be due to increased awareness and diversity of the events available. In addition to longer races, there are also obstacle course races like the Spartan franchise, aquabike events (eliminating the running aspect of a triathlon) and 24-hour mountain bike challenges.

Experience may play a part in making these events less intimidating for older racers. In an article for the Guardian, veteran runner Richard Askwith, author of Feet in the Clouds, says that people's perception of time changes as they age. “You become more patient in training and in racing … rather than fretting about the distance, we just cruise along in a more relaxed frame of mind,” he says.

Playing the long game

Most athletes, from those at an elite level to those simply striving toward their own goals, wonder how long they’ll be able to do the sport they love. Too often, life, and more likely, injuries can derail plans for even more athletic feats.

But these are a few tips you can follow to maintain and even elevate your fitness as you enter middle age.

  • Listen to your body. With years or even decades of running, biking or swimming under your belt, you probably have a strong sense of when you’re tired or hurting. Younger athletes often push through these times, but acknowledging that you may need some rest or recovery only helps your performance in the long term. Listen to your body and respond accordingly — and without guilt.
  • Experiment with cross-training. Athletes across age ranges continue to experiment with adding different types of workouts into their regimen, both to decrease monotony and increase strength and flexibility. If you regularly run, consider adding in some strength training, hopping on a bike or working in a yoga session. You’ll give your muscles something new to focus on and decrease the potential for overuse injuries that plague many endurance athletes.
  • Pay attention to the details. Many runners and bikers can recall a time in their early days completing a long event or finishing a hard workout without eating or drinking much or with very little sleep. Paying attention to things like nutrition, rest, and hydration during your workouts and after helps speed up recovery and allows you to perform at your highest level.
  • Train smarter, not harder. Ultrarunner Katie Arnold recently detailed her training for the Leadville 100 mile race, which she won last year. It was the first 100-mile race for Katie, who's in her mid-40s. “You don’t necessarily have to train long for this, just smart,” Katie wrote in the New York Times. Katie let go of the notion that she’d be able to devote her whole life to training while parenting two young kids and writing a book. Instead, she squeezed training into her life, fitting runs in between family events and counted every activity as part of her plan.

Just because you're getting older doesn't necessarily mean you have to give up the idea of achieving more athletically. This growing generation of athletes is putting their experience to use in inspiring ways — tackling new sports and longer distances while pioneering a whole frontier of sports opportunities ahead.