This aging stuff creeps up on you. After running continuously for 25 years and passing the big Four-Oh, I'm beginning to realize I'm not invulnerable--as I once thought I was. If I want to keep on running into my golden years, it's time to start thinking and acting a bit differently. Suddenly, I know too many guys who have debilitating problems with their ankles, knees, hamstring muscles, or backs. Some have simply had to give up running and relapsed into couch-potatohood.
The big enemy is the pounding that running delivers to the joints and spine. I've never suffered a major injury, but lately I can feel an ankle that twinges and a lower back that occasionally aches. Call me a worrier, but it's best to tackle these problems before they get worse.
That's why I'm paying renewed attention to my shoes. I've worn Nike Airs for years, but now I'm experimenting with others. What I've found is that my air-filled shoes wear out over eight or nine months. To keep the spring in my step, I have to go out and buy another pair at $100 a crack. So, recently I purchased a pair of Asic Gels, which have gel pads as a shock-absorbing element, on sale for $40. The bounce so far is just as good, and I'll see if these shoes last longer. Even if they don't, I can more easily afford to replace them.
IF THE SHOE FITS. To be sure, even the experts don't agree on which running shoe is the right one. "The best shoe is the shoe that fits your foot best," says Runner's World Senior Editor Bob Wischnia, who conducts the magazine's shoe evaluations. He recommends that runners go to specialty running stores to try on a variety of shoes at different price levels. The most expensive isn't necessarily the best. Some shoes are wider or heavier than others, and some offer more arch support.
I haven't told my fanatic friends, but I also have started wearing an Ace bandage on my weak ankle, particularly when I play tennis or volleyball. In case the problem worsens, I'm looking at other forms of extra support, such as insoles and padded Thor-lo socks. Some older runners rely on custom-made orthotics, inserted into the shoe to provide maximum protection.
Another key element of any injury-avoidance program is the proper routine. When I was younger, I didn't bother to warm up or cool down--just ran like hell. But the pre-stretch is now more important, and I start running more slowly than I once did. Some aging runners use a slow running start to make a mental survey of their joints and muscles, identify any aches or stiffness, and then adjust accordingly. After most routine workouts, I also do a shoulder-stand to stretch out those old vertebrae that have just been pounded together.
LAYING OFF. One fellow runner, in his 50s, jokingly calls this his "old maid" routine. But it's critical to keep problems from developing. Once you've been injured and have to lay off for a month, it's hard to get started again. This is the biological reality of aging: It's much tougher to come back after long layoffs. In the old days, I could stop for a couple of weeks and pick it back up without any real loss of stamina.
There's another biological reality that has to be faced: You can't run as hard or as often. My body can't take running every day, and I don't need that much to stay in shape. Four or five times a week is plenty, about 20 to 25 miles, slightly more if I'm getting ready for a race. "You have to change your perspective" as you get older, says Dr. Norbert Sander, a sports physician who won the 1974 New York City Marathon. "Either you limit the intensity of your training, or you'll have to stop running."
Other tips to avoid injury:
-- Run on different surfaces. Since I usually work out on concrete, I'm always looking for opportunities to run on grass or on a cinder track.
-- It's good to cross-train a bit with some swimming or bicycling. But watch the downhill skiing, tennis, and basketball, all of which are punishing on the joints.
-- If you have a minor problem, ibuprofen will help. Sander recommends taking two or three after running, not before. If you take them before, the drug will mask any pain and you might do more serious damage. Applying ice after a run can also help. If you're in acute pain or the problem persists, swallow your pride and call a doctor.
You may ask yourself: If running gets trickier as you get older, why persevere? People have to answer that one for themselves. My goals are to stay healthy, to be able to eat and drink without gaining weight, to stay fit enough to enjoy other sports, and to keep up with my kids. Even though I have to be more conservative, the fact is I'm still running--and enjoying it. And I can still whip past a fair number of these young whippersnappers.