Ask Pete: How Can Older Runners Get Faster?
Runners at any age can get speedier by adding intensity to their training—with care. Top masters runners and coaches tell how.
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Have a question for Pete? Shoot us a note.
I’m a 70-year-old man who never ran before 3 years ago. I can walk at 12-minute mile pace for 6–10 miles, but I can’t jog faster than 10-minute miles—and then only for short distances. How do I get faster, so that I can jog continuously faster than I walk? —Kenneth
This one is easy: Add some intensity to your training.
Walking recruits 20–25% of your available slow-twitch muscle fibers. Jogging only adds another 5–10% of your slow-twitch fibers. So a combination of walking and jogging limits your training to a small group of muscle fibers.
You need to increase the percentage of muscle fibers you work (the key to running faster), while simultaneously teaching your nervous system more efficient control of those fibers.
That said, you need to be careful in how you go about doing that.
I asked Coach Bill Sumner, age 71, founder of the Cal Coast Track Club, which has fielded successful cross country and road racing squads in the 70+ divisions, to weigh in. He said, “Don’t do anything with reckless abandon. Write down everything you did last month, then pick three of those workouts that you know you can do a little better and start there. You can’t redesign the car, but you can tune it up a little at the age of 70.”
Sumner also suggested that walking 12-minute miles is too fast, that you’d be better off putting that energy into running. He’s right.
I also asked Doug Goodhue, a 77-year-old American masters record-holder, for his opinion. Doug runs 45-plus miles per week, with speed work on Tuesday, tempo on Thursday, and a long run with hills on Saturday.
“My advice for Kenneth,” he said, “would be to continue building his weekly mileage and intensity, while including some hill running. After establishing a solid base, I’d add timed repeats—10 x 200 meters, 8 x 400 meters, etc.—on the track to help develop his fast-twitch fibers.”
Here’s what I think:
Pick a day each week for a more intense outing. On that day, include a hill with your jogging.
After a few weeks, supplement another workout during the week with 4–6 strides; nothing fancy, just 60–70m at faster-than-jogging pace.
Over the next few months, gradually increase the distance of your strides until you’ve built up to some reps on the track, road, or trail—at incrementally increasing paces.
For your other workouts, walk slower, jog more. If possible, at some point consider incorporating a low-intensity resistance training routine (upper & lower body plus core) once per week. Those workouts will quadruple the number of muscle fibers you train, while organically developing the energy systems required to maintain your pace for an entire run.
Who asked you, anyway?
Pete’s freebee training tip: Young or old, you need to train all your muscle fibers once or twice a week. Long runs recruit more and faster fibers by depleting glycogen. Hills, resistance training, and faster running do the same by increasing the force requirements of your effort. Treat your muscles fibers like you would a garden—don’t water just a third of the garden, water the entire garden.