Running and Age: Too Young? Too Old?

In my 54 years of competitive running (so far), I have encountered quite a few misconceptions about running and age. Here are the two big ones:

“Running is for the young”

When I first joined my high-school cross-country team in the 1950s, it was widely believed that a runner peaks in his early 20s and is about ready to retire by age 30. A guy who was still running his 40s was considered exceptional. (I say “a guy” because in those days almost no girls or women were running.) And to keep competing after age 50 was regarded as foolish—too risky for the heart, knees, and back!
We now know that many men and women can (and do) run serious distances (10ks, marathons, ultras) in their 60s, 70s, and even 80s, with significant overall benefits for vitality and health. I recall one case in which a 60-year-old man entered America’s largest ultramarathon, in which ultra teams from the U.S. Marines, Army, and Navy were competing. The 60-year-old outran 28 of the 35 young military runners—even though he was slower than he’d been years earlier. While all of us will inevitably get slower as we get older, that doesn’t make us any less able to experience the pleasure and vitality we get from running. A slow, older runner is just a different animal than a young one, not any less capable of enjoying the rewards!

“Kids should not run long distances.”

Although we now accept the idea that continuing to run as you get older is more than OK for most people, our society has become hesitant about letting kids run long distances when they are “too young.” But what’s too young? Many years ago, a major Baltimore newspaper reported the story of a three-year-old girl who regularly ran 10 miles in a city park with her father. And in the 1980s, a nine-year-old boy named Wesley Paul ran under 3 hours at the New York Marathon—recording a time that most adults can only dream of. But then, in later years, health experts began having concerns about parents putting too much pressure on young kids. Experts worried that hard training at an early age might interfere with a child’s physical development, or cause psychological burnout. That kind of concern may have been warranted, if it meant cautioning adults not to push kids too hard. But it did not mean running long distances is physically harmful to children, if they run at their own speed under their own motivation.

From all the reading and observing I’ve done over the past half century, I’d say the worries about kids are mostly unwarranted, just as the worries about older runners once were. The nine-year-old who ran sub-3 at the New York Marathon is now in his 30s, and last I heard was still running and enjoying it. Of course, at any age, we runners have to be smart about keeping things in balance, not ramping up the mileage too fast, not trying to do what you’re not well trained for. But with intelligent practice, here’s the bottom line: Running is natural for the human species—at any age.

You can read more about Ed and his extraordinary running life at his blog: endurance and sustainability and please feel free to interact with him!

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