Never too old to hit the road for a run

Evan Chee is clocking faster times across all distances and he is looking forward to a sub-2:40.
Evan Chee is clocking faster times across all distances and he is looking forward to a sub-2:40.PHOTO: ONEATHLETE

The writer, 37, clocked his PB of 2hr 56min in 2015 and lowered it to 2:42 in Berlin last year

My running journey began in 1990 when I raced with my Primary 4 class' 4x100m team.

Fast forward 28 years, and I still compete regularly in both local and overseas races, taking on distances that include the marathon.

At this age, it is natural to ask whether one can be too old to run long distances, or even a marathon, or do better results await in the days (and miles) ahead?

Unfortunately for those young at heart, existing literature and research seem to suggest the former. But, while a runner's aerobic capacity, muscle mass and recovery inevitably decline with age, not all is lost. At least that's how my story would read.

BELIEVE IT'S POSSIBLE

At the age of 35, I clocked my (then) marathon personal best (PB) of 2hr 56min at the 2015 Singapore Marathon to finish third among the local men. Barely 12 months ago, I lowered it by 14 minutes to attain my current best of 2:42 in Berlin.

Today, I am clocking faster times across all distances than my legs ever did in their youth and I'm even looking forward to a sub-2:40.

My sister Yvonne similarly ran her best, 3:23, last year at the age of 37. She was pregnant during last year's The Straits Times Run and is fitter than ever, even running this year's London Marathon five months after giving birth.

BE AWARE OF CHALLENGES

As we age, our muscles and tendons become more injury-prone due to accumulated wear and tear. Recognising this helped me manage the issue before it got out of hand.

I always allow time for my body to be conditioned during the start of any training cycle before ramping up the intensity. Build a strong aerobic base with three months of easy runs (conversational pace) under your belt.

Here are some key training principles that have guided me.

Progressive: Increase your weekly mileage progressively till you reach your target peak training mileage. The rule of thumb is 10 per cent, with the ceiling of increase dependent on fitness and experience level. It would be wise to seek help from a coach if in doubt.

Effective: 80 per cent of training should be easy runs. Add good quality speed sessions to the mix.

Variety: Adding gravel, trails and grass to your list of surfaces to run on is good and helps with fitness maintenance.

Consistency: This is key to improving and building up fitness. Find the time, not excuses, to run.

As Dr Malcolm Mahadevan had mentioned in his article "Preparation vital to avoid injuries" on July 8, an aged body is less forgiving to intensive training and therefore it is important to know your body and not overstrain it.

BE CONSCIOUS OF RECOVERY

Over the years, I have come to realise that my recovery has become slower and needs mindful attention. What has benefited me is a keen knowledge of my body and its limits.

For as long as I can remember, there would always be a rest day (usually Monday) after an entire week of training. On occasion, I have replaced runs with cross-training sessions such as cycling or core-strengthening exercises when I have felt the need for more rest.

In triathlon, there's a saying that besides swim, bike and run, recovery is the fourth and most important discipline. Let's not forget that your body also needs to be "pampered" regularly and this is why I make it a point to arrange for a sports massage session fortnightly.

If my story is of any encouragement, there is still a light at the end of the tunnel for runners to keep chasing, whether you are 35 years old, or young.

In fact, hitting the tracks and roads regularly might just help to slow down your body clock or even wind back time. Age is nothing but a number. Someone once told me that running is a game of mind over matter - if you don't mind, then it doesn't matter. So lace up and run on.

•ONEathlete's Evan Chee, 37, is a national marathoner and was third (Local Men) at last year's Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon.


Safety tips for senior runners

PRE-PARTICIPATION SCREENING

Atherosclerotic coronary artery disease is more common in older athletes, especially if there is a pre-existing family history. It is recommended for older endurance athletes to undergo pre-participation cardiac screening. They are also advised to seek medical help if they develop exertional chest pains, unexplained breathlessness or fainting spells during exercise.

TWEAK RUNNING VOLUME

Degeneration of articular cartilage (eg in the knee joint) occurs with age and is the most common cause of musculoskeletal pain and disability in senior runners. Running can still be done with adjustments in running volume, depending on symptoms. By strengthening the hip and core muscles, improving running biomechanics and reducing stresses to the knee joint, physical therapy may also help to alleviate and/or address the symptoms.

MAINTAIN MUSCLE STRENGTH

Tendons, such as the Achilles tendon in the heel, tend to become stiffer with age and are therefore more prone to injury. Older endurance athletes are encouraged to maintain muscular strength through resistance training and flexibility routines (eg stretching after runs) to reduce the risk of tendon injury.

Dr Wang Mingchang

Associate Consultant, NUH Sports Centre

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 26, 2018, with the headline 'Never too old to hit the road for a run'. Print Edition | Subscribe