Judy Bird – Growing older gracefully and staying fast. How to stay fast as a master runner

Judy Bird – Growing older gracefully and staying fast. How to stay fast as a master runner

I have coached evergreen, Midrand runner, Judy Bird since 2002 and this past weekend she won the masters category at SA 21km champs in PE in 89 minutes (89:00) and also showed many senior runners a clean pair of heels. A remarkable time, by a remarkable runner, who celebrates her 60th birthday on June 22!  I am sure that the other master runners will heave a sigh of relief when Judy joins the ranks of the grandmasters next month.  

Seen below is Judy at the SA 21km champs

Also remarkable is how Judy has managed to retain much of her speed during the ageing process, and she is now just 9 minutes slower than when she set her 21km PB in 2003, when she won the World Veteran Champs in New Zealand in 80.03.  That’s just 9 minutes slower after 18 years. 

Of all my runners, I have coached Judy for the longest. Another super fast master runner that I have coached since 2008, is Greg Barnes in Centurion, who ran 31 minutes on 10km in 2009 and a 6.10 Comrades in 2010. Greg earlier this year ran 15.37 on a 5km time trial, just 17 seconds off his PB of 15.20.  

There is no doubt that we do slow down as we age, and that age is not “just in our minds”. But we are also seeing more and more older runners on the roads, enjoying it, and many are fast.  Seeing fast, older runners, was quite rare when I was a young runner. We are all more active and health conscious than we were back then. 

In my 22 years of coaching, I have had the unique opportunity of coaching these two very talented and driven runners over a period of many years, and in this time I have adjusted their training to cope with the ageing process. So, how do I do this? 

Biological Brakes 

Before I explain how I have helped to keep runners like Judy and Greg running faster as they age, let’s first look at the reasons why we slow down as we age. I call them Biological Brakes, and we need to understand these in order to be combat them.

  1. As we age our maximum heart rate declines by about 10% a decade. This means that we pump less blood, and it means less oxygen transported through the body.  This in turn means a lower VO2 Max.
  2. As we age, our metabolism slows down, making it harder to stay lean. Higher body fat percentages translates into lower VO2 max and slower running.
  3. As we age our muscle strength declines. Muscle strength peaks when we are about 24 years old and has dropped by about 10% at the age of 50. But then the decline becomes faster and by age of 80, the decline is about 30%.
  4. As we age our muscles lose their elasticity. Our muscles and tendons need elasticity to propel us forward. Think of the work that your Achilles tendon does! We also become more prone to injuries of the Achille tendon etc. as we age. Years of hard racing, high mileages and intensive training cause muscle, tendon and connective tissue damage and we become more susceptible to injury.
  5. It becomes harder to stay motivated for those who have raced and trained for many year.

6 Golden Rules for Golden Oldies

To combat ageing we need to find ways to minimise the above factors and I have 6 Golden Rules for this. These are rules that I have used for runners such as Judy and Greg over the past decades and for my other older runners.  You too can use these rules to stay injury free and run well, even though you may be a back of the pack runner. 

  1. Maintaining  VO2 max and leg speed can be achieved by doing short, high intensity sessions such as intervals and hill repeats and are also very time efficient. Tempo runs are great for increasing lactate threshold. There is a temptation as we age, to stop doing speed sessions, yet they are very important. A word of warning though: Don’t rush into speed work if you haven’t done speed work in a long time. And if you are completely new to speed work, then seek advice from either a coach or an experienced runner. 
  2. Add some strength training to help maintain good muscle mass. Again, be careful if you are new to it and seek advice from a personal trainer as good technique is important to avoid injury. Pilates and yoga classes can be  beneficial. I have 30 exercise videos on my YouTube that you are welcome to use. They are all done by one of my elite runners, Debbie ‘O Mahoney, who is a personal trainer. Debbie has run 9 Comrades and last weekend, finished 3rd overall and 1st lady at the tough self-navigation 100km Recce trail race. The videos focus on all the important areas for runners such as core, glutes, with some upper body and leg work as well. They can be done at home, with no equipment needed. To view these videos, search for “Neville Beeton” on YouTube and subscribe for free. There are also some great stretching videos by Debbie, as well as talks, such as “An evening with the masters”, in which Judy and Greg discuss their training and thoughts on how to stay healthy and fast as masters.
  3.  Scar tissue builds up after years of training and we tighten up as we age , making stretching and massages key weapons to stay injury free. It helps using a foam roller regularly, and I try use my foam roller three times a week.  Find a sports therapist or physio for massage and try it. 
  4.  Try some cross training such as cycling and swimming. Both provide some variety and as it helps us to get in good cardio training while using different muscle groups.  You will be pleasantly surprised how you can drop your weekly running  mileages and yet still run well if you incorporate some cross training.  For a master runner, the cross training replaces some running sessions, they are not additional sessions.
  5. Fighting body fat is tough and requires discipline in our eating habits.  I am a happy to say that at the age of 59, I still weigh the same as I did when I was 19 years old. Most of us take in too much sugar and processed carbohydrates such as fizzy cool drinks and white bread. Cutting out the sugar, fizzy drinks, alcohol (or keep it minimal) can make a huge difference. We are what we eat and I am always amazed at how quickly my body responds to changes in diet. I believe in a balanced diet and not in diet fads. If you feel that you need to look at this, then consult a dietician. Being a runner does NOT mean we can eat whatever we want to.
  6. Recovering well becomes tougher as we age, as in our 20s and 30s we can bounce back 48hrs after a hard session. But as masters it helps to increase recovery time so that you have two to three easy days between hard sessions. Most master runners can manage one or two quality sessions in a week, although there are of course exceptions. Runners like Judy and Greg often do three quality sessions a week, but their overall mileage isn’t high as we focus on good recovery between the hard sessions.

We can enjoy our running as we age and stay fast. And an important bonus is that doing so helps us to cope with life and stress. I hope to be running around an old-age home when I am in my nineties … see you there!


Coach Neville

For the past 22 years I have helped hundreds of runners achieve their dreams, using the Recovery Based Training System I have developed. 

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