When the PR's are gone
It's as inevitable as death and taxes. Uta Pippig and Moses Tanui may not be worrying about it right now, but someday they will. And ultimately, it's the determining factor as to who stays with the sport on a competitive level and who doesn't. It's called slowing down, and I'm here to tell you from experience it's not always a lot of fun.
Posted Tuesday, 30 April, 1996
It's as inevitable as death and taxes. Uta Pippig and Moses
Tanui may not be worrying about it right now, but someday
they will. And ultimately, it's the determining factor as to
who stays with the sport on a competitive level and who
doesn't. It's called slowing down, and I'm here to tell you
from experience it's not always a lot of fun.
Here's what the running magazines tell you: train hard, stay
healthy, peak correctly, focus, race smart, and presto -
PR's! You will be amazed at what you can accomplish this way.
All of the above is true. Here's what the running magazines
don't tell you: eventually it doesn't matter how well you
train or how smart you race, your times will get slower. Your
PR's will become as unassailable as a Boston Red Sox world
series championship. If we all continued to consistently
improve with hard work and a positive mental outlook, the
Olympics would be mighty crowded, wouldn't they?
For you runners just beginning to enter road races, this
article is not for you. Rather this message is for those of
you who've been around the road racing scene for a number of
years. You've run several marathons, including a few where
everything has come together on race day, when you zoomed
past 20 miles on the way to your fastest time ever. You've
run 5k's, 10K's, half marathons, races of all shapes and
sizes. You've tried all kinds of training techniques: speed
work, long runs, tempo runs, hills, rest days, no rest days,
in every possible combination. Despite your efforts, each
year your PR's remain set in granite. All of a sudden you
wake up and realize it's been five years since you set a
personal best time. What's a runner to do?
I know there are many good reasons for running besides
racing competitively. One can reap terrific health benefits
by running a few miles for exercise three or four times per
week. If you are anything like me (and most likely you are,
if you are reading this), it's the lure of races that keeps
you motivated. Set a race as a goal, and your motivation will
increase geometrically. When you steadily improve, you can't
wait until the next race. But when a PR is not a realistic
goal, is it still worth fighting the battle? Unfortunately,
I've spent the past eight years collecting empirical evidence
on this subject, thus feel eminently prepared to offer
suggestions to the over-the-hill gang out there. What follows
is a short Q&A on running when the PR's are gone.
How long can I expect to improve, when I first start racing?
This depends upon two key factors: 1) What age you begin
racing, and 2) The level of intensity with which you
The later in life you begin running, the shorter your " PR
span " will likely be. Even if you start getting serious
about racing at age 60, you WILL improve with effort, but the
period of time you do will be much less than if you started
as a youth. New Zealander John Campbell is an example of this
phenomenon. A good runner as a youth, he shelved the sport
for several years, than returned with a vengeance in his late
30's and early 40's. He set PR's that were WR's for masters
runners, obliterating the competition. He ran 2:11:05 in the
Boston Marathon at the age of 40. The Kiwi is now about 47,
but alas, Campbell has disappeared from the sport. The PR's
only lasted a few short years, but what years they were.
Even if you do start running at a young age, your PR years
will still be short if you burn with intensity. Alberto
Salazar won the New York Marathon at age 21. As a precocious
youngster, he went on to dominate the sport - for a few
years. He trained and raced with reckless abandon, and by
the age of 25, his best days were behind him. Thus, the best
way to prolong your years of running PR's are to start young
and take a moderate approach.
What is it exactly, that makes us slow down with age?
The primary culprit is the loss of muscle mass. Studies have
shown that despite our best efforts, muscle mass decreases at
a steady rate, beginning at the age of about 25. This effect
can be somewhat mitigated by consistent running and weight
work, but alas it is inevitable. Attempting to run through
injuries only compounds this problem by creating scar tissue
that leads to inflexibility as we age. The lesson here is:
run smart, do you your weight work, and take care of your
injuries. Easier said than done!
How can you keep yourself motivated if a PR isn't realistic?
Boy oh boy, let me tell you - I look through the results
sheets at marathons and other road races these days, and I
see very few of the names who were around ten years ago. Now
this means one of two things: either I never got a life or I
learned how to enjoy running as I slowed down. I would like
to think it's more of the latter than the former. Here are
some tips for staying in the game:
Is it worth the effort to keep on racing?
- Make it fun! Do races and events you have never done
before. Traveling to a vacation destination makes an event
fun, regardless of your time. Run a race with a friend
without regard for the finishing time. A relaxed approach
can be refreshing and fun.
- Experiment with a different kind of running. Ultra
distance runs beyond the marathon gave me a new lease on
my running life a few years ago. Trail races are also
very popular now. Age group track events are thriving -
the masters championships in Buffalo last year drew
thousands of athletes.
- Run with beginning runners. This is a technique I learned
almost by accident when I got into coaching. Even if you
can't run a PR, you can gain a lot by running with those
who can. The energy and enthusiasm generated by new
runners can't help but rub off. Basking in their success
doesn't have to be vicarious - you can help by lending
advice from your experience. That way you play a part in
their PR's; in this way it feels like you own a small part
- Don't take it too seriously. This is all for fun, isn't
it? Taking a slow time too hard will only shorten your
running life. As in almost every other area of life, the
ability to laugh at yourself is invaluable.
- Set your goals a little lower. This is probably the
toughest lesson of all to learn. Runners are all about
striving for the best. Having to lower your sights is
often difficult. The higher level performers have a
particularly hard time with this, which is why world and
national class runners often opt to give it all up rather
than run slower, especially when they start finishing
behind runners they used to regularly beat. Once you
adjust to this reality however, you find it's ok to finish
farther back in the pack. I've found that training to run
a sub three hour marathon requires the same amount of
effort and racing guile that sub 2:40 did a decade ago. It
may not be a PR, but breaking three will provide a great
deal of satisfaction - when I do it again. Oh no, it's
been a year and half since I've run under three!
This is a question each individual must decide for
themselves. There are many worthwhile pursuits in life,
sporting or otherwise. I've found I still get a kick out of
lining up on the starting line, waiting for the gun to
fire. I may not do it as well as I used to, but still do it
better than many other things I attempt. It's still a great
physical, emotional, and social outlet. Besides, I just
KNOW I can break three hours again for the marathon.