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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.

When the PR's are gone

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By Don Allison
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 approach racing.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 of it.
  4. 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.
  5. 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!
Is it worth the effort to keep on racing?

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.



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