Masters Running Guide

Masters Running 101


What makes masters running different from being an open runner? Similar to the answer to most running-related questions, “It depends.” One’s career as a masters athlete has a lot to do with one’s running history. Which of these three profiles do you most relate to?


If you were a competitive runner in high school, college, and continued racing most of your adult life, then being a masters athlete is most likely defined by an obsession not to “get slow” or curb the inevitable decline. You have a lot of mileage on your odometer after nearly thirty years of training and racing. You probably can’t touch your toes, walk up stairs and not be out of breath, or get out of a chair without looking like you’re 90. Stoplights are not a welcome respite on a run because getting going again requires several painful steps and a lot of groaning! You most likely don’t have PRs ahead of you; this is sounding grim isn’t it! But… you still find yourself placing well in races, especially in your age group. Competitive running is in your bones. Baring a career-ending injury, nothing is going to stop you from continuing to run at the highest level possible.

The challenges you face are managing your battle scars, or chronic weak spots, and maintaining speed, stride length and flexibility. Your advantage is that you have a huge engine or aerobic base after so many years of endurance training and superior running economy. Your experiential knowledge on a race course is unmatched by most of your competitors. You’re scrappy, parceling out your reserves over the course of a marathon. You’re not afraid to dig deep and enter the “pain cave” when that moment of reckoning comes. You almost always perform relatively well, even in adverse conditions. No matter what race day throws your way, you’ve been there before.


If you’re this masters runner, you’ve only been in the sport a few months to a few years. You’re ecstatic to have found running. You feel born again! Much to the dismay of your friends and family members, you can’t run enough, talk enough about running, and you’re ceaseless in your mission of trying to convert everyone close to you to start running.

On the good side, you still have all your PRs ahead of you. You’re crushing it every race, at every distance. With your historically low mileage, you respond immediately to specific training and measured increases in volume. By adding specificity, you could see performances beyond your wildest dreams. Aging seems to have no hold on you. Nothing hurts, and you feel strong on nearly every run. Yet, you need to be careful to curb your enthusiasm and let the musculoskeletal system catch up with your rapidly increasing cardiovascular system.


If you are a member of this final group of masters runners, you are the most dangerous competitor toeing the line in my book. You come from a competitive running background or background in another endurance sport. Careers, kids, being burned out on training and racing, have led to a five year or more hiatus from running. You are hungry to train and race again, and you know what it takes to be good because chances are you were really fast before life took your running career hostage. Now the kids are grown, or mostly grown, you’re established in your career, and you have fresh legs like the newbie from having several years off.


Regardless of your running history, there are five training truths that are unique to masters runners:

  1. They need more recovery time between workouts. The window of time might vary, but the old hard day/ easy day rule looks more like hard/ easy/ easy/ hard or even more rest days between concerted efforts. It might be tempting to “make hay” as a Newbie master, but most masters in spite of experience, benefit from a “ten day” training cycle versus the traditional “seven day” training cycle. A “ten day” cycle means that about every tenth day you hit the same training stimulus, like speed work, threshold, or a long run, instead of hitting the same type of workout every week.
  2. Less is more. Junk miles are not on the diet. One of my college teammates, the epitome of the Comeback Kid, took more than ten years off from running. She came back to the sport and was performing even better than she had in her early twenties. She started training with a group of young elites from Boulder. She was frustrated because in spite of adapting well to the training, the coach wouldn’t let her do as many miles as the younger athletes. When she finally asked him why she wasn’t allowed to go with the rest of the group on all runs, he told her point blank. “You can’t run 100 miles a week. You’re too old.” That’s some tough love, but he was right. 100 miles a week is too risky for the benefit in the majority of cases. Instead, she ran 75-80 miles a week at the top end, rocked her workouts and races, and remained injury-free.
  3. They are all over 40. For a while the Newbie may feel immune to the chronic aches and pains the Grizzled Vet endures on nearly every run, but all masters need to know their weaknesses and should follow “Prehab,” core, and strength training routines. Muscles, tendons and fascia grow stiff as we age. The masters runner needs to keep all his or her parts moving, supple and in good working order. Maintaining range of motion and stride length is critical if you want to stay competitive.
  4. They need the grunt work. Masters need those upper end threshold workouts to push up their lactate thresholds. There was just an article in Competitor Magazine, discussing the rate at which Vo2 max decreases after 40. Those who are unwilling to do the grunt work, or intervals at or above lactate threshold, can lose up to 10% of their Vo2 max in their early 40s. Vo2 max isn’t everything, but losing 10% will very likely have a profound effect on your racing performances.
  5. They need to work on speed. Neuromuscular training or “turnover” work should be done year-round because of its role in maintaining your stride length and quickness on your feet. Strides, drills, and some short, sprint intervals take little away from the rest of the training week. You might huff and puff a bit in the moment, but nearly immediately post workout, you’ll recover. Most people express that doing strides post run actually gives them more energy following the training session, and they have more pep in their legs running the next day. I recommend you use Greg McMillan’s Form Drills routine. He’s created a simple, follow-along routine for anyone who wants to improve their form and put some spring in their step.

Now you’ve completed Masters Running 101. Test your competency at your next race!

Katie McGee is a McMillan Running Coach. Learn more about our Personal Coaching where you can train with a coach like Katie by your side to plan your training and talk about race strategy, performance nutrition, injury prevention, stretching, and much more.


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