Masters Training: One Size Does NOT Fit All


Confusion abounds about optimal training for masters runners. That’s because they get into the sport in different ways. Thus, training for one master has to be different from that for another. Here’s the 411 on training for runners over 40, based on the type of runner they are:


This type of masters runner started in high school and hasn’t stopped. He ran the 400m to the 2-mile, then went on to run in college. He kept training and competing after college and ran his fastest times in his 20s or 30s. And he just kept running. He entered the masters category with renewed enthusiasm and carried his past experience with training and racing to more age-group victories.

Most early training advice for masters runners came from these athletes. The benefit was that they had experienced it all and could talk openly about the changes they had to make in training and racing as they aged. The usual “more recovery time” idea was a constant theme, as was compensation in training–like avoiding certain types of speed work or explosive drills–due to old injuries.

This type of runner can focus on efficient training because he has years and years of endurance under his belt. He can adjust his training based on his injury history. If he’s been injured a lot, he may limit his speed training, be careful with the weekly mileage and rely on his racing experience to perform his best. If he hasn’t been injured (lucky dog!), he can still train similarly to when he was young, with lots of variety–mileage, speed, terrain–in his training week, but he may need to add a bit more recovery between hard workouts.


Our second type of masters runner began like our Full-Spectrum Masters runner. He started in high school, may have run in college, but then put running on the shelf, often focusing on family, work and other life commitments. It’s possible he put on a few pounds and lost a bit of the athleticism he once had.

But, once a runner, always a runner, and as he hit 40, the bug bit again. He got back into the sport, remembered how much it meant to him and quickly started claiming podium spots in local races. I’m this type of runner. I was State Champion in high school, competed in college and competed on and off as I began coaching. Then, as I turned 40, I was re-energized and went on the win the National Trail Marathon Championships.

Training for this type of masters runner is the most challenging. His mind remembers pushing hard like he did when younger, but his body has forgotten all about it. So he has to be very careful not to get carried away. He will have to suppress the urge to return to the usual weekly routine from high school and college, and instead train more easily than he thinks he should. He will have to add more recovery time and be careful to let the body catch up with the mind. He will likely be able to return to training similar to what he did when younger, and can have greater masters success than the Full-Spectrum Masters, but he must wait for his musculoskeletal system to catch up to the mental and cardiovascular systems. Patience and control in training are key mantras.


Our third type of masters runner is the one who has no running experience, takes up running later in life and finds that she not only enjoys it, but she’s also quite good at it. She’s the one who started running for fun with a charity group or running club and soon was beating the more seasoned runners every weekend.

This type of master can really get into training and racing similar to a younger runner. She can build good mileage on her “young legs” and experiment with lots of variety in training, adding volume and intensity as she gains in strength. She must watch for injury but has the green light to have a lot of fun, beat the pants off the young women and men and see just how good she can be.

The Newbie Masters runner can train with younger runners and experiment with a wide variety of training and races. She’ll soon find where her strengths lie and where she needs to be careful with certain workouts. She’ll often continue to improve when longer-term runners are starting to see an age-related decline.


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Written By Greg McMillan
Called “one of the best and smartest distance running coaches in America” by Runner’s World’s Amby Burfoot, Greg McMillan is renowned for his ability to combine the science of endurance performance with the art of real-world coaching. While getting his graduate degree in Exercise Science he created the ever-popular McMillan Running Calculator – called “The Best Running Calculator” by Outside Magazine. A National Champion runner himself, Greg coaches runners from beginners to Boston Qualifiers (15,000+ and counting!) to Olympians.

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