Middle age can sneak up on the best runners, bringing with it challenges and opportunities. Hormones may be shifting as the birthdays rack up, but for every “What the heck is going on?” that running in your 40s and 50s brings, you just may discover a silver lining.
We spoke with a few middle-aged runners to get the 411 on midlife running.
MEN: SUBTLE HORMONE SHIFTS + BIG OPPORTUNITIES
On the day Robert de las Alas turned 47 (just a week ago), he swam 2 miles, went for a 12-mile run and used his bike to run errands all day. Clearly, being in his 40s is not slowing him down. That said, he acknowledges there are different challenges now. “My weight is distributed differently as my metabolism has slowed down. And I don’t have the same flexibility in my joints that I used to have,” says de las Alas, a family medicine practitioner with Indiana University Health Physicians. He has to watch the amount of carbs he eats, and he makes sure to incorporate rest into his training so his body can heal. On the flip side, running is the best way to keep his metabolism as efficient as possible. Having good exercise habits like running “locked in” as we age is key.
He sees a range of patients, including active men in their 40s and 50s who talk about similar challenges. Sometimes, they talk about feeling more tired. While he acknowledges that testosterone production drops off for men as they age — bringing with it symptoms like fatigue — he’s not convinced it has a real impact on running. If you are really feeling fatigued, it may be as simple as getting enough sleep and proper nutrition or swapping running for a day of yoga, to give your body a chance to rest (with the added benefit of getting back some of the flexibility in your joints).
“Your goals in your 40s and 50s will not be the same as your 30s, but there are certainly more opportunities out there to have your whole exercise life open up,” he says. “The nice thing about being middle-aged and running is that my kids are more independent now. I don’t have to drop them off at the Child Watch at the Y and stick to certain hours or wake up really early to run so I can be back in time to help with what used to be crazy mornings. My wife and I can even run together now, because we can leave the kids alone.” Everybody is getting older — and in this case, it definitely makes it better.
WOMEN: WILD HORMONES + NEW MOTIVATION
While hormonal shifts in middle age may be barely perceptible for men, they’re hard to miss for women. That’s because starting as early as your 30s, production of estrogen begins to fluctuate. By the time you’re in your 40s (called the “perimenopause” years) the fluctuation only gets more intense, causing irregular and hard-to-predict periods, in terms of flow and duration. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), fluctuating estrogen levels can severely affect your mood, sleep cycle and metabolism.
Lisa Hollier, M.D., professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine and president-elect of ACOG, ran her first marathon at 40. “It was my birthday present to myself,” she says. Now 52, Hollier has been running ever since — through hot flashes and after terrible nights of sleep. “I’ve noticed that everything seems to get just a little harder,” she says, whether it’s keeping off weight or finding time to run because, at this point in her career, she has taken on more leadership roles, which require bigger time commitments. The good news is, there is some evidence that regular exercise may reduce hot flashes for some women. Also, running helps tire you out, which can lead to better sleep.
It’s not just about the physiological symptoms, however. There is a mental game, too. “Truly, the biggest challenge for me is motivation,” she says.
There is no magic pill for that one. Her solution has been to rely on a running partner. “Having a running partner who was the same age as me, who understood those crazy things I was dealing with because she was experiencing them, too — that has really helped keep me motivated.”
Another positive Hollier appreciates about running during this time in her life is it can help counter some of the heart disease risk that begins to increase for women after menopause. Estrogen has a protective quality for your heart, and once production decreases, your risk goes up. “Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women, so I like that I’m doing something to protect my heart,” she says. “It’s pretty good for my brain, too.”