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When are you too old to start a running program?

This Ask the Trainer inquiry raises a question that many exercisers face as they age. Do achy joints and sore muscles mean that an individual is too old to start an intense workout regime? Fitness expert Kris Wayne specializes in developing exercise programs for adults as they progress through mid-life and beyond. She addresses this question from a 54 year-old who wonders if she is too old to start running.

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Get Your Rear in Gear reader: I am 54 years old and wonder if I am too old to begin a running program. My knees are achy since the race on Sunday and I am wondering how to treat this? I also have plantar fasciitis in one foot, which actually seems to hurt less with jogging. I want to lose 30 pounds and was hoping by starting a jogging/running program that this would help achieve my goal. I am currently following The Mayo Clinic Diet Program.

Kris Wayne: You raise a number of points so let me try to briefly address each of them:

  1. It is very common when you begin training for an event to have troubles like “achy knees”. But more intense running requires a commitment to strength training (particularly in the glutes and thigh muscles) especially as we age. It also requires a commitment to flexibility work. My suggestion is to work with a qualified trainer to learn a good stretch and strength program. A good trainer will suggest a reasonable training progression, assess your gait (running style) and overall current joint function to make informed recommendations. When we are 20 we can just attack things quickly – but not as the body ages and we experience wear and tear.
  2. The “achy knees”  may be helped by some myofascial release with a foam roller, and then some stretching of the muscles affecting the knee joint. Strengthening exercises may also help to reduce the issue causing the achiness. The achy knees may also be related to the plantar fascitis you describe. Often the arches weaken as we age, causing pronation. Sometimes treatment focuses just on the foot and an orthotic is prescribed to treat the symptom. The answer may lie in a bit deeper approach- with a combination of myofascial and stretching exercises of the foot and the the calf. One exercise that is very helpful is called the “inch worm”. In a seated position, put a small towel under your bare foot and then scrunch your foot up to “grab” the towel. Then “walk” the toes forward and  backwards with the scrunching motion. This works the whole group of muscles which comprise the arch and the toe muscles to strengthen them. Do this seated at first and eventually standing. To strengthen the shin muscles and the arch in the foot, try standing calf raises and then finish with more stretching.
  3. To lose 30 pounds – you are on the right track ! However, consider cross training with a variety of cardio options to avoid overuse of muscles.  You will build up to more intensity in shorter periods of time and improve cardio endurance and fat burning ability. The strength work will add more calorie burn and improve the amount of lean muscle mass in your body. Even at rest, muscle burns more calories than fat.  As you already know, substantial extra body weight stresses the joints, the heart and creates health issues of its own. Good luck  – you are on the right track.  Hope this helps.

Kris Wayne is the Generations Fitness Specialist for the Metropolitan Minneapolis YMCA. As part of this program she develops fitness programming for baby boomers and senior populations in the areas of Pilates, Group Fitness and Personal Training. Her program, “Functional Fitness” concentrates on undoing what occurs during the aging process and daily life. Kris is a certified presenter and fitness instructor through the American Council on Exercise and is a National Academy of Sports Medicine certified personal trainer.

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