Runners, don't be in such a hurry

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By Paul Oppenheim

Running Columnist

I once heard a theory that runners could improve for ten years. Don't know how true that is, but it was completely accurate in my case. My fastest times came at age 46, a decade after I ran my first 10K.

There's obviously an age factor. If a kid started running in seventh or eighth grade, and progressed through high school and college, it's pretty logical to assume that top times would be reached as a college senior. But if you're an older adult, that ten-year formula might not work as well.

I've seen many new runners quickly discover that it's fun, healthy, and often pretty addictive. These new runners enter a few races, and some of them catch "the fever" and strive to improve speed and endurance with the ever-seductive goal of new PRs (personal records). A few age-group race medals add even more fuel to the fire.

But too much running, too soon, has obvious pitfalls like injuries. I have seen major setbacks, and even the unfortunate ends of some promising running careers after great starts.

For some it's like running narcotics, hard to resist and very addictive. Got a training schedule and a new GPS watch that measures exactly how far you ran, but maybe it was raining hard or you had a job commitment that curtailed running for a day or two. Damn, you missed a day -- might get out of shape. It's that runner's guilt. Then your ankle starts to hurt – should you increase your miles? Or maybe your legs just feel heavy. Can't possibly be fatigue, so maybe you need to step up your training pace. Wait a few years to hit your peak? Forget that, you want it now!

I remember one guy who was making great progress, and quickly moved up to marathons. He ran a fine marathon with a great new PR, but showed up for track workouts the following Wednesday. "What the heck are you doing here?" we asked. But he felt great and promised to take it easy – just wanted to loosen up his legs. You guessed it, something popped that evening, and he didn't run for a whole year. Many talented new runners just can't be convinced to do it gradually, and I understand their enthusiasm. Everything feels fine, but suddenly there's an injury and it's too late.

I can't explain why I was so lucky -- maybe it was laziness. As a new runner I was content with daily four mile runs, and that modest mileage allowed me to run an occasional 10K. But my running friends were doing longer races, so I gradually caved into their pressure and began extending my weekend runs with the group. Later, someone suggested speed training sessions on the track, so I joined a Wednesday night training group at the University of Illinois Chicago campus. My mileage and intensity saw gradual improvements with peak performances coming a full decade after that first race.

And I didn't incur a significant running-related injury for 25 years.

Paul Oppenheim is a member of the Oak Park Runners Club.

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