Okay, boomer: You can—and, maybe, should—run a marathon

Tips from a trio of Atlanta coaches

Running a marathon older

Photograph by Kali Nine LLC via Getty Images

Some may say that marathon running is a younger person’s pursuit, that age brings not only wisdom, but also run-hindering pain, fatigue, and decreases in bone density, VO2 max, and lactic acid clearance. But should that automatically stop you from training for your first marathon in your 50s, 60s, or later? The answer, from a trio of Atlanta-area running coaches? Nope.

Not only is it entirely doable to complete your first 26.2-mile race, it may actually be advisable, according to a recent study of 21- to 69-year-olds.

The study found that older, first-time marathon runners can actually experience more benefits from completing the 26.2-mile race—including “reversing” the aging of major blood vessels—than their younger counterparts.

“After completing the marathon, aortic stiffness had reduced and the aorta was four years younger than before training,” according to the study from Dr. Anish Bhuva, a British Heart Foundation Fellow at University College London.

Perhaps the results were so striking because the younger runners already had biologically younger aortic vessels and had experienced less stiffening. But never mind that.

“A mature mind often performs better in a marathon. The distance requires patience and discipline, which life experience teaches us,” says Betsy Magato, a certified running coach who also runs live classes for the Charge Running app. “I see major improvements in older athletes’ resting heart rate, body-fat percentage, sleep quality, mental heath, and overall vitality. One of the best things I’ve ever heard as a coach are these words from one of my [over-40] runners: ‘I feel like an athlete, and I’ve never felt this way in my entire life.’”

We spoke with Magato and two other Atlanta-area running coaches, for tips on how more mature runners can best prepare and train for their first full marathons.

Take your time. “You’re less likely to get injured because you won’t be pushing your body to adapt too quickly. Focus primarily on easy effort.” says Janet Hamilton, who has coached since the early 1990s and whose oldest client was in her mid-80s. Hamilton recommends building to 24 miles per week, with a long run of about eight, before beginning a 26-week marathon-training program. “Canned training plans are 16 to 20 weeks in duration; an extra six to 10 weeks gives you wiggle room for the inevitable training interruption.”

Patience is a virtue, says Carl Leivers, who began his career in 2006 at Emory University and now has a private coaching business that typically attracts runners aged 35 to 55. “As you age you require more time to recover from exercises and from training.”

Build good habits. That includes stretching, strength training, core work, good sleep, foam-rolling, maintaining a strong range of motion, and getting your system accustomed to taking in water and fuel during runs. “[Older] runners can absolutely work hard, but they may not be able to hammer out hard workouts with just one day of rest in between,” Magato says. “This may mean extending the regular training week from seven days to 10 days.”

Be flexible. We’re not just talking about stretching. “Go into your first marathon without a specific time goal in mind,” Leivers says. “The marathon is a unique event and how you react to it is a bit unpredictable, no matter how well your training has gone. So on race day, it’s much better to go in with the expectation of enjoying the experience.”

Find a buddy. “Many masters runners train in a group and benefit from the connection with other runners,” Magato says. “There’s the efficiency of filling two needs at once: social interaction and exercising.”

Don’t ignore the signs. “Always listen to your body,” Hamilton says. “If something isn’t feeling right, deal with it right away.”

Magato has seen positive benefits for her 50-and-up clients, and not just in running. “One of my athletes decided to tackle a graduate degree, another has lost a significant amount of weight, and another has just received a big promotion at work,” Magato says. “As adults we don’t often get to do things for the first time, and the excitement surrounding this achievement is quite special and empowering.”