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Cramp, a head like a tomato and lots of aches and pains – an introduction to running in middle age.

What do you do when you wake up one day and realise that you’re now somewhere between the ages of 40 and 50 and you have no idea how it all happened? Well, there are of course lots of answers to that question. If you’re a man, you may consider some form of mid-life crisis, be it buying a sports car, dressing like a teenager or flirting with people half your age. Actually, if you’re a man you might well do all three and then some, pushing hard to ruin your life! If you’re a woman, you might feel regretful about missed opportunities or low about your appearance, but ultimately you’ll be OK!

Whatever you are, you might want to make positive changes and a really popular change is to start becoming healthier. With the hedonism of your twenties having taken its toll and the hard work of your thirties now bearing fruit in the form of a mortgage, kids and an expanding waistline, you may well decide that you want to reclaim some of your youthful good looks and energy.

There are lots of things you can do. You may go back to a team sport like football, rugby, hockey or netball. You may try a new sport like squash or tennis. You might even fling yourself into the kind of pursuits you’d so far avoided like the plague, like yoga or pilates. Or, if you’re like me and many others in their middle age years, you might just go out running.

Running and health and fitness have been a major part of my blog. They’ve also been a huge influence on my middle age. The two things collided when I fell ill with heart problems aged 44. They advanced somewhat during lockdown and now, six years on, they’re a major part of my life.

So how might you get started with a pursuit like running when you’ve hit middle age? Well, I’m certainly no expert, but let me offer a few suggestions.

The first thing that I would recommend is a change of mindset. I see a lot of people, especially on social media, bemoaning the fact that they ‘can’t do’. That might be because of time and the perception that they’re too busy or because they feel that their fitness is too poor to try. When I was younger this was always my mindset. I wanted to get fit, but would tell myself that it was too rainy, too windy, my back hurt, my knee felt niggly, I was too tired and found it really easy to convince myself not to run. Even when I went out I’d hear a tired little voice in my had telling me I’d done enough and then I’d convince myself that I’d ran a few miles, when probably what I’d managed had been a very slow mile. Often, I’d not even make it out, convincing myself that I’d go when I felt just right. All too often, I’d find another excuse not to go or I’d go out and find myself settling for just a section of a planned route.

Needless to say, it didn’t work and I rarely found running a pleasure. My fitness didn’t improve and as a result, my running dropped off until it was non existent.

I started again following a health scare a few years ago. Despite telling myself – and probably anyone who’d listen – that I was ‘naturally fit’ I found myself in hospital with heart problems. It terrified me and speaking to a patient who had suffered multiple heart attacks seemed to flick a switch within me.

Once I was fit enough again I went out running with my kids. My mindset at first was that we’d run as far as I could. To start off with that’d be 10 minutes and I learnt to love the fact that I was able to do even that. But, by changing my mindset, I managed to keep making progress. I’d celebrate our runs, often posting on social media and I’d tell the kids that we had to run further next time and not just another minute or so, a decent amount. Within a year we did a 5km fun run in Roundhay Park and I’ve never cherished a finisher’s medal so much!

Nowadays, I don’t allow myself to have excuses. Reasons are fine; so recently I’ve been struggling with a back injury and was able just to tell myself to rest. I know I’ll be back out soon enough. Similarly, if I’m too busy, I’ll find time, even if it’s just 20 minutes. Unless it’s ridiculously windy or rainy, I’ll force myself out, whether I feel like it or not. My changed mindset says it’s a huge positive to get out and run. So, my first tip would be to change your mindset – don’t allow excuses and see every step and every minute as a positive. You could say that it’s a marathon, not a sprint!

If you’re beginning to run in middle age you’ll also need to set yourself small goals. At first that might be a lap around the block or a circuit of the park. You can build from there. When I ran with my kids we had a circuit around our estate and we’d always end up doing laps of the football field. Our goal was to do another lap every time, more if we felt we could manage. It worked. If your goals are realistic, you can reach them every time and it’ll feel great. Have a plan, set a small goal and then…out you go.

A good way of setting goals might be to download a running app. I use Strava and while I’m running I might well be thinking of other roads on my route that I could run down in order to lengthen my run next time (a good trick to keep your mind off how your legs are feeling, that one!). Failing that, I’ll look at the map on the app when I’m finished and target a route for next time. And 9 times out of 10 I’ll set myself a simple goal of running just a little bit further next time.

In terms of starting off and setting smaller goals, the ‘Couch to 5k’ app looks ideal. It’s free, easy to use and automatically sets the goals for you, working you up to a 5km run in manageable steps, which at our age is a really good thing!

Another good tip is to invest in some decent gear to go running in. When I first got back to running, aged 43, I simply bought a cheap pair of Nike runners from an outlet store without any real thought about what I was buying. They were there, they were in my size, they were cheap. They actually lasted me for a decent amount of time and were falling apart by the time I replaced them.

This time though, I’d done some research and read up on what I needed. I still didn’t shell out a huge amount of money, but made sure that I read reviews and took into account things like cushioning, weight and the heel to toe drop. The results were great. Firstly my times improved, but much more interestingly, especially given my age, my recovery time between runs got noticeably better. My legs ached a lot less and I wasn’t frequently waking up in the night after a run with shocking cramp! Furthermore, I didn’t feel 30 years older the next day either. So, I’d thoroughly recommend doing a bit of research and spending a bit more money on trainers that are going to be of more benefit to you.

This led to me spending a little more money on kit like shorts and running tops, which if I’m honest just make me feel better because they fit better! As a middle aged runner whose face turns tomato red after about a mile, having nice kit could be an essential distracting factor as I run past people in cars. In short, if my kit’s better, they might not notice my hilarious face! That said, even having better running socks feels like it’s of benefit, so a slightly bigger spend is a great idea. And if you’re worried about money then just keep an eye out for the sales when it’s easy to grab yourself a bit of a bargain. Oh, and buy shorts with a pocket; handy if you’re taking a key out or you just want to take a bit of fuel. I always make sure I have pockets to put some jellies in, which I find give me a much needed sugar rush at certain points in my runs!

As a new, middle aged runner you’re possibly going to feel a bit self conscious. I’m not a fan of my body and it’s safe to say that it’s got worse as I ticked over into my fifties. So, the idea of the horror show that is this tall, skinny middle aged man with a little pot belly running around the streets clad in clingy material haunted me from the word go!

One good idea for this problem would be to find some like-minded individuals. You might have friends who are keen to start running, but if not, there’s always a running club that you could join. A quick Google search is almost certain to reveal some kind of running club in your area and from what I understand, they’re always a friendly bunch. Being a bit of a grump, I still run on my own, but even I can see myself joining a club at some point. It’s got to provide a boost and maybe looking forward to meeting up with your running pals might help you resist the urge to stay in watching telly and resting your still aching muscles! Running as part of a group is also a lot safer too, so it’s definitely a good idea if you can find the right people.

The final piece of advice I’d give you if you’re starting to go running in middle age is to listen to your body. I’ve found running to be quite addictive, particularly as I’ve got fitter and been able to achieve certain goals. But I’ve really had to temper that readiness to go out running. The simple fact is that if you’re starting to run in your middle age, your body isn’t going to bounce back like it used to do! Rest is absolutely vital at this time of life, particularly if you’re pushing yourself. And the more you ignore your body, the more likely you are to pick up niggling injuries that will only get worse. So my advice would be to enjoy your running, but make sure that you not only give yourself good recovery time, but recover properly too; drinking lots of water and getting the vitamins back into your body is vital to being on top of your fitness when you go back out again. I find that eating cranberries or bananas gives me back that limited feeling of vitality that I have in my fifties!

So, there you have it! Hopefully that might give some people a bit of a push or maybe even some inspiration. Personally, I can’t recommend running enough and I genuinely feel like I’m, in a way, revitalised by going back to it in middle age. And given that none of us are getting younger, maybe we all need a bit of revitalisation!

Top Ten Hazards for the Middle Aged Runner

Now some people would take one look at the title of this particular blog and question the need for a Top Ten. In many ways, I would be one of them. I mean, as a fairly regular middle aged runner I can testify to the fact that it’s often no fun whatsoever. In fact, there are times when it’s nothing short of sheer hell. I enjoy it, in a strange way, but I can’t kid myself that it can be sheer hell too!

In the recent heat, there have been more than a few moments where I’ve wondered if my thumping heart, trembling legs and sweaty face would actually make it through the next few moments, let alone allow me to get back through our front door. I could argue that my face when running, resembling as it does a prized, agricultural show-ready plum tomato, is hazard enough to just give the whole running lark up. But, if you insist on continuing to run into your forties and fifties, then I suppose I’m providing a bit of a public service in telling you the kind of things you should look out for. And simultaneously ignoring my own advice as well…

Hazard 1 – Hills. Going up. not going down. Although even going down a hill can play havoc with the knees these days. But it’s the going up that presents the hazard. A friend of mine once commented on the town where I live, ‘Morley, built on 7 hills, like Rome. And that’s where the comparison ends’. I’d argue that this is not true as we have crumbling buildings and crazy drivers too, just like Rome, but that’s beside the point. Morley was indeed built on seven hills and this means that when running locally I cannot escape the bloody things. So beware, fellow middle age runners, hills mean an increasingly worrying heart rate, jelly legs and the production of many a strange wheezing noise.

Hazard 2 – Van drivers. Well known for their stereotypically lewd comments to women, van drivers are often not the runner’s friend either. Strangely while some are just downright abusive, others appear to think that they’re either running coaches or cheerleaders and many’s the time I’ve been shouted at to “get those knees up” or just told “go on lad”. None of this does any good for my motivation and if you too are a fifty something runner, I daresay it will only inspire muttered threats and swearing.

Hazard 3 – Wind. Just to clarify, that’s the weather related type rather than the arse related. Although I find that sometimes a good burp can do me the world of good while running. But that’s besides the point (and possibly another blog…). At a certain, respectable age wind can become less of a challenge and more of a factor to keep me indoors. It’s battle enough chasing times running a 5 or 10k without having to throw myself headlong into a 20mph headwind. I don’t mind said wind behind me as I’m heading home though!

Hazard 4 – Cobbles. Now this is a niche hazard, I’ll grant you that. But where I live in West Yorkshire, cobbles are still quite common. And before you say ‘just avoid them’, it’s not that simple. I don’t have to run on entirely cobbled streets much at all, but there are certain sections of the roads that I run on where there are still cobbles that are more or less unavoidable. If I don’t run on the cobbles the alternative is to run on the main road connecting Wakefield and Bradford, which as you’d expect, can be rather busy. So while my elderly knees and ankles are put at risk on cobbles, I’ll take my chance with this hazard rather than getting clipped by a truck! If I can continue to keep my balance and stay upright, everything will be OK!

Hazard 5 – Dawdlers. Slow walkers. Like, perilously slow. The bane of my life when I’m out running. Now you may think that this isn’t just a problem for the more vintage runner like myself. So let me explain. I’m out, I’ve established a rhythm and I’m not even giving any thought to how I feel. I’m just running without really having to think too much. And then, up ahead there’s a dawdler. I’m suddenly aware of the width of the pavement or just conscious of the fact that running behind them might give them a bit of a fright. But if they can just make it to that opening or the wider bit of pavement I can give them a wider berth and not slow down. Because I can’t slow down or stop as I might struggle to find this rhythm again! Of course, they never make it to that wider section at the right time and so I’m forced to take evasive action, like running up a grassy bank or into the road. Not a problem at all as a younger runner, but now it’s the kind of thing that could knock me off balance or just drain the legs of what it turns out is absolutely vital energy! Dawdlers: the incredibly innocent looking hazard that you hadn’t even thought about!

Hazard 6 – Dog walkers. Before I go any further, I’ll just say that I know that the majority of dog walkers are wonderful and responsible people. Some of them though, are just dicks! Now this hazard can be similar to your dawdler, which as we know represent a tricky problem. But then you throw in the dog. And here’s the deal. On numerous occasions I’ve been leapt at by dogs, twice sending me crashing to the floor in an ungainly fashion. The first time led to me completing the final half of my run caked in mud – hair, face, arms, legs – and the latest saw me sent sprawling to the concrete and subsequently taking the skin off my hands and knees. And on each occasion the humans involved were unapologetic and worse than useless. I was jumped at recently by a couple of scrawny rat type things and when the owners just grinned I’m afraid my response wasn’t particularly composed. Instead it was riddled with expletives. But I think I made my point. I’m 50 years old and doing my level best to stay fit and healthy. My body does not need to be hastily considering evasive gymnastics while I’m out running.

Hazard 7 – Young runners. Put simply these runners are younger than us, fitter than us and most likely quicker than us. In my case, they probably look better in their running gear too. But they certainly represent a hazard to the middle aged runner like myself. Lots of us will be the same in that we still retain a competitive edge and thus, when I see a young runner out and about, I only ever see a challenge. If I’m ahead of them, I’ll try to stay ahead. If I’m behind, I’ll lengthen my stride and try to catch them. Both are terrible ideas at my stage of life and only ever result in a struggle to actually finish my run! The lesson is to not try and take on people 20 or 30 years younger than me. If only I could learn the lesson!

Hazard 8 – Friends in cars. Admittedly, not the worst thing in the world, but believe me, when you’re 50, approaching the end of a run, sweaty, disheveled and your face looks like it might just explode, you do not want to see one of your mates go past in the car!

Hazard 9 – Chip shops (see also Indian takeaways and pizza shops). An easily avoidable hazard, but one where I never seem to learn my lesson. All of the above are regularly on my running routes simply because I live in quite a large town. Let me tell you, they are not good for moral! The wonderful aroma of chips, garlic or curry never fails to leave me wondering what the hell I thought I was doing when I had the idea for a run in the first place. Surely, ordering out and then sitting down and tucking into any one of these delights would be far more sensible and enjoyable than dragging my weary lycra-clad self round another 10k?

Hazard 10 – Beer Gardens. I regularly go out for a run after work on a Friday. I leave as early as possible, get home and changed quickly, stretch and then out I go. And it always seems like a great idea. I can rid myself of the mental fatigue and stress brought on by the working week and just be alone with my thoughts. Until that is, I spot a beer garden up ahead. It’s similar to the feeling I get when I smell a takeaway, but worse. Worse, because as I look up, it seems like every other middle aged person in town has decided to head to the beer garden and they look to be having such a great time. Would it not make sense for me to deal with my stress just like them? Well, yes, it would! And yet, here I am attempting to recapture the fitness of my youth, like an idiot while the inevitable wag glances up from a cold pint to call out to you to ‘get those knees up’. He probably came over in his van as well!

It should be a very simple thing to do, go out on a run. Staying fit in your middle age should only really be a battle with your own body. But as you’ve just read, it can be far, far more than just that!

Winter Running Tips – a cautionary tale to update!

Earlier this month I published a blog of 5 Winter Running Tips. One of the tips was to make sure to warm up and warm down properly; a reasonable ask, I’m sure you’ll agree. Here’s what I actually wrote.

Make sure to warm up and warm down properly. Whether it’s Winter or not, this is a good tip to follow. However, if you’re planning on going out running in freezing temperatures, then making sure that those muscles are fully stretched and warmed up is essential. The temperature alone should be the only shock that you get; you don’t want to have gone 100 metres and find that your body just doesn’t feel right. It’s Winter; you’ve got every excuse you need for turning round and heading back to that warm bed or front room with the fire on! At least if you’re fully warmed up, you’ll have a fighting chance of getting into a rhythm nice and quickly and after that, it’s all about just running! Warming up will help prevent those little niggling injuries that could mean you’re back on the sofa before you know it. Similarly, by warming down once you’ve finished, you’ll feel much, much better. I sometimes finish my run within a half mile of my house and then get home with a combination of light jogging and walking, just to make sure nothing seizes up. I always stretch again once I get back to the house and make sure that I take on plenty of water to rehydrate. It’s no fun when all you want to do is flop down on the bed, but it’s a lot better to have warmed down for ten minutes or so.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, leads me on nicely to my cautionary tale. I went out for a run on Friday just gone. It had been just short of two weeks since my previous run, because I’d been a bit poorly. Not Covid, but some kind of Winter bug that knocked me for six and meant that I’d chosen to rest the previous week. I could’ve gone out, but despite the weather being perfect, decided to listen to my body a bit and give myself a rest. This, after all, had been another of my Winter running tips; rest when needed.

I continued to follow this advice on my run, reasoning that I’d do four miles at most, just as a way of easing myself in again. It all went well. I was a little more tired than I’d imagined, but set myself a different route with more uphill sections, so I reasoned that this would naturally take its toll. I’d managed a steady first couple of miles before upping my pace for the last, flatter couple, finishing strongly if more than a little tired. And then I started to give myself problems. Initially, I stretched for a while, trying to make sure that my muscles didn’t stiffen with the sudden inactivity. Next, I went through to the kitchen, grabbed my bottle of water and took a few big slugs. And then I got distracted.

Instead of continuing with my normal recovery process – taking on at least a couple of bottles of water, having a banana, eating some nuts and seeds and stretching some more – I started to make my kids’ tea. Then I had a look at Twitter. Then I filled the sink and did some dishes. Another look at Twitter. The next stage of my kids’ tea.

Before I knew it, I’d gotten washed and changed, cooked my own tea and was sitting down to watch some TV. Later on I would indulge in a beer and some chocolate, before hauling myself into bed just after midnight. And then it happened.

At just after 1.30am I was woken by intense pain in my thigh. Cramp in my quad, in fact, but cramp like I’d never known it before. The level of pain was so ridiculously intense that it felt like it burned. Not having ever had cramp here before I didn’t really know what to do, so I jumped out of bed and stood stretching my leg out as best I could. Then a hamstring cramp. This was agony. People talk about seeing stars – especially cartoon characters! – but I never believed it. But, wincing with pain, I closed my eyes tightly and was greeted with the ‘sight’ of a border of stars around the darkness behind each eye! I broke out into a cold sweat and felt decidedly nauseous, so I lay down to try and stem the tide of pain and sickness. For a panicked few seconds, I actually thought I might be having a stroke! Maybe it’s judgements like this that saw my career in medicine go up in flames!

Eventually, trying not to wake my wife, I got back out of bed and hobbled to the bathroom, taking refuge on the cold tiled floor after drinking some water, and staying there for around 20 minutes. After this, I cautiously returned to bed.

The cramp would continue to strike. Not as bad as the first time, but enough to wake me each time. At around 6.30am it woke my for the final time, keeping me awake for another half hour, this time striking in my calf. When the alarm woke me some time later I was only able to hobble to the shower and was in some discomfort for the rest of the day. Days later and the hamstring still doesn’t feel right. The memory of that cramp continues to haunt me (not that I’m being at all dramatic here!).

I’ll end this cautionary tale with a reminder. PLEASE BE SURE TO WARM UP AND WARM DOWN PROPERLY IF YOU’RE GOING ON A WINTER RUN. IF YOU DON’T, THEN DON’T BLAME ME WHEN THE CRAMPS ATTACK!