Longevity of a long-distance runner? Personal experiences

Before posting the final article in the series on the longevity of the long-distance runner, I will insert an account of my own recent experiences.  For the past year I had been planning a ‘heptathlon’ of activities for the week following my 70th birthday, in March this year.   It was a whimsical idea that had grown out of discussion on one of the social threads on the Fetcheveryone web-site for runners.  I did not intend to take it too seriously, but nonetheless, I did consider it a good opportunity to develop some new skills and broaden my range of cross-training activities, as part of an overall long-term goal to keep fit and active for as many years as possible.

I planned seven activities intended to test strength, power, balance, technical skill and endurance, with one activity each day, spread over the week. I set myself performance targets for the various events.  These were not intended to be extraordinary individual achievements for each event, but rather an overall test of my ability to achieve a modest level in a wide range of activities.

However my plans were seriously disrupted by a bicycle accident last July that left me with torn lateral ligaments in my left knee.   For several months I could not run at all.  The physio estimated recovery would take about a year and advised very gradual increase in activities.  During the final months of 2015 progress was very slow.  Nonetheless, I did establish that provided I ran slowly with a very short stride length to minimise impact forces, my knee could cope.  By the end of the year I built up to a level where I could run 10 Km slowly with few complaints from my knee.

At the end of December, I reviewed my heptathlon plan.  I decided it was feasible to attempt the heptathlon, but there was little prospect of achieving my former performance targets.  I therefore set some less demanding ‘B standard’ targets for the various activities.   The only activity that I had to change completely was the planned 100 metre sprint.  There was a serious risk that any attempt to sprint would jeopardise the recovery of the torn ligaments.  Therefore I replaced the planned sprint with a sprint on the elliptical cross-trainer.

My partially healed ligaments coped fairly well as I built up the volume of training for the various activities in January and February.  Surprisingly, cycling was the activity that caused the most pain in my knee, and I was forced to limit the amount of cycling.  Provided I continued to run with a very short stride length, running produced only occasional transient stabs of pain.   When I had set my B standard targets at the end of 2015, I had selected 20 Km as the target for the planned off-road run, as it appeared that this would be as much as I could reasonably expect my knee to cope with by March. In fact, by early February I was able to run 20Km without upsetting my knee, and by the end of February, I had done one long run of 39 Km.

I had also made good progress with most of the other events, and it appeared possible that I might be able to achieve the A standard targets  that I had originally set before the accident, in at least some of the activities.  Unfortunately, in early March my knee became a little more troublesome, making it necessary to cut back the volume of training to ensure that I would at least able to get the start of my planned heptathlon at the end of the month.  In particular I was unable to do any more longish training runs, and it appeared likely that lack of endurance would be an issue during the heptathlon.

A further scheduling issue created an additional problem.  I was scheduled to attend a two day academic conference in York in late March. When the conference dates were confirmed, it turned out to coincide with the first two days of my planned heptathlon.  Despite the anticipated lack of endurance, distance running is nonetheless my primary activity.   For the final heptathlon event, I had planned a 50K off-road ultra-marathon and this had to be on Easter Monday, so I could not defer the start.

Fortunately, the least demanding of the events, a test of balance that involved maintaining the Tree Pose, standing on one leg with arms extended above my head for 2 minutes on each leg, could be performed with minimal time commitment and at any location. I had originally planned that this non-demanding activity would be in the middle of the heptathlon to provide a recovery day, but I simply had to sacrifice the planned recovery day by doing this activity on the first day.  The second activity was a test of strength: the target was 5x100Kg barbell squats and 100 consecutive push-ups. Fortunately, I was able to do the push-ups in my hotel room before the second day of the conference and the barbell squats after returning home to Nottingham in the evening.

Once the first two days were behind me, the subsequent 5 days went very well, though there was an unexpected challenge on the final day.  Storm Katie swept across England on Easter Monday bringing high winds, heavy rain, sleet and snow, and causing quite a lot of damage.  For most of the first 20 Km of the 50 Km ultra I was struggling against a storm-force head-wind.  A few hours later, when running on the opposite direction, the fury of the storm had subsided, depriving me of the benefit of a strong tail-wind.  On numerous occasions throughout the run, I was sloshing through ankle deep water and mud.   I was very grateful that my friend Helen and her husband James joined me for a substantial part of the second half of the run.


Running beside Zouch Lock on the River Soar, with Helen, at 30Km (photo by James)

By the end I was utterly exhausted, more exhausted than I have ever been before, but very happy that I had completed the heptathlon.  I achieved six A standard and one B standard performance.  The performance targets and my actual achievements are shown in the table.


I had included two of the activities, the high jump and the swim, mainly because I wanted to learn the required techniques. As a youngster at school my friends and I sometimes did high-jumping during the lunch hour, using high jump uprights and bar in a corner of the school sports field.  We did not have a mat, so it was only feasible to do the scissors.  I did not have any special talent for jumping and my best performance in those days was only 3 feet 6 inches (106.7 cm).

About 10 years later, Dick Fosbury amazed the world by winning gold at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City with his specular Flop technique.  The name ‘Flop’ is an appropriate description of the combined sideways and backwards somersault over the bar.  The thing that impressed me as a young physicist nearing the completion of my PhD was the fact that because the head and shoulders are already descending as the hips cross the bar, the centre of gravity is below the height of the bar at all times throughout the jump.   This appeared to be a magic trick.  However, by that stage of my life, I was a distance runner, so it did not occur to me to experiment with the technique myself at that time.

However, as I planned my 70th birthday heptathlon I recalled my previous fascination with the Flop and decided that I would learn the technique, with the aim of jumping higher that I had managed as a school boy about 57 years ago.   After the accident, the injury to my left knee forced me to change the take-off from my preferred left foot to the right. In addition, I had to restrict the run-up to a fairly slow approach of no more than 6 short steps to avoid stress on the left knee.  I was nonetheless delighted to clear 112 cm, a life-time personal best for the high jump by more than 5 cm.

Somewhat similarly in the case of swimming, despite learning to do the dog-paddle at age 6, in the subsequent 64 years I had only swum occasionally, usually for the purpose of enjoying being in the water, but I had not focused on technique.  I had no reason to learn how to coordinate breathing with my stroke, nor how to keep my legs from sinking.    Preparing for the heptathlon provided an opportunity to learn how to do the front crawl properly.

In fact swimming was the only activity in which I failed to reach my A standard, but I was nonetheless very pleased with the progress that I made with the technique.   I can now coordinate breathing-out while my head is under water and breathing in while the recovery of the arm on the breathing side passes close to my head, and I can keep my feet near the surface using a flutter kick from the hips.  At this stage, I feel I have mastered the rudiments of the technique.  The main thing I need to do in future is to make the action more automatic, allowing me to relax a little more, and swim comfortably for longer distances.

Overall, despite being a rather whimsical idea at first, the heptathlon has proven to be a very satisfying challenge.   Now, my most important goal is recovering my running speed, at least to the level near that I could achieve a year ago.  However, until my knee ligaments are strong, my stride length and pace will be severely limited.  I will have to be patient.  At least I have an interesting range of cross-training activities to help me sustain overall fitness without undue stress on my legs.

7 Responses to “Longevity of a long-distance runner? Personal experiences”

  1. James and Helen House Says:

    Those first 20 km must have been so tough. The weather gods were throwing absolutely everything at you.
    Thank you for a brilliant day..mud/sun/sleet/bluebells and a kestrel. A perfect Easter run.

    • canute1 Says:

      James and Helen
      Thank you for your comment. And thankyou so much for running with me along the banks of the Soar and into the wolds on the Nottinghamshire/Leicestershire border, and then re-joining me for the final few Km through the bluebell woods. It was indeed a wonderful day.

  2. Ewen Says:

    Canute, I’m impressed! Enjoyed reading that and you certainly look happy at the 30k mark of your 50k ultra. Achieving a higher jump than in your school days is fantastic. I’m curious about how you taught yourself the Fosbury Flop as I myself was self-taught but had some coaching from a local veteran who was a national standard jumper in his younger years. I did it by feel and trying to emulate what I’d seen in videos. I found that when I achieved good technique in a jump you certainly knew that you’d done so.

    Swimming technique can be improved greatly through coaching. I remember that streamlining (gliding a long way before pulling back the water) and what you do under the water is important to speed and relaxation. Your bike ride was excellent too. On the point of knee pain while cycling, saddle position fore/aft relative to the bottom bracket makes a big difference – moving your saddle forward even just a centimetre could eliminate that knee pain.

    On the point of regaining running speed, I came across an article in Runner’s World mentioning a paper that found that weakness in the ankles and calves might be the main thing that slows aging runners: http://www.runnersworldonline.com.au/stay-fast-as-you-age/

    • canute1 Says:

      Thank you for your helpful comments about the various heptathlon activities.
      I learned the theory of the Fosbury Flop from an article by Jesus Dapena from the Biomechanics Laboratory at Indiana University. I watched various U-tube videos and practised various drills, starting from a standing backwards somersault onto a mattress. Although I had to restrict my run up on account of my damaged knee, I experimented quite a lot to enable me to get to the intended take off point with the right orientation of my body.
      For the front crawl, I found the Swim Smoot website very helpful. http://www.swimsmooth.com/ They have produced an excellent animation of the crawl. They do not favour a glide, but their animation does depict a forward extension of the leading arm just prior to the catch. I think I need an instant of relaxation at that point to help reduce tension, especially on every third stroke as I am about to breath on the side opposite the leading arm.

      For the bike ride I used my commuter bike that I have been riding to and from work for several decades. I had adjusted the height of the saddle so that my leg was almost fully extended at the bottom of the down-stroke. However I had not looked into forward-back position or angle. The saddle was not a racing saddle. By the end of the 20Km ride I had produced an acute, but fortunately transient, paralysis of my hamstrings – I think by undue pressure in the nerves that serve to adjust the tension in the upper part of the hams. I definitely need to look into the question of saddle design, position and orientation. I wonder how much transient partial paralysis of the nerves that adjust hamstring tension contributes to the infamous problem that triathletes experience at the bike-run transition.

      The study by DeVita and colleagues of the reasons for slowing of elderly runners is fascinating though when I first read it I was a little puzzled because I have previously considered that power generated at hips and knees was more important than power generated at the ankles. I totally agree that loss of stride length is a major factor. Even before my accident, I had noticed that I have actually increased cadence in an attempt to compensate for decreasing stride length as I have aged. Even at mid-aerobic paces, my cadence is usually between 190 and 200 steps per minute. I had thought that loss of power at the hips was the most likely problem. This was one of the reasons I had focussed on squats and deadlifts in recent years. I was interested to note that since doing squats and deadlifts, my power on the elliptical has improved. The 505 watts (maintained for 10 seconds) achieved during my recent heptathlon is actually greater that the power output I was able to achieve eleven years ago on my 59th birthday – but my running pace has deteriorated dramatically since then. Squats and deadlifts place more emphasis on the upper parts of the posterior chain, with only minor demand on the gastrocnemius and soleus. Perhaps DeVita is right that power at the ankles is crucial. Thanks for reminding me about that study.

      I suspect that hang-cleans are far better than squats for developing power in the entire posterior chain including gactrocnemius and soleus. I had in fact started doing hang-cleans prior to my accident, but in the accident I had not only injured my knee, but also my right elbow. The minimally controlled lowering of the bar during hang-cleans is risky for the elbow. However, my elbow has recovered now and I will start doing hang-cleans again, building up the load cautiously. (Clean and press is off the agenda because I have cast iron plates. I would not only wreck the plates but also smash the floor if I dropped the bar. )

      Until my partially healed knee ligaments are strong enough, I will have to continue to run with my present short stride length, but maybe in a few months I will be able to see if increased power at the ankles allows me to recover speed.

  3. ThomasBubendorfer Says:

    That’s a lovely challenge and I do admire your spirit to work around those quite formidable obstacles you had to encounter. I’m very impressed: especially by the ultra in that weather!

    • canute1 Says:

      Thanks for your comment. I am pleased to see that you are continuing to run well. Good luck in Manchester.

  4. padraigjapan Says:

    Belated Happy Birthday and congratulations on completing the heptathlon. I read your article with great interest and I hope I can be just as active in a few years. I hope you get your running speed back to where you want it.

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