With retirement on the horizon, kids moving (or, better yet, already) out of the house, running can inch up your to-do list again. Although there's no denying your speed isn't what it used to be, that may not matter. "Running is the thing that grounds my day and my soul," says Sharon Barbano, 54, of Marblehead, Massachusetts, who has been a dedicated runner for more than three decades (she won the 1979 Finlandia Marathon and 1980 Long Island Marathon). Barbano, who works out with a personal trainer twice a week, is very conscious of what she needs to do to keep running for decades to come. "Longevity depends on protecting your body by strength and cross-training," she says. "So many people I was running with in the 1970s can no longer run today because all they did was run."
Even though you'll see your intervals get a bit slower regardless of your training, you can still maintain a strong showing at distance events. Researcher Bradley Young tracked a group of Canadian masters runners and found that while age predicted time for 1500-meter races, annual mileage determined speed more than age in the 10-K. "This paints an optimistic picture for those who are motivated to do the work," Young says. "Consistent training lets you retain your performance." Muscular strength peaks around 30 but is "relatively well maintained" for decades to come, according to sports-medicine specialist Tim Noakes, M.D.
In one study of masters runners, 40-somethings and 70-somethings had similar leg power. (After 70, it did decline—but 20 years later than it did in sedentary folks.) Emotionally, you're much better off, too. Studies have shown that masters athletes are less depressed, angry, and fatigued than those who don't exercise, according to longevity expert Walter Bortz, M.D. In even better news, Dr. Bortz conducted a study that found sexual satisfaction correlates with fitness level in those 50 and older.
Female runners are moving targets this decade. The average age for menopause is 51, and during that phase, women can lose up to 90 percent of their estrogen, which causes bone mass to drop two to five percent annually for the five years following menopause. This increases the risk of osteoporosis. Although it can help regulate the mood swings of menopause, running alone can't prevent bone loss. "The influence of menopause is beyond what running can overcome," says exercise scientist Steven Hawkins, Ph.D., who strongly recommends that you strength train to solidify your bones.
Men have it decidedly better: Testosterone levels and bone density go down between .4 and .75 percent annually from age 45. By age 80, men have lost 20 percent of their bone mass; women, a whopping 40 percent. Still, running is a great antidote. "Osteoporosis isn't exclusively about the quality of bone," Hawkins says. "It's also about the quality of muscle surrounding the bone. If your muscles are built up, you're less likely to fall and break a bone, no matter what state it's in."
Your sense of balance fades with age. "Take a Tai Chi or yoga class, or practice closing your eyes and standing on one foot for 30 seconds," Dr. Bortz says. These activities can also strengthen your trunk muscles and prevent back pain. Keep the spring in your step by doing plyometrics—jumping moves that strengthen your legs, help program your central nervous system to respond quickly, and improve mobility in your joints. Plyometrics might initially be too jarring, especially for those with joint issues, so start by jumping rope. Do one set of 10 jumps three times a week, working up to three sets. Then switch to jumping on one foot, beginning with one set, before progressing to moves like step-ups and step-downs.
Staying regular so you're not a fixture in the porta-potty line gets harder this decade, as your GI tract naturally slows. Eat at least 15 grams of fiber daily — ideally, a combination of fruits, veggies, beans, and whole-grain breads and cereals. "Fibers also help manage blood-sugar and cholesterol levels, which are risks for diabetes and heart disease and seem to creep up during your 50s," says nutritionist Lisa Dorfman.
Nolan Shaheed, 58, Pasadena, California
Running since: age 27
Résumé: Holds records in the 50-54 division—800 meters (1:58.65); mile (4:27.9)—as well as the 55-59 division—800 meters (2:06:03); 1500 meters (4:20.76); indoor mile (4:42.87); outdoor mile (4:42)
What I've learned "My training stems from what I want to accomplish this year. I'm not training for something that I'm not going to achieve. I want to beat my 2007 800 time (2:05), so I'll specifically train to run a 2:04. I'm not going to run harder than I need to. When I turn 60, I'll be in a different age group, and I'll train differently for that. I'll probably be able to take it easy."
What works for me: "I have a plan, and I adhere to it. I run 12 miles six days a week, and I eat one meal a day. It's how my body works best. If you're going to run, run for fun. I'll run for the next 50 years because I enjoy it. I train hard, but even if I lose, I'm grateful for the experience. Winning is just icing on the cake."