Run Strong at Any Age

Next time you line up at the start of a race, take a look around. Chances are there are women of all ages standing near you, from young girls to women who put on their first pair of running shoes more than 40 years ago. What is it about running that appeals to so many women, from teenagers to seniors, recreational joggers to elite athletes?

"It's a lifelong passion for me," says 52-year-old Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won the first Olympic women's marathon in 1984 at age 27 and held the American record in the marathon for 18 years.

At age 50, she competed in the 2008 Olympic Marathon Trials in Boston, meeting her goal of finishing the race under 2:50. "The important thing is I still make running a priority in my life. It's not about how much you run, it's about the act of running and reaping the benefits."

You have to train and eat right to be a long-term runner like Samuelson. Here's our decade-by-decade guide to help you run for life.

In Your 20s

If you're younger than 30, you're strong, flexible and have stamina in spades, so you can train hard, recover quickly and perform well.

"Bone density and muscle mass are at their highest at this age," says running coach Christine Hinton. "This translates to better strength, reduced injury risk and increased speed."

Your VO2 max (maximal oxygen uptake)--essentially, your cardiovascular fitness and aerobic endurance--is also at its best.

But there can be a downside to all these advantages.

"If you increase your mileage and intensity too much, too soon, you put yourself at serious risk for injuries, from shin splints to stress fractures," says running coach Christine Luff. While this is true for runners of all ages, women in their 20s often keep irregular schedules, whether it's sleeping, eating or training, says Luff.

To avoid overtraining and injury, take at least one easy day between hard runs and incorporate cross training into your routine. "Cross-training is important," says Luff, "because it helps strengthen non-running muscles while giving running muscles a chance to rest and recover."

Try cycling or swimming: "These allow runners to continue to develop their cardiovascular systems," says Hinton, and gives the hips, knees and ankles a rest.

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