Marathon knows no age

Even at 40 and beyond, it’s possible for almost anyone to take up running. All you need is a little determination and some training


Anuradha Dutt. Photographs: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Anuradha Dutt. Photographs: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

What’s age got to do with it? A lot if you are 40-plus and want to take up running.

Ask Vikram Singh Gulia, 50, a senior general manager at tea producer Goodricke Group Ltd, who not only had to overcome his own doubts but also handle a worried wife. Kolkata-based Gulia plays golf and tennis regularly but he had not run a kilometre since 1982, the year he left school. He started again last month because his team had registered for a corporate team race in Kolkata.

Anuradha Dutt, 44, used to be puzzled by her husband waking up at 3.30am every other day to go running. All the noise while he looked for his socks, shoes and headphones didn’t help. Out of curiosity, and also because she wanted to lose a few kilos, Dutt started running in 2011, at the age of 40. As a new mother, she was told her decision wasn’t good for her health and motherhood.

Bill Pierce, professor and chair of the health sciences department at the US’ Furman University and lead author of Run Less, Run Faster, points out that there is a lot of support for older Americans to begin running. But that is not the case in India. “In a society where running is not as prevalent among older individuals (as it is elsewhere), there is not much support merely because society is not accustomed to seeing older runners participate in running,” he says.

Sports brand Puma India’s running ambassador and sports scientist Shayamal Vallabhjee says the biggest fear is whether the body will cope with the workload associated with running, considering the degeneration it goes through after the age of 40.

“They worry that the incidence of running-related injuries will increase and recovery or healing time will be slower. It’s a legitimate concern as the muscles will tend to lose their elasticity and you will have some atrophy which predisposes you to injury. Navigating this will only happen with dedication to training,” he adds.

That can be done by following the basics of running. Prof. Pierce says: “For the most part, an older runner should begin just as someone under 40 would: Begin slowly and gradually progress. Ideally, you should join a running club, get a coach, or have some experienced and knowledgeable professional to assist you.” Also, you should listen to your body, which guides you on how hard to push, says Vallabhjee. “You have to be disciplined with regard to your lifestyle and give ample time to recovery. This is the best way to stay injury-free.”

Gulia, who was coached by his colleagues, went on to complete the 5km race in 35 minutes at the Puma Urban Stampede in Kolkata on 6 December. He ran his first 10km race at the Tata Steel Kolkata 25k two weeks later, giving his wife a lot more to worry about along the way. “While there was wonderment when I told my wife about my 5km race, she was worried when I spoke about my decision to run 10km. Her reaction was, ‘At this age!’ She came around though and asked me to walk if I found it difficult to run all the way.”

For the year ahead, Gulia has found a new challenge: to improve his timing in the 5km and 10km races. After a year, he will take stock and decide on whether to attempt a half marathon.

As for Dutt, she ignored all the advice, followed her husband’s training schedule for two months and went on to complete a half marathon in Mumbai in January 2012. Since then, she has not only shed the unwanted weight, but has also completed six half marathons, one 25km run, and finished third in her category at the Tata Steel Kolkata 25k last month. Dutt is aiming to get faster with each race this year and, hopefully, catch up with her husband, who takes part in marathons, so she doesn’t slow him down during their training runs.

Gulia and Dutt were lucky to have experienced runners at hand to help. While those in Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and Delhi can turn to running groups for support, people in other parts of the country may find little help. That’s disheartening because not only is distance running safe, it has tremendous advantages that outweigh the risks for older people.

“It is recommended that for good health adults should get 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week. There are many health benefits associated with being physically fit. Aerobic capacity is the best predictor of mortality,” says Prof. Pierce.

Before you start running, however, it is best to get a thorough screening done by your cardiologist or physician, says Nilesh Gautam, interventional cardiologist at the Asian Heart Institute in Mumbai. “The medical check would ideally comprise a (standard) 12-lead ECG (electrocardiogram), blood reports, and a stress test or stress echo with prior documented heart ailment,” he says.

Another important thing that older runners need to keep in mind is nutrition. Proper nutrition acts as fuel during a run and aids in the recovery process after it. “Pay extra attention to nutrition if you want to see quicker results of your training,” says Sandeep Sachdev, nutrition manager at the gym Fitness First and winner of weight-loss reality show Biggest Loser Jeetega. “Once you hit the 40s, you need to plan 42-49 meals a week, of which 90% need to be without fizzy drinks, fried food, etc.

“Cut down on sugar and desserts, eat only good carbs (wholewheat, brown rice), and include fibre (vegetables and salad leaves), proteins (chicken, tofu, dal, fish, paneer, sprouts, eggs) along with good fats (dry fruits, ghee, olive oil, peanut butter). Just like you need to slowly scale up your running, you ought to ease into a healthy eating habit by gradually cutting out harmful food and replacing it with healthy eating,” he says.

Some of the benefits of running

■ Improves cardiovascular and respiratory functions

■ Lowers risk of coronary artery disease, cerebrovascular diseases, stroke, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cancer of the colon and breast, and gall bladder diseases

■ Decreases anxiety and depression

■ Improves cognitive function

■ Enhances performance at work, recreational and sport activities.

—Nilesh Gautam, interventional cardiologist, Asian Heart Institute, Mumbai

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