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The Six Keys To Lifetime Running

Most runners understand the benefits of lifetime fitness, but that doesn’t make it easy to achieve. Here’s how you can go the distance.

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In November, I ran the Manchester Road Race (in Connecticut) for the 61st year in a row. That’s an unofficial world record for consecutive-year race streaks. (There are no official world records for this category.)

I’m prouder of this streak than I am of the nine times I actually won Manchester or the single time I won the Boston Marathon. That’s because I believe the ultimate runner goal is lifetime running—and not just one stellar race, or even several.

I want to keep moving, as long as I can. In my view, there’s really no alternative. A body at rest will rot or rust—simple physics. 

On the other hand, “motion is lotion.” It keeps the body fit and functional.

Or as Dr. Ken Cooper, the father of aerobics, put it: “We don’t stop exercising because we grow old. We grow old because we stop exercising.”

Running the same annual race is a great way to motivate lifetime fitness. The calendar is consistent and dependable, and your yearly race represents a simple checkmark event. You either did it, or you didn’t.

Here are six key strategies I’ve used to keep myself running Manchester through six decades. None make unrealistic demands.

You don’t need to run 50 miles a week, or spend 5 hours each week at the gym. The below strategies are simple, yet they are powerful. They have worked for me, and they will work for you, too.

The Six Keys To Lifetime Running 1

#1: You Must Have A Mantra 

The effort required to maintain a race streak and establish a lifetime running habit is 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental. You needn’t obsess about your BMI, heart rate, stride frequency, VO2 max, or lactate-threshold pace. Those are just numbers. 

What you need is words that inspire—a mantra, or many mantras.

Since I’m not particularly clever or creative, I thought I’d find my mantra in one of the great books. They’re full of fantastic quotes. You know: the Bible, Shakespeare, Russian novels.

We’ve all heard some of the epic lines. In the Bible, you might favor: “But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not faint.”

Or from Shakespeare: “Bid me run, and I will strive with things impossible.” These are lines to stir a runner’s soul.

Surprisingly, I discovered my mantra on a relaxed trail run. The words just coalesced midway between my ears: “Every run is a new adventure. And every mile is a gift.”

The expression felt right, and it has stuck with me. I repeat the words now during every mile of the Manchester Road Race and the Boston Marathon. Especially that second sentence: “Every mile is a gift.”

Choose your own special mantra, or mantras. Borrow from the Classics—there’s no shame in that. But be sure to find phrases that resonate deeply for you. Your mantras will keep you going when the going gets tough.

The Six Keys To Lifetime Running 2
Amby and John Valentine partner up for some Boston running.

#2: Find A Training Partner, Then Find More

John and I did our first run together on a disgusting, hot summer day in 1965. The companionship turned a miserable run into a delight. 

We have been running together ever since. In fact, I could tell you the dates of several races we’ve both entered in the next six months. Our fitness friendship has been one of the greatest rewards of my lifetime in running.

It has also been one of the biggest boosts to my running—year after year, decade after decade.

Training partners understand you, whereas others sometimes don’t. They share your passion. They lighten the load. And, most important, they hold you accountable.

When your training partner agrees to show up at the corner of Main Street and Maple at 6 a.m., you know you’ll be there, too. 

You don’t have to do every run with a training partner. Our hectic, unpredictable lives make that almost impossible. I probably do 80 percent of my running alone these days. 

But the other 20 percent are my best running days. I always look forward to meeting up with John, Gail, Gary, Jim, Bill, and a few others. 

As Bill Rodgers has said, “A running partner is a gift for life.”

I couldn’t agree more. Each running partner is also a gift to motivate your lifetime running. See you soon, John.

#3: Cross-Training Is Not An Option: It’s A Necessity 

I used to run 13 times a week. On Monday through Saturday, I’d hit the road in the early morning and again in the late afternoon. Sunday was an easy day—just one run, a 20-miler. 

Now, I train almost as often as I did then. Yes, I admit to being a bit of an exercise addict. Can’t help it. The workouts make me feel so good.

But my current training program includes just three or four runs a week, with a longest of maybe 10 miles.

The rest of the time, I’m mostly on an indoor recumbent bicycle, pedaling at modest effort while reading newspapers, magazines, books, and scientific papers. My body couldn’t absorb more pounding.

I also devote 20 minutes, twice a week, to strength training in my local gym. I can’t say I enjoy this very much. But all the health and fitness guidelines say we should do this, and I don’t argue with the consensus advice of the world’s leading exercise experts.

Most importantly, my routine is working. When I head out for a typical run, I have no pain. None in the back, none in the hips, knees, ankles, or feet. That’s such a blessing. I want to continue this way for as long as I can.

So I’m not going to fix what ain’t broken. Cross-training gets the job done. It doesn’t make you less of a runner; it makes you more of a lifetime runner. And that’s the name of the game I’m playing.

The Six Keys To Lifetime Running 3
Amby and running buddy John pushing through some stormy weather.

#4: Listen To Your Body 

Listen really closely. Because if you don’t keep the ear wax clear, your body will sneak up and bite you.

Let’s face it: runners get injured. In fact, we get injured over and over again. The injuries stop very few of us, however. And there’s a good explanation for this. 

Most running injuries are soft tissue complaints. You don’t break your femur bone or need rotator cuff repair at the shoulder. 

Instead, we get sore muscles. Maybe a twisted ankle. Sometimes, a pain around the knee joint. 

If you listen for these and know what to do when you hear them, you can usually avoid a serious, prolonged injury.

What should you do? Stop running for several days. Try ice and/or heat. Maybe even take an anti-inflammatory for three to five days. Make sure you’re eating enough —especially protein and the healthiest carbohydrates.

After several days of rest, try walking a mile or two. Or do some light training where your body weight is supported—in a swimming pool, on a bicycle or a rowing machine

If this goes well, you can ease back into training. With the emphasis on ease. Don’t repeat the workouts you were doing before the injury. Run a shorter distance, and go slower. Increase distance and pace only when your confidence returns.

Runners with recurrent injuries often blame an external force—usually their shoes, sometimes a hilly training route they ran recently. These can be contributory factors, no doubt.

But the real issue is our reluctance to listen to our body, and to stop running when we hear a warning signal. Don’t be a tone-deaf runner. Remember: a stitch in time saves nine. 

Follow this simple strategy, and you’ll learn that you can actually control—and minimize—the inevitable ups and downs that are part of the lifetime running journey.

#5: Beware The Dangerous Decades

Most adults in Westernized countries gain 30 lb. and lose much of their fitness in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. Studies have shown this leads to increases in diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.1Antonio-Villa, N. E., Fernández-Chirino, L., Vargas-Vázquez, A., Fermín-Martínez, C. A., Aguilar-Salinas, C. A., & Bello-Chavolla, O. Y. (2021). Prevalence trends of diabetes subgroups in the United States: A data-driven analysis spanning three decades from NHANES (1988-2018). The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism107(3), 735–742. https://doi.org/10.1210/clinem/dgab762

‌As a result, these individuals don’t get to enjoy what I believe can be the best years of one’s life—the retirement years in the 60s, 70s, and beyond.

The weight gain begins with a pound here, a pound there. Creep, creep, creep. At first, you barely notice it. After a while, you get used to the uncomfortable tire around your middle. So you don’t move around as much. Exercise becomes a burden, not a pleasure.

Weight gain and loss of fitness are twin troublemakers.

The extra pounds decrease your VO2 max, so every mile is more difficult. Worse, the pounds put extra stress on your knees, hip joints, and their support structures. First comes arthritis, then the need for joint replacement.

Midlife is the busiest time for many adults. You’ve got a career to build, children to raise, and community responsibilities to meet. It’s no wonder that exercise and a healthy diet fall by the wayside. 

Don’t let this happen to you. There’s a better way. Use the bathroom scale proactively. The minute you notice an extra pound or two, take action. Eat a little less and/or move more. 

Stay as trim and fit as you can. This might not be a time to focus on optimal running and racing. But neither should you let go of your hard-won personal fitness. It doesn’t come back easily.

As marathoner and gerontologist Walter Bortz, M.D. once said: “It’s never too late to start exercising, and it’s always too soon to stop.”

The Six Keys To Lifetime Running 4
Amby and Cristina at the 2018 Boston Marathon finish.

#6: Have A Comeback Plan Ready, You’ll Need It

Lifetime running and fitness are not about reaching a finish line. You don’t break the tape, drink a champagne toast, and put your running shoes in a dark closet. 

Instead, you’re always starting over. No matter how well you follow the key strategies I’ve outlined here, you’ll encounter obstacles on the road. Life happens.

And it happens to all of us. When it does, knocking you off your stride for some time, you’ve got to be ready to start over again.

Behind all veteran lifetime runners, you can look back and see dozens of beginning runners—one for each time the veteran had to start over again.

As former Runner’s World columnist John “The Penguin” Bingham once wrote: “The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.”

Yes, it takes courage. Beginning over again can be arduous and ugly. The first days and first miles are often a struggle. But then the road gets smoother. You find your rhythm again.

The rewards are many, and significant. You’ll feel better. You’ll think better. You’ll look better. Your health will improve, and you’ll feel more optimistic about everything. What else could you possibly ask for?

This is why I’ve stubbornly stuck to my Manchester Road Race streak through six decades. Yes, some years were difficult. But on the whole, the alternative—not running Manchester—was much worse. And the good days have outnumbered the bad ones by 100-1.

I can’t wait until my next go-around at Manchester. I look forward to notching number 62 in a row. It’s going to be a very fine year. I feel it in my head, my heart, my soles (and my soul), and every other cell of my body.

References

  • 1
    Antonio-Villa, N. E., Fernández-Chirino, L., Vargas-Vázquez, A., Fermín-Martínez, C. A., Aguilar-Salinas, C. A., & Bello-Chavolla, O. Y. (2021). Prevalence trends of diabetes subgroups in the United States: A data-driven analysis spanning three decades from NHANES (1988-2018). The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism107(3), 735–742. https://doi.org/10.1210/clinem/dgab762
Photo of author
Amby Burfoot stands as a titan in the running world. Crowned the Boston Marathon champion in 1968, he became the first collegian to win this prestigious event and the first American to claim the title since John Kelley in 1957. As well as a stellar racing career, Amby channeled his passion for running into journalism. He joined Runner’s World magazine in 1978, rising to the position of Editor-in-Chief and then serving as its Editor-at-Large. As well as being the author of several books on running, he regularly contributes articles to the major publications, and curates his weekly Run Long, Run Healthy Newsletter.

1 thought on “The Six Keys To Lifetime Running”

  1. Great advice…all of it. I’m 75 years old and people ask me how long I’ve been running. My response is “my whole life”. Currently, I run with the Florida Track Club West founded by your friend Hal Goforth. There are roughly 20 local members here in San Diego, mostly older than 70…some approaching 90. If anyone has a problem with an injury or other malady, someone in the group has an answer and encouragement. Thanks.

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