Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
“I’m not afraid of getting older, I’m afraid of not being able to run,” says ultrarunner Krissy Moehl. “That’s a great motivator to do the things I need to do to keep my body healthy and able to run.”
Despite a storied resume that includes victories at many of the world’s most competitive ultras, Moehl’s relationship with running is purely and wholly intrinsic, seemingly leaving no space for unwanted feelings and maladaptive motivators that too often pollute others’ running. Since she began running 31 years ago, she’s had one overarching goal: to keep running. Her laser focus on consistency and longevity has guided her healthy relationship with running, most recently including how to manage getting older as a runner.
“I’m 43 years old now, and my body doesn’t fully recover from injuries anymore,” says Moehl. “Now, it’s about managing my body. That management over time is how I’d define the word acceptance. I’m working on it on a daily basis.”
Moehl has responded very rationally to the unavoidable fact that as humans, we get older. To continuously focus on her goal of longevity, she has adapted her nutrition, strength training, recovery, and mental health practices.
Moehl says that growing up the common mentality was, “eating made you fat.” Infuriated by that fat phobic mentality, she channels her anger at diet culture towards proper fueling.
“We need to fuel our bodies,” says Moehl. “All of the marketing around eating for athletes and non-athletes, the whole thing just ticks me off. Adjusting my own understanding of fueling has been really applicable. Now I get to play with what foods work best with my body.”
Today, Moehl still adheres to the mentality that all food is good, but she has become more attuned with how eating can keep her running longer.
“How you eat can support your running longevity, 100 percent,” says Heidi Strickler, a Registered Sports Dietician who works with athletes worldwide and specializes in female endurance athletes. Strickler says there are five areas to hone in on as you age:
1) It’s essential that runners are meeting their baseline needs for energy. Appetite tends to decrease as people get older so it’s vital to be intentional about eating enough food and minimizing the amount of time spent in an energy deficit; doing so supports both hormonal and bone health.
2) As people who menstruate enter perimenopause, menopause, and post menopause, there is a big downshift in their ability to build and maintain bone. As such, it’s important to focus on getting enough calcium, vitamin D, vitamin K, and magnesium, whether that be through food or a supplement.
3) Individuals with periods have a more difficult time building and maintaining muscle mass as they get older. It’s not uncommon for people to believe that men need more protein than anyone else, but in reality, perimenopausal individuals actually have some of the highest protein needs of any population because their ability to turn protein into muscle has decreased. Thus, they need a higher amount of protein and to focus on a higher quality of protein than most people.
4) Sensation for thirst decreases as people get older. To counteract this, it can be beneficial for people to drink on a schedule when training because adequate hydration supports muscles, tissues, joints, mobility, flexibility, keeping injury levels down, temperature regulation, and digestion.
5) As individuals with periods approach perimenopause, their ability to regulate their blood sugar diminishes. As such, they become more insulin resistant, which means their ability to efficiently use simple carbohydrates decreases. To help counteract this, aim for a 1:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio at every snack and meal, with the exception being right before training. Furthermore, eat simpler carbohydrates such as oatmeal, toast, and waffles earlier in the day when insulin sensitivity is better and more complex carbs such as sweet potatoes, starchy vegetables, and quinoa later in the day when insulin sensitivity is worse.
As Moehl has gotten older, she’s noticed that keeping muscle on is a lot harder. Fortunately, strength training has been a part of her routine since she was a teenager, but it too has taken on a new significance.
“Before, I could get away with skipping strength training,” says Moehl. “Now, my injury prevention depends on it more and more.”
Research shows that as people age, muscles slowly transition from type II fibers (fast twitch) to type I fibers (slow twitch), which means we lose explosive power and strength capacity. In addition, we also lose total muscle mass. Our maximum muscle fiber size is achieved generally in our twenties and typically sustains until our fifties, after which we see a much more significant decline in muscle mass. This decline is critical for runners to consider because the less muscle mass that we have, the more stress our bones, joints, and tendons take on.
“The good news is that you can ward off the impacts of aging by regular strength training,” says Anna Wetzel, a Doctor of Physical Therapy who often works with injured runners. “Every athlete that passes that 30-year-old mark should consider themselves, at minimum, a duathlete — with increasing emphasis on this each decade that passes. You can no longer be just a runner; you must be both a runner and cross trainer.”
Wetzel says to shoot for two strength training sessions per week alongside your running to keep your body happy, powerful, and sustainable for a longer period of your life.
At the start of Moehl’s running career, her body recovered much more quickly than it does now. Instead of comparing herself to her previous self, she continuously focuses on the things she can do. This does means, however, that Moehl has changed some of her routines; she now takes time for a pre-run warm up, something she used to forgo because she wanted to maximize every minute running.
“In the two to three minutes it takes to do those activation exercises, all the miles feel so much better,” says Moehl.
Wetzel points out that dynamic stretching helps bring blood flow to your muscles before loading them heavily.
“When you do a dynamic warm-up, you bring your muscles through a large range of motion that primes them for rapid contraction,” says Wetzel. “That said, not everyone has time for a full on dynamic warm-up each time they head out the door. If you have to skip it, consider substituting extra easy running or brisk walking because these have similar efficacy in terms of priming the body for activity.”
If you have time, here is Wetzel’s go-to suggestion for a complete dynamic warm up.
- Easy jog
- High knees
- Butt kicks
- Side shuffle
- Frankenstein walks (opposite toe taps for the hamstrings)
- Inner heel taps for hip external rotation
- Walking lunges with rotation
- Walk on toes
- Walk on heels
- Backwards and forwards arm circles
- Hug yourself and open up
In addition to adding in a warmup, Moehl also engages in prehab, proactively engaging in injury prevention. She recognizes her privilege in being able to take advantage of Prime Sports Institute, an athletic service that offers athletic therapy to optimize performance, prevent injury, and enable recovery.
“I’m better at integrating injury prevention modalities such as athletic trainers, contrast tubs, saunas, and cold compression therapy into my routine early so that a tired shin or tweaky groin doesn’t turn into a worse injury,” says Moehl.
Stay Connected to Running In Other Ways
“These are all things that tie me to being a runner,” says Moehl.
Moehl apparently knows what she’s doing. According to Luke Patrick, a licensed psychologist specializing in sport and performance, it’s important to hone in on what you truly enjoy about running.
“Starting to focus on what running brings you, such as a sense of community, for example, is a really useful way to transition within your sport while still maintaining your identity with the sport that you really love but will be different in terms of where you are physically,” says Patrick.
In addition to seeking out other ways to stay connected to running, Patrick says it can also be helpful to embrace new standards and set new criteria for what success means for you. Doing so can allow you to really embrace your current state rather than fixate on your younger self.
Stay in the Now
“Be here, right now,” says Moehl. “Staying in the present doesn’t allow you to go into fear and to compare to how you were before. This is what I got, and I want to make the most of it.”
For Moehl, meditation has been particularly helpful for staying in the present. Despite knowing its benefits for years, she’s only recently adopted a consistent meditation practice; sometimes, she says, it just takes enough years of knowing to finally do it.
You can find a variety of mindfulness skills for bringing yourself into the present moment, such as deep breathing and body scans. Practicing mindfulness is grounding because it helps you meet yourself where you are and let go of anxiety and tension that can come with getting older or getting injured.
“There are some really valuable neurological responses in the brain with meditation and mindfulness in terms of better neuron growth in the areas of the brain related to confidence and social connection,” says Patrick. “It facilitates neuron communication in the brain, too, and helps move us from a fight or flight response in the brain to a more relaxed state. When the body is in less of a flight or fight state, it facilitates healing. It helps transform worried, what-if thoughts to at least the possibility that things can be okay.”
For Moehl, getting older isn’t simply a part of life. It’s exciting.
She’s impatiently watching gray hairs come in because she can’t wait to have that vibrant white that symbolizes wisdom and experience.
She’s so curious about her changing body that she strives to give it the best support for going through those changes.
Moehl doesn’t fear getting older, she embraces it.