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How to Achieve Your Athletic Dreams

Whether your goal is a road race or a challenging swim, you'll need sound advice and a solid plan

By Lisa Holton | September 11, 2012

Have you ever wondered, after hearing that an old friend is suddenly running marathons or climbing mountains, “Could I do that?”

The answer, more often than not, is yes. But achieving an athletic dream in your 50s or beyond requires planning, preparation and patience.
 
Chicago-area running coach Brendan Cournane, 58, is in the midst of his busiest time of the year, prepping several dozen runners in individual and group sessions for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon on October 7. “People who start running late in life are actually doing it at a great time because they’re established in their careers and their kids are either older or out of the house," says Cournane, who works with a lot of first-time long-distance runners in their 40s and 50s and older. “They have more time to return to their athletic dreams and be fit.”

(MORE: Why It's Never Too Late to Start Running)

Mary Beth Sammons, 55, a public relations manager at the Morton Arboretum near Chicago, took up running at age 50 after a series of personal losses. “I had four friends who died before that birthday," she says, "and I decided to make mine a celebration of the fact that I was still alive.” She has competed in half-marathons and triathlons, training with Cournane and running with her 25-year-old son, one of her three grown children. “It’s been a great thing for us," she says, "because we’ve found something my son can share with me. And he found an app for me to track my progress.”

Taking the Right First Steps

If you’re considering a particular fitness goal, here are some basic steps to follow:

  1. Do your homework. Some people can wake up one day, decide, “I’m going to run a marathon next year,” race out the door and make it happen. The rest of us need to find out what's involved before we can take that first step and work toward our objectives. Read up on how to approach the event you're targeting and how other athletes in your age group reached their goals. (For aspiring marathoners and others, Runner's World is a solid resource.) You can also seek guidance on equipment (especially footwear — those decade-old sneakers in the back of your closet probably won't get your feet through 26.2 miles) and how people typically overcome the challenges endemic to training, like fatigue, doubt and monotony. Above all, seek out friends and relatives who've already accomplished your athletic dream to find out how they got started, maintained their workouts and kept improving.
  2. Know what you can handle. Dr. Joel Press, medical director of the Spine and Sports Rehabilitation Center at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, stresses that the first step in any athletic aspiration is to establish a proper medical baseline. Begin with a thorough physical examination by your primary-care physician and follow up on any related tests or consultations the doctor might advise. “That’s where you start — with the heart, lungs and kidneys," says Press, a long-distance cyclist. "The best general advice I give is not to do too much too fast. Training should be a progression of activity that also allows for recovery time.” At your checkup, ask your doctor about the pros and cons of your particular goal based on your fitness level. Then set a strategy for monitoring your health and diet as you train.

    Having said that, if there are no medical issues holding you back, don't be afraid to push yourself. Science says there's no reason you can't achieve your goals. In an article recently published by the Journal of Cardiovascular Magnetic Resonance, researchers at Canada's University of Manitoba reported that marathoners over age 50 were no more adversely affected by their runs than younger adults. The runners' hearts showed only minor signs of stress which faded within a week, and no evidence of long-term damage, even after multiple marathon runs.
  3. Don't go it alone. No matter how solitary the sport, teamwork helps you train. Find people at a similar fitness level who can provide company and positive support — it increases your odds of sticking with and achieving your goal. Dawn Maxwell of Chicago, 54, ran track and worked as a lifeguard in her youth, but then her career as an attorney took her away from sports. When she started working her way back at 43, it was as part of a group. “I think it helps you start slow and build over time," she says. Online, at your local gym, or through word of mouth, seek information about nearby running, biking, climbing or swimming clubs whose members should be happy to connect you with a group or a class that's training at your level.
  4. Consider professional training. Whether you're a newbie or returning to a sport at which you once excelled, it never hurts to get some help setting, and reaching, realistic goals. One-on-one training, of course, is generally more expensive than group classes. Whichever way you decide to go, ask about potential discounts and get recommendations from friends, doctors or your health club. And before signing on with any trainer, meet in person to have a thorough discussion about your goals and his or her techniques. Be sure to ask for references and check credentials as well. Many trainers are certified through the American College of Sports Medicine.

    (MORE: Find a Fitness Trainer to Get the Most Out of Workouts)
     
  5. Keep weight and diet in mind. You'll jeopardize your goals if your exercise routine changes but your dietary habits don't. Your doctor, a nutritionist or an experienced certified trainer should be able to advise you on how to get your diet in sync with your new training demands. When you have this discussion, it's essential that you be honest about when, how and what you eat so you can get the best advice. Also, if a trainer advises you to take on a diet radically different from your routine, don't hesitate to call your doctor for guidance before signing on.
  6. Track your progress. Assessing your headway at regular intervals helps you get closer to your goal. It's also a great motivator. You can track the frequency and duration of runs, swims or workouts, along with your weight, diet and other benchmarks. And yes, there are definitely free apps and mobile fitness devices to help you find your way to the finish line.

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