Retired Navy Capt. Howard Stoodley ran 47 marathons, 103 triathlons and many other races until one of his knees gave out.
Retired Navy Capt. Howard Stoodley ran 47 marathons, 103 triathlons and many other races until one of his knees gave out. Christopher Toothman/NPR
Stoodley, 73, has learned new exercise habits since he had to give up long distance running.
Stoodley, 73, has learned new exercise habits since he had to give up long distance running. Christopher Toothman/NPR
Aging Gracefully: How to Stay Fit Without Burning Out
Bess Marcus, a psychologist at Brown University, suggests these tips to help athletes age gracefully:
— Dive Into A New Sport
To get the same runner's rush without harming your joints, try new exercises like swimming, Pilates, yoga or water aerobics. "If you can make it fun," says Marcus, "you're much more likely to stick with it".
— Re-think 'No Pain-No Gain'
The "all or nothing" mentality can lead to injury or a new life as a couch potato, says Marcus.
If your body tells you to go easy, listen!
— Be Realistic
Set practical goals for your new work-out. Make appointments with yourself to exercise, and track and take pleasure in progress. Remember: You're in it for the long-haul. — Allison Aubrey
For some long distance runners, scaling back on mileage to ease the pressure on aging joints is an even tougher test of willpower than running a marathon. But doctors and coaches say there are plenty of good ways to stay fit and get the rush of running without pounding the pavement.
Retired Navy Capt. Howard Stoodley has run dozens of marathons in his 73 years. He has what he calls an "I love me" wall: a display of photos and mementos of his days as a pilot and his running accomplishments. He points to himself in a photo of the 1979 Boston Marathon, which he finished in three hours and 12 minutes.
"This is me right here — I did 47 marathons, 103 triathlons and many other races — I used to be a pretty dedicated runner, 'til my knees gave out."
Stoodley says he probably should have cut back sooner. But he loved it.
"I ran in the snow in Adak, Alaska, and the ice in Iceland, the heat in Spain; took no days off," says Stoodley.
Being 'The Runner' And Aging
This need to run is common among long distance runners, according to Dr. Dan Pereles, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine doctor. He says he sees many patients like Stoodley, who have a hard time imagining any other exercise could be as satisfying.
These patients become "the runner," Pereles says. "That's their identity and it's very difficult if somebody has to give that up." Stoodley says sometimes in his sleep he still dreams that he's running.
Pereles is a distance runner himself, and says he empathizes. At the moment he's nursing a serious ankle injury and keeps one foot elevated in a walker on wheels.
It's not what he expected at age 47.
"You really have to adapt," he says. "You have to look at long range, and it's a matter of transition." Learning to push your body, but not beyond its limits can take time, he says. And the same person who takes joy in running every mile, may find swimming laps tedious.
Making A Physical, Mental Switch
It's important to keep trying alternative exercise routines until you find something you enjoy, so you'll stick with it, fitness trainers say. Biking can be a good way for former runners to keep getting outside and covering territory with less stress on knees and hips. And others who crave the runner's high may be drawn to the intensity of rigorous yoga or Pilates.
The key to staying fit, experts say, is finding some sort of regular exercise to replace the beloved sport. Those who are successful in establishing new habits, tend to view their work-outs as appointments that can't be broken. And that's something that most distance runners already understand.
Staying Fit While Aging
Over the decades Stoodley says he's worked hard to keep his athletic appointments.
"As I've gotten older, I tend to wake up real early," he says. "I got up at 3:30 this morning. But the first thing I did was about 40 minutes of exercise." These days, that means walking, gentle stretches, and weight work with a resistance band.
"I don't miss a day," he says.