Monday, 12 October 2015

Running and the seven year itch

Marilyn Monroe and Tim Ewell in "The Seven Year Itch" (1955)
They say that, no matter whether you take up running at 35, 45 or even older, you get between 5 and 8 years when you see improvement almost every time you run and race. Having taken up running again in 2007, about 20 years after leaving it behind at school, and initially targetting a local 10k, I can vouch for that. Within 3 years I'd dropped my time from 47:11 to a 'personal best' of 39:05, matched the following year on a tougher course - and I might have beaten it if I hadn't been knocked sideways rounding a bend on the final 100m by a corner-cutter! My weight fell by nearly 2.5 stone, and I completed several marathons, with my two best in 2010 and 2012. There's no doubt that between 4 and 6 years after starting, I hit my 'sweet spot'.

And then it all just got harder.

My first real lay off came from running two races on consecutive snowy, cold January Sundays, kicking off a chest infection that laid me low for several months. After this, I picked myself up and ran two good 10 milers, one in March as a 'sighter' and then a proper one in November, only marginally slower than 2 years earlier and, according to ‘age-grading' a better performance. So far, so good.

And then came the seventh year.

The plan started well, aiming for the London Marathon in April, with the target to get under that all-important 3:15 ‘good-for-age’ time. My training was solid, reasonably consistent, a few injury ups and downs, and maybe just a bit light on the long run mileage. In the weeks immediately prior to the race, work crept in and just took the edge off the final polishing. And, being honest, I did not feel entirely confident on the line. And so it came to pass that, whilst still achieving a very credible 3:27, on the day I just didn't have the right combination and motivation to wring out of myself the best performance.

Then it was obvious...here's the seven year running itch. Suddenly it's not easy, you have to want to push yourself. Performance has to be found, it does not just appear. Your commitment needs to go up, when in fact, it's likely to be going down.

To add to the challenge, right after London 2014, a change of role at work meant 4 days in London, and a harder trade-off between running, hotels, eating, colleagues, job. The biggest loss was the support system of my running club, and the twice-weekly training sessions and banter, now not available to me. It was very much down to me and my own plans. Anything is possible if you want it hard enough, yet the bar of difficulty had just gone up. The strength of your motivation needs to be double.

And it wasn't. I still managed to get out there and run, though less in the way of hard sessions. And, I let some other areas be a bit more free - eat a bit too much, drink a bit too much, nothing huge, just a bit..the net result of which is half a stone heavier and a fair bit slower!

Is the seven year itch inevitable? Maybe it is, maybe it ties in perfectly with the pattern for most people taking up running later in life, when you are fighting the natural challenges of getting older. It seems to fit. You need strategies to deal with it, and that's what I am facing up to now.

You won't be as fast as you were, but you can still train hard and achieve goals, and you can keep fit and trim too. You just have to accept that you can't eat what you like and run it all off! And you need a different mindset to make it all come good again.

So, here are my three commitments for the year ahead

Stop worrying about it. And remember that you can still surprise yourself.

Remind yourself of your motivation. Decide if you are still committed to your running or, be honest with yourself, have other things become more important? In which case, give it the right balance. It is still possible to achieve some of those targets, however the time and lifestyle commitment will step up hugely. If that's what you still want, great - just recognise that without making that commitment, it won't happen naturally any more (sorry about that!)

If you do still want to race, use age grading to set targets, not your 35-year-old self. I try to hit at least 70%, and if I do, then I know I am consistent with my former levels, even if the true time is slower. Age grading is the best thing for taking the monkey of absolute time off your back.

The running seven year itch is a phenomenon that, after 40, hits us all. You can't fight it. Embrace it. Understand it. Use it as an opportunity to change and establish a new plan for the future, not to be disappointed when measured against your former self. And, maybe, to try some new runs, where endurance (something that, strangely, seems to improve with age) is more of a factor than speed - trails, ultras - that may just give you a new sense of purpose.

I’m hoping that’s just what it does for me.