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Life After 50: Run a Marathon, Change Your Life

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Note: Welcome to the ongoing discussion about life after 50. As regular readers know, I asked friends on Facebook, Twittter, and right here on The Huffington Post to tell me your most top-of-mind questions and concerns about entering this new phase of life. These articles address those questions head on and will hopefully help build an even larger audience so that we can all talk together -- regularly -- about what matters most. Please read, comment, offer your own ideas and views, and keep coming back!

This is the story of how the New York City Marathon changed my life.

The New York City Marathon goes right past our apartment building in Manhattan. We always know a few people who are running in it each year, and my husband, daughters and I stand on our corner holding signs to cheer them on.

Watching the marathon a few years ago, when I was almost 50, my oldest daughter turned to me and said, "I want to hold a sign that says, 'GO MOMMY GO!'" My youngest daughter, then about nine years old, ran to our neighbors and said, "My mom is going to run in the marathon!" Everyone looked at her, then at me, and all I could say was, "Yes. Yes, I am."

Run? I had never willingly run in my life, except during the dreaded annual "Field Day" at P.S. 203, when I had no choice. Worse, I hadn't done any kind of exercise since I had kids, and it was definitely showing. A few days later, hoping that everyone had forgotten about my impulsive promise, I saw an article in The Wall Street Journal about Jeff Galloway, the former Olympian and marathoner. He talked about how anyone who could walk could run a marathon, no matter how old, just by following his simple program. I bought Jeff's best-selling book "Marathon: You Can Do It!" that day, and scheduled a phone meeting with Jeff later that week.

Galloway's Run-Walk-Run program, which has been followed by hundreds of thousands of runners of all ages and abilities since 1978, and has a 98 percent marathon-completion success rate, lets you alternate between gentle running with regular walk breaks -- and plenty of them. I'm sure there are many running purists who snicker at the idea of taking walk breaks, but based on Jeff's research and experience, they'll be the ones looking for the orthopedic surgeons.

Like many people over 50, I was worried about running, because I had heard that running, or even strenuous walking, can hurt our joints. Research shows, however, that it won't, if done right. After 30 years of following his own program, Jeff has never had an injury. Running, at any age, offers so many positive benefits: reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, depression, and dementia. Contrary to what many people believe, running does not predispose joints to arthritis. In fact, even chronic health problems can be helped by walking and running. You can do it anywhere, anytime, and it's free. I was sold.

Before I could even think about training for the marathon (Jeff recommends starting serious training at least six months before the actual event date), I had to ease myself into a regular "running for exercise" program. Having just packed on about 15 post-menopausal pounds, I was ready to make a major lifestyle change and gave myself a full six months to learn how to run for exercise, before I started to train.

But, first, Jeff shared his basic rules:

  1. Leave your ego at the front door. You will run slowly and gently, with walk breaks. Get used to the idea of other people running past you. It's okay. They will get the injuries. You will not. Enjoy yourself, and do your own thing.
  2. Run with walk breaks. If you've never run before, ease into it by walking for one to two minutes and then running slowly and gently for 30 seconds or whatever is most comfortable. Your goal is to run for two to three minutes and walk for one minute. There is no cardiovascular benefit to running without walk breaks, no matter what the purists say.
  3. Run/walk at three times a week. You need one day of rest in between. It is not good for your body to run every day, or two consecutive days.
  4. Do not huff and puff. While running, you should be able to talk comfortably. If you're huffing and puffing, you're running too fast.
  5. Eat something an hour or so before running. Don't eat a heavy meal, but fuel up with something healthful.
  6. Focus on your stride. Jeff recommends a "shuffle": keep your feet low to the ground, lightly touching, without lifting your knees too high. Slow and gentle running will help you steer clear of aches, pains and injuries.
  7. Walk breaks are forever. The goal is not to build up your running to a point where you no longer need walk breaks. You will always take walk breaks, no matter how many years you run, because walk breaks will allow you to keep on running, regardless of age.

This is an easy-to-follow program. There is nothing in it that the vast majority of us can't do. It'll teach you to run lightly and easily, gradually increasing distance and duration rather than speed, alternating running with walking throughout each session. If you already run, follow Jeff's plan for safe running to reduce the risk of injuries as you get older. If you have never run before, like me, once you get out there with your cool new running shoes, you'll never look back. The details of the plan are in Jeff's book (and my chapter on fitness), but here are the basics:

  • Get the green light from your doctor.
  • Invest in a good pair of running shoes (from a reputable running store).
  • Visit a podiatrist to make sure you have no issues with your feet.
  • Schedule three runs for the week, but not consecutive days.
  • Walk slowly for five to 10 minutes to warm up.
  • Build up slowly, starting with alternating 30 seconds to 60 seconds of running with two to three minutes of walking.
  • Run/walk for 45 minutes or more two of the three days, and 60 minutes or more on the third day.
  • Walk slowly for 10 minutes to cool down.
  • On the non-running days, walk for 30 or more minutes, or engage in some other physical activity that you enjoy, so you are moving your body every day. (I highly recommend buying an inexpensive pedometer to make sure you walk 10,000 steps every day.)

A few months into Jeff's program, I was hooked: happily running three days a week (with our rescued dog, Gunther, at my side), and increasing my distance each month. But, the big question still loomed in front of me: Could I run in -- and complete -- the New York City Marathon?

Jeff was sure I could, but I had my doubts. After all, 26.2 miles was very different from my normal three to five miles. But, I had already told the world, and my daughters, that I would do it, so the training began. Thankfully, this plan lets you train, and still have a life. Here are is what I did, for six months, leading up to the big event:

  • Run/walk for 45 minutes or more, as outlined above, for two of your three weekly runs.
  • Do one long run every week, starting with three miles.
  • For each long run, once a week, add one mile.
  • You will end up running/walking 26 miles (a full marathon) a few weeks prior to the actual event.

Jeff points out that everyone is different, with different running/walking comfort zones. If you can work your way up to running two to three minutes and walking for one minute, that's great, but it isn't essential. Jeff now runs marathons with a 30-second run and 30-second walk the entire way and has actually improved his time. You do want to push yourself, but not to the point where you're huffing and puffing and getting injured. Take it slow, enjoy yourself, and remember that you want to increase your distance, not your speed. That's what will help you burn calories, and give you the maximum cardiovascular benefits.

How did this experience change my life? As I crossed the finish line and felt someone place a medal around my neck, I understood, for the first time, that age is just a number. At 50, I ran a marathon, something I never, ever thought I could do. I lost all the 15 post-menopausal pounds (and have kept them off); run three times a week (using the Galloway method); incorporated a strength-training program into my daily life (details are in my book); decided to change careers and become a full-time writer (my first book is "The Best of Everything After 50"); and made my daughters very proud of their mom.

If you're on Facebook, please "friend" me, and let's talk on Twitter (@BGrufferman). What event changed your life for the better? Post your stories here.

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