Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World


A Runner Takes Up Starting Strength

by Phil Ringman | December 01, 2016

phil ringman deadlifts

I began running nearly 50 years ago. I was in 7th grade. I didn't want to play football because you could get hurt, and I wasn't very good at basketball. Baseball was not available in my junior high, and soccer was not an option in 1967. That left track. So I started running, and began a junior high and high school track and cross country career that was mediocre at best.

But I have been running ever since. I even ran four marathons, before marathons were fashionable. Now, at age 62, I am finishing in the middle of the pack in 5k and 10k races, beating some guys 20 years younger, and winning age-group awards, mostly because very few, and sometimes zero, other 60+ year-old men show up.

Non-running friends occasionally ask, "You still running?" To me, that's like asking, "Are you still brushing your teeth?" Yes, I'm still running, why wouldn't I be? It's just become part of my life. Some of my non-running friends think it is a slightly demented part of my life, although others will admit that they think it's "cool" that I'm "still doing it."   

Of course, I understand that there are plenty of reasons why most 62-year-olds aren't running, and reasons why many former runners are no longer running, sometimes having to do with failing body parts.

I have – so far – avoided that fate, even though I don't look like a runner and never have. I'm 6'1" and weigh around 210. I was smart enough to make a concession to middle age about 20 years ago and began running only 3 days a week, to allow more recovery time, instead of my previous 5 and sometimes 6 days.

But a few years ago, as I began to approach age 60, I began to realize that, yes, I could still run a decent 5k, but that I wasn't really very strong. Actually, I wasn't strong at all. I had never consistently done any exercise other than running. I was always active, but thought I didn't need to do anything else. After all, "I'm a runner."

But I had begun to hear too many stories of people, some not that much older than me, falling and breaking bones, and never being the same again. And I didn't want that to happen. Plus, I figured, what could be the downside of getting stronger? Maybe it would even help my running. 

I knew enough to know that getting strong meant lifting weights, so I began prowling the internet for information about weight lifting for runners, which turned out be largely a waste of time. The general theme of internet information was "Yes, strength training is good, even for runners," but the recommended exercises and programs were, by and large, either ludicrously complicated, contradictory to each other, or weren't weight lifting programs at all.

So I came up with a program mostly of my own design, and at age 58 joined a gym. I continued to run but also began working out on the various machines at the gym. I was told that machines were "safer," and that's what everyone else seemed to be doing, so it must be OK. Of course I thought I didn't need to do any leg exercises because of all my running. So I just concentrated on my abs and upper body.

It took about a year to realize that I wasn't getting anywhere and I wasn't any stronger. I went to a friend who is a long-time weightlifter for advice. I told him that I was going to continue running 3 days a week, but that I wanted to get strong to better deal with the advancing years, and spend the least amount of time possible in the gym. He introduced me to what I learned later was the Starting Strength program, although he didn't give it a name at the time. He said I just needed to do three exercises – squat, press and deadlift, with barbells and not machines, and he taught me how to do them. He also told me I would never have to do another situp or crunch if I deadlifted, which I didn't believe at the time. 

My main concern as I began a consistent lifting program with barbells was that I didn't want to do anything that would make me too sore to continue to run at least at the level that I had been running. As it turns out, lifting heavy weights, particularly when just starting, does make you really sore.

But that period was short-lived. My lower back initially ached when I ran, presumably due to not being very strong yet, and probably due to poor lifting technique at that point. But after getting stronger, and getting some coaching on form, the discomfort disappeared. Today I lift and run with no problems, although I have found that running 2 days after lifting, instead of the next day, seems to work better for me.

 

Today, 3 years later, I am the strongest I have ever been in my 62 years. I only lift once a week, so I don't do Starting Strength "by the book," but with 3 days of running it's a schedule that works for me. And I haven't done a crunch in 3 years. And I have the good fortune of living in Wichita Falls and working out at the Wichita Falls Athletic Club, and getting occasional coaching on form from Mark Rippetoe.

Has lifting noticeably improved my 5k and 10k race times? No. If I had been lifting for 30 years instead of three years, maybe. Has lifting slowed down the inevitable decline in my race times? Probably. On November 19 I did a 5k race and finished 2nd in my age group, out of two, 15th out of 32 men, 30th of 87 overall, and actually improved my time slightly over the same race a year ago. There was one guy older than me, in his mid-70s, and I finished ahead of him.

Am I stronger? Definitely yes. One advantage of not taking up lifting until recently is that my lifts today are PRs, and it's kind of fun to get PRs. The easy gains have already occurred, but my current squat PR is 200x4x3, and my deadlift PR is 280x5, not sensational by some standards, but, after all, I'm a 62-year-old runner who lifts once a week. And I still have the potential to go heavier. I set my race PRs years ago and my race times today are nowhere near my best times, but that's OK. I plan to keep showing up as long as I can, and to keep lifting as long as I can.


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