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Starting Strength in the Real World


Why I Stopped Running After 51 Years: A Goodbye to Running

by Phil Ringman | September 13, 2018

Phil Ringman at the top of a squat

I’ve lifted weights for about five years, but I was a runner for 51 years.

I ran four marathons at a time when only a few hundred people showed up, instead of the thousands we see today. I was a “middle of the pack” runner, but in recent years I have been winning age group awards in 5k and 10k races, mostly because few other 60+ year old men show up. I wasn’t fast, but I was durable enough to outlast many of my peers.

But things changed a few months ago. I went to a doctor to try to get an explanation for periodic brief, but sharp, ankle pain – which never occurred while I ran but at various, seemingly random, other times during normal activities. After getting an x-ray, he told me about a different problem I was not aware I had – hallux limitis, or stiff big toe, a form of arthritis, which in turn has caused bone spurs to develop in the toe joint.  (He attributed the ankle pain to weak ankle ligaments likely due to a previous ankle sprain.) 

The doctor, an orthopedic foot specialist whose patients include professional and weekend athletes, essentially said, “If it doesn’t hurt, don’t worry about it. If it starts to hurt, we can fix it.” All well and good, but now at age 64, I don’t want it to get to the point where it has to be “fixed.” The fix involves either shaving the bone spurs, or in more severe cases, fusing the joint.

After considerable deliberation and research – about big-toe arthritis, bone spurs, fixing bone spurs, running, and cardio alternatives – I decided to hang up my running shoes. If my toe eventually needs to be fixed because of the wear and tear of normal life, fine. But bone spurs are not going to get any better, and it seems likely that continued running would make them worse, even though the doc wouldn’t make any predictions and didn’t advise me to stop. Yes, I might be able to continue running and my toe might never get to the point where it needs surgery. Some of my more hard-core running friends might say that I was not that serious of a runner if I was willing to give it up so easily without a more severe injury forcing me to do so.

Hard-core

Well, I was about as hard-core as they come. After all, I had been running consistently for 51 years. I would run, outside, in any weather all year round (other than on ice or in lightning storms.) I ran more than 200 races in the last 13 years and would plan vacations to go to major races, like the Catalina Island, CA, 10K, where I won my age group and still have a really cool t-shirt.   

Even though I could run a decent 5K or 10K, I started lifting seriously about five years ago, at age 59, after realizing that I wasn’t very strong. I continued running three days a week, and began lifting one day per week doing the Starting Strength lifts. I wasn’t doing the program as it was designed because I was only lifting once a week, but I made significant progress nonetheless.

After the doctor’s visit and one final 10K race with my son in February, I stopped running. The next week I started squatting twice a week, alternating the press and bench press once a week, and the deadlift and lat machine pull downs once a week.

After my research into big toe arthritis, the question evolved to “where can I get the most effective cardio workout with the least amount of damage to my 64-yer-old body?” After extensive research into cardio alternatives, I decided to replace the running with HIIT, or high intensity interval training.

Which brings me to Dr. Jonathon Sullivan and Andy Baker’s “The Barbell Prescription.” In the chapter titled “Conditioning,” the authors focus on HIIT and recommend the Prowler sled as their preferred conditioning method. My gym is equipped with a Prowler, so that’s what I started doing. I had some previous experience with the Prowler and initially started pushing the sled twice a week working up to 10 repetitions (30 yards or so down and 30 yards back), with two minutes rest in between for a heavy day, and then a lighter day with 10 reps, lighter weight, and one minute rest. After about three months of that sled routine, I realized my squat numbers had hardly budged even though I was no longer running.

My gym happens to be Wichita Falls Athletic Club, so I asked Rip one day if maybe I was overdoing it with the sled, and if that might be hurting my squats. He said it probably was, and advised cutting back to one day a week on the sled with fewer reps but heavier weight.  So now I’m loading the sled with 40 percent more weight than I had been doing on my heavy day, but only doing four down-and-back pushes, with three minutes rest. And sure enough, my squat numbers have started to move up. 

To replace the second day on the sled, I started doing the rowing machine. I have done several different workouts, most recently rowing all out for 500 meters, which takes for me about two minutes, resting about three minutes, and repeating four times. With a warm up, the total workout takes about 20 minutes. I don’t use a heart rate monitor, but high intensity intervals on the sled or rowing machine get my heart rate pretty close to its maximum with a lot less wear and tear on my body. So my basic program is lifting twice a week and cardio twice a week, alternating the Prowler and rowing machine.

And still ...

Even though I hung up my running shoes, I decided it wouldn’t cause major additional harm if I tried another race. So after not running for four months, I ran a 5k (3.1 mile) race recently to see what would happen.

It was a hot July day on a hilly course. My time, as I expected, was slower than my time on the same course the previous year. (It’s stating the obvious, but to race well, you have to run more often than once in four months.) But my race time, at age 64, still beat the fitness test standards for Marines over age 51 for the three-mile run, and for the Air Force 1.5 mile test for ages 50-59, and easily beat the Air Force standard for ages 60 and over –  I realize the military fitness tests are not necessarily the definitive gauge of fitness or strength, but it still made me feel good.   

It has been an adjustment after running for 51 years, and now not running. Do I miss it? Sometimes running was a grind, but I miss going out for runs on crisp, cool spring and fall mornings. I miss going to races with my son and then stopping for breakfast burritos afterward. I’ll miss running in some special places where I’ve had the chance to travel – around the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, on forest trails in Helsinki, Finland, where my Finnish countryman Paavo Nurmi might (or might not) have run, and along the canals of Venice, Italy.

Would I still be running if I didn’t have bone spurs? Maybe, but probably not. For running to have an impact on fitness, I would have to run harder, even if it was fewer miles. But hard runs, at age 64, are a lot harder to recover from. And it just doesn’t seem practical, particularly with bone spurs, and particularly when there are effective alternatives like the Prowler and rowing machine.

And, I like being stronger.  


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