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  • (Stephanie Armstrong)
Marathon running isn’t for the faint-hearted. Going the 42-kilometre distance requires more than physical strength – you need discipline and focus. So, what is it like to prepare for a marathon past the age of fifty and what are the risks?
Amy Chien-Yu Wang, Presented by
Margarita Vasileva

6 Jul 2018 - 3:23 PM  UPDATED 22 Aug 2018 - 1:56 PM

Stephanie Armstrong is a 58 year old-old Gamilaraay woman with a clear goal.

By her sixtieth, she wants to have run a marathon to inspire other First Australians that age is no barrier to being fit.  

“There’s lot of obesity…I lost a lot of my family to cancer and heart attacks all that sorts of stuff. As I get older, it’s really about showing that we can still stay fit and well as well.”

As a health and education worker, Stephanie Armstrong aspires to change the life expectancy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“I’ve got to be physically and mentally strong in the space that I work. I work with young people, particularly Aboriginal women, so I find running gives me that strength to make me physically and mentally strong.”

Stephanie has been training towards a marathon for almost nine years with a dozen half-marathons under her belt.

These days, she’s running about 30 to 40 kilometers weekly.

To be fit enough for a marathon, she needs to build up her mileage to at least 80 kilometers a week.  

Stephanie knows she needs longer recovery time after each race.

She admits it can take up to a few weeks of being unwell with aches over her body.  

“It’s very much a mental space as well, and at different times when I’ve got injured, I sometimes reflect, ‘oh am I too old for this?’, you know, and you have to think, ‘no, look, I am really, for someone who’s 58, physically better off than a lot of people younger than me.’ Your physical and mental health go hand in hand in that sort of way.”

Curtin University’s Professor Keith Hill is one of Australia’s leading falls prevention experts.

With only one in 10 Australians over the age of fifty exercising sufficiently, Professor Keith Hill strongly recommends improving your physical and cognitive wellbeing through exercise.

“The key message is around keeping active well into older age, and even with a whole range of health problems, there’s no reasons you can’t do various forms of exercise of which running, not thinking about marathon running, but even just going for a 5km run at your own pace is one form of exercise.”

Professor Hill says marathons at any age are a fairly extreme form of exercise, though it doesn't mean that it can’t be undertaken at later in life.

“It’s really around what your lifelong or recent activity level is. If you have always done this, kept up this level of fitness, no problem. If you want to start at 50, 60, you need to really start slowly.”

Stephanie’s trainer, Sophie Hawken, works at Bendigo’s 3T Fitness and was a former athlete.

For general gym-goers, Hawken suggests consistent strength training and conditioning for up to three years before starting a marathon.  

“And the reason being it takes time to accumulate safely. It's a lot of effort on the body. Generally, I’ve seen the breakdown of muscles and that, and post marathon, unless they do that really good strength conditioning. And it’s not just about running so a lot of people, they’re not too sure on like strengths and conditioning and how important it is so the lunges and sit ups and core work and squats and things but it directly helps you running.”

65-year-old retiree Andy Steele has just completed the Unogwaja Challenge and the Comrades Ultra Marathon in South Africa - one of the world’s toughest races.

He biked 1700 kilometres in 10 days and then ran 89 kilometres in just 12 hours on the eleventh day.

“And a really good quote that I heard before I went to South Africa was if you’re not gonna challenge yourself, you’re not gonna change. So, I think by challenging yourself and seeing what you can do rather than what you can’t do, you grow with that.”

Who would’ve thought that Andy’s love of running marathons was once put on hold due to chronic back pain?

After a successful back surgery in his forties, Andy has continued to compete in dozens of marathons and ultramarathons around the world.

“I’m normally five to six times a week training doing something - that may be not running or riding. I’ve now started in the last 2 years or so doing a lot more strength work and I do pilates and things like that to make sure that I’m assisting my body in terms of strengthening it.”

Andy has built ongoing inner strength and confidence from running countless marathon and ultramarathon races over the past 32 years.

He now also runs for a cause.

He ran the Chicago Marathon last year to fundraise for the homeless and help those with addiction problems get back on their feet.

“I think if you can think of something else that is not you and you are helping a greater cause then that assists you a lot. There are many times out there when it gets tough and it hurt, and, look, I just try and stay right in the moment. To achieve goals that are big enough it does hurt and that's growing, isn’t it?”

Associate Professor Andre La Gerche is the head of sports cardiology at Melbourne’s Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute.

He believes you don’t need to run a marathon to get optimal health benefits but he’d still encourage it if that's what your heart desires.

“The advice would be that anyone who’s thinking of taking on a marathon and particularly in middle age or later should consult with their doctor, but in the vast majority of situation, the doctor should check their blood pressure, check their cholesterol and even if they’re abnormal, it doesn't mean that they can’t exercise but there are things that should be addressed.”

Dr La Gerche says people doing very little exercise are more likely to have a heart attack than those in their 50s who are training for a marathon.

You still need to look out for warning signs to avoid pushing your body past its limits.

“Chest pain even other sorts of pain - a classic is a pain in the jaw. There’s really sometimes quite funny pains that can be associated with the heart, so, really, any pain, light-headedness, or shortness of breath, or fatigue that occurs with exercise should be checked out. I think it’s imperative during the race that if things aren’t going right then it’s much better to pull out and have another try than to be the one crawling for the finish line.”

One of the world’s oldest marathon runners is Britain’s Fauja Singh.

Age doesn’t stop him from running even at age 107.

However, Sophie Hawken acknowledges the intensity of a marathon  isn’t suitable for everyone.

“Each person’s different so I might have someone who’s a fantastic half-marathoner but then I put them in a marathon and they have nothing but injuries and illnesses for months after and they can’t do their normal daily activities and that's not living either just because they’ve wanted to tick it off so you gotta make sure that you’re fully prepared and do enjoy it.”