The mind can set your athletic pace

“If you are old mentally, you are old physically.”

That observation was made by runner Haile Gebrselassie, 38, who said he feels about 24. His world record time set in 2008 was broken last Sunday in the Berlin Marathon.

 I think a major sign of getting old mentally is an increasing tendency to tell yourself what you can’t do rather than what you can do. You start narrowing your options because of groundless fears or societal expectations. You say “I’m too old for that” when someone suggests  parasailing at a vacation resort or riding a giant Ferris wheel. You reject jogging as too hard on the old bones and certainly don’t take up marathoning.

Encouragingly, many folks these days aren’t rushing to close the door on their athletic lives. They’re willing to see what they can do before buying into outmoded stereotypes. And they have strong role models to demonstrate the possibilities.

■ Last month, Pat Gallant-Charette, a 60-year-old grandmother and nurse, became the oldest American woman to swim the English Channel, finishing in 15 hours and 57 minutes. Next month, according to Sports Illustrated, she will attempt to become the oldest woman in the world to swim California’s 21-mile San Pedro Channel.

■ Swimmer Diana Nyad , 62, made a remarkable effort this month to swim 103 miles from Cuba to Florida. She made it more than halfway before succumbing to painful Portuguese man-of-war stings.

Back in 1976, only 25,000 runners finished marathons in the United States, according to RunningUSA. In 2010, the figure was 507,000. Many of these were men and women over 40.

According to a recent New York Times article,  the median age for a marathon runner in 1980 was 34 for men and 31 for women. By last year, the age had risen to 40 for men and 35 for women. People over 40 now make up 46 percent of finishers, up from 26 percent in 1980.

Older runners can also remain competitive for many years. A few years ago, the Times article said, researchers at the German Sports University Cologne took a close look at the finishing times of 400,000 marathon and half-marathon runners between the ages of 20 and 79. They found no relevant differences in the finishing times of people between the ages of 20 and 50. The times for runners between 50 and 69 slowed only by 2.6 to 4.4 percent per decade.

The keys to preventing injury and burnout while trying to maximize athletic careers, the article said, boil down to nutrition, moderation, discipline, setting goals, proper equipment and experience.

One marathoner, Bjarne Jensen, a 52-year-old Danish school principal,  emphasized moderation and discipline in his training. He runs five to six days a week but never exceeds 20 kilometers. The constant shorter distances, he says, give him all he needs to do a marathon on a moment’s notice. He has run 127 marathons so far, 21 last year alone.

As a 65-year-old basketball player, I find that playing two relatively short games four days a week is better than playing four games in one afternoon. This routine also gives me energy to do weight training and stretching and requires less recovery time.

I don’t know how long I’ll keep playing, but I’m working on a hook shot and one-hand set shot to see me through my 70s.

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