Track and Field for Masters Athletes

News Article / January 9, 2020

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By Major Serge Faucher

This is the first in a series of articles that will cover all aspects of Masters Athletes’ training and nutrition for track and field events. Since it is a rather complex subject that can easily take up hundreds of pages in a book, I will limit the content of these articles and focus on one distance only: the 400-metre. While the 400m is considered a “sprint”, the vast majority of principles I will explore apply to most distances and sports in general.

Low on most people’s radar!

As my brother, 17 Wing Chief Warrant Officer CWO Claude Faucher, and I gained some local media exposure after winning medals in provincial, national and international Masters track and field competitions over the past 10 years, we were often asked questions about workouts, nutrition and other aspects of physical fitness in general.

The most frequent question we hear when we mention we are runners is, “Do you run marathons?” It seems that, in Canada, the term “track and field” may be used to refer to other athletics events such as cross country, the marathon and road running, rather than strictly track-based events. These sorts of queries prompted me to start writing a book (which I hope to publish in a year or two), because we both found that, despite widely available information on the subject, people are only really interested in the sport once the Olympics come around. I intend to present information to Canadian Armed Forces readers over the next few months with the hope that more members will take an interest in this wonderful sport.

As I field questions each week, it’s clear that many Canadians in general don’t know that Masters track and field athletes even exist. We get very little coverage in the news, which does not help, especially when you consider that, currently, more than 4000 Masters are registered with Athletics Canada or one of the provincial track and field organizations.

In this series of articles, I will provide you with tips on training, cross-training, weight training, recovery, plyom etric exercises, injury management, nutrition, race tactics, and much more. You will learn how you can apply many of these principles to your own sport and training program. In short, I will share information you might not yet know because most running books out there are fairly generic: basic in their content, and focused on road running, which is a different sport.

What is a Masters athlete?

Perhaps one of the most essential questions you might ask is, “What is a Masters track and field athlete?” While it varies with each sport, Masters track and field athletes are individuals who are 35 years of age and older. The World Masters Athletics (WMA) organization has established age groups for both men and women in five-year increments: the W45 category, for example, comprises women aged 45 to 49.  The WMA is authorized by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) to conduct the worldwide sport of Masters (Veterans) and Athletics (Track and field).

And, it’s never too late to start!

Karla Del Grande (bib 468), who has been a member of the Canadian Masters Athletics (CMA) organization for 16 years and is now competing in the W65 age group, started at age 49. Since then, she has set many Canadian records. She currently holds 24 individual and 10 relay Canadian records. She has broken 11 WMA records and still holds 8 of them. She has won 25 gold and 5 silver medals in individual events at WMA Indoor and Outdoor Championships, and has earned several relay medals. Her age-graded scores routinely reach over 100%, with some as high as 105%. Individuals such as her inspire the rest of us to keep training and competing as Masters.

Like many others, I got into the sport late in life. I was encouraged by my brother to give track and field a shot at age 45; that was 10 years ago. Since my brother had some success as a teenager and young adult in distances ranging from 800m to 5000m, he thought I would do well on the track because we share the same genetics. So, without any proper training and knowing very little about this “new sport”, I decided to race an 800m at the Max Bell Arena facility in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I crossed the finish line in 2:32 minutes – not too bad for a “rookie” but far from being competitive with the university “kids”, as I finished dead last in that particular heat. However, I was hooked on the sport and never looked back! 

Following this first race, I decided to concentrate on the 800m and 1500m, as these distances made sense for a former 5- to 10-kilometre runner. As I gained a little more experience, I decided to try my luck at the 400m distance. I was totally unprepared for the quick start and the fury associated with that distance! Nonetheless, I really enjoyed it and looked forward to the next one. As I became aware of an online tool called the Age Grading Calculator, it was clear that I was better suited to run the 400m/800m combo. Analyzing my performances with this tool meant changing my training program, and adding more speed to it. 

A few more years went by and I once again readjusted my focus, this time on the 200m/400m races, because my age-grading score in the 200m was always higher than the 800m. This move also helped me to get faster in the 400m, which became my distance of choice. One thing I’ve learned is that you should focus on one distance, and train for it. Don’t try to do too many distances; I’ve seen athletes who race anything from the 400m to the half marathon. Stay focused if you want to perform at your highest level.  In my case, I train for the 400m, but I’m able to move up to the 600m or down to the 200m and still be competitive. 

How can you be a successful Masters athlete?

The requirements for success as a Masters athlete essentially boil down to a mix of nature and nurture. For starters, your genetic makeup is determined by your parents, and there is nothing you can do about it. Does that mean you stay on the sidelines, and just not bother if you don’t have the right physical or genetic attributes to run track events? Not at all! In fact, there are plenty of examples of athletes who have beaten the odds and accomplished great things despite being too skinny, too short, or having the wrong body composition for their specific sport. 

For example, while most top 400m runners are more than six feet tall, some much shorter runners manage to perform at the highest levels. At age 50, German Meinert Moller ran 53.58 seconds and Italian Francesco Dagostino ran 53.99 sec in the Finals of the 2016 World Masters Championships in Perth, Australia. Meinert is 5’8” at best, and Francesco is no taller than 5’4”.  They finished 3rd and 4th, respectively. I was behind them, placing 5th in that race – at 5’11”.

Age Grading Calculator – How it works

I mentioned the Age Grading Calculator earlier as a good tool to use to find out where you may have an affinity for a specific distance. Age grading uses tables of "age factors" and "age standards" to put all runners, regardless of age and gender, on a level playing field. In particular, the tables allow runners' performances, no matter what their age, to be corrected to what they would have been achieving in their prime years, and permit valid comparisons to be made between people of different ages.

Over 100% = World record level

Over 90% = World class

Over 80% = National class

Over 70% = Regional class

I usually encourage newcomers to the sport to plug several distances into the tool, and see where they perform best. This, in turn, may be a good way to choose a distance for yourself. My brother, Claude, is the Chief Official for the CF running program, and has successfully implemented the WMA age group percentage approach (based on the Age Grading Calculator) for road races at the CF Nationals. This revamps the old Qualifying Standards, and brings fairness and parity to all runners across the various distances, and does not discriminate with regard to gender.

Not genetically gifted? No problem!

As teenagers, my brother and I never made it to the Canadian Nationals; we were never properly developed through good coaching and support, and most likely never had the genetics to perform at the highest levels. We trained on our own and essentially just went out the door and ran. My understanding of running was quite rudimentary at the time. I didn’t know about the different types of training or energy systems that need to be developed until I was in my early 20s.

Over the years, we learned a great deal through personal research; we both managed to close the gap with the top sprinters and middle-distance runners of the world in our respective events. While some of these athletes, such as Olympian Paul Osland, are loaded with talent and are, in essence, more genetically gifted than the rest of us to begin with, my brother and I now make up the difference through disciplined training, good nutrition, excellent all-around fitness, attention to details, and what I believe is the most important attribute of all: drive.

You have to be willing to pay the price every time you step into the gym or onto the track if you want to achieve greatness.

I look forward to sharing more information with you in the coming months, starting with an overview of the fundamentals when it comes to training and cross-training for events such as the 400m and 800m.


 

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