General Medical

Book Review: “Older Faster Stronger,” by Margaret Webb

Back in October, Brian Lehrer introduced his next National Public Radio guest as a “latecomer” to running: “She only started training seriously at 50, with the goal of getting to the fitness level of a fit 20-year-old.”

That late-blooming guest was Margaret Webb, author of the new book Older Faster Stronger: What Women Runners Can Teach Us All About Living Younger, Longer. We listened in admiration as the former “short, stocky, flatfooted, still-smoking, pre-menopausal woman” told us of the strength, energy, confidence, and lifted spirits that have enhanced her life since she took up her own fitness challenge.

But how, we wondered, did Webb exercise herself up to the level of a fit 20-year-old? And how does she know she reached that unlikely goal?

Webb offered Lehrer a few metrics: (a) She got the working capacity of her heart and lungs, measured by VO2, to between 40 and 46—the level, she declared, of fit, trained college-age women; (b) she trained to qualify for the Boston Marathon in the toughest category of all: 20- to 34-year-olds—and missed it by just three minutes; and (c) she feels fitter today, in her fifties, than she did when she was a varsity athlete back in her twenties.

Still: How sensible were Webb’s training methods? For an informed opinion we turned to Varsha Parasram Seemangal, an Orthopaedic Physical Therapy Resident and Staff Physical Therapist at the Integrative Care Center in New York City’s Hospital for Special Surgery.

Varsha cast a judicious eye over Webb’s book. Here is her review.

—Ed.

 

Click here to purchase on Amazon.com. Proceeds from your  purchase help fund Women’s Voices‘ nonprofit mission.

Click here to purchase on Amazon.com. Proceeds from your purchase help fund Women’s Voices‘ nonprofit mission.

Older Faster Stronger is an honest and candid journey of self-discovery, told by a woman who set out to “run [her] way into a younger self” during the year of her 50th birthday.

Fueled by the desire to get fit (finally), and kindled by the examples of steadfast endurance set by her mother and “ironman sister,” Margaret Webb did run her way into a younger self. With this book she delivers a heartening description of her “super-fit year” as a runner.

Webb made the decision to train for a half-marathon during the year she would be turning 50. Certainly the 13.1-mile half-marathon stretch is no easy feat for any trained, experienced runner, let alone a beginner at the sport. Webb was a smoker, and her instinctive response to her sister’s challenge (to run the half-marathon) was “to admit defeat without even trying, to declare that [she was] well beyond her athletic prime and saw no chance of redemption.” However, she was inspired by the “tenacity, determination, and sheer courage” of her mother, who cared for her father for 20 years after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and dementia at age 50, all the while living every day with the aftereffects of polio in one of her legs. “Could I not use my two perfectly good legs to train for a half-marathon? Of course I could. Of course I would.”

And so Webb approached her super-fit year the way everyone should approach a new task (especially when it comes to running): by being open-minded and committing to her goals.

Her first goal was to train for and complete a half-marathon, and that is exactly what she did.

Throughout her life, Webb struggled with her weight. At age 42, she had trained for her first half-marathon and “lost 10 pounds without changing [her] diet.” She recounts this memory with the slogan seen on many T-shirts “I run to eat.” “It’s odd, really, to put so much into training our bodies and then reward ourselves by filling up on junk calories. It’s akin to fueling a Ferrari with the cheapest grade of gas. A running body simply can’t overcome all the effects of a poor diet, or perform well on one.”

As Webb continues her training, she encounters many women “masters” runners (runners over the age of 40) who are awe-inspiring themselves. These women have broken countless world records in their age group for races ranging from 200 meters to full marathons and ultra-marathons. Webb heeds the advice of these trailblazers and is able to seamlessly and expertly translate it into her book.

Webb asked specific training questions of the masters to make sure she was training in the right way. As a physical therapist, I teach patients every day about the importance of training correctly, of being aware of your body as it performs a task, especially a new task. It is vital to train your muscles to perform efficiently—that is, to move in the correct order in terms of muscle recruitment. When muscles perform efficiently, your body expends less energy with each step, allowing you to go faster for a longer period of time.

One way exercise physiologists measure the body’s efficiency is by calculating the maximum amount of oxygen the body is able to consume with strenuous exercise (known as VO2 max). In her book, Webb discussed how she was able to have her VO2 max measured, and how she used that measure as a source of inspiration to run harder and train smarter.

How did she train smarter? For one thing, she brought other forms of exercise than running into her routine. This is what physical therapists call cross-training. Cross-training with a variety of activities (such as swimming, biking, core strengthening, spinning, high-intensity interval training, hiking, walking) helps all the muscles of the body become fit and allows them to work together more efficiently. When you’re training with only one type of activity, the muscles that help to provide the power and control for that particular sport become overworked. Combine that with fatigue, which occurs during long runs, and your muscles tend to lose their efficiency. That is when your body is more at risk for injury. If you’re looking to become faster and stronger in one activity, cross-training is the way to do it.

As a physical therapist and lifelong runner myself, I consider Webb’s training methods to be in line with the way I would help train someone to become stronger and faster. Webb  offers her readers pieces of valuable information that would benefit any runner, whether novice or advanced.

During her “super-fit year,” Webb set personal-best times “in every distance [she] attempted, from 5-K to the full marathon.” She achieved her goal of running a half-marathon, but that was only the beginning. Webb surpassed all her own expectations. By the end of her year, she qualified for the half-marathon at the World Masters Games in Torino, Italy, where she finished fourth in her age group with a time of 1:45—a time that anyone at any age would be proud to have achieved. She was also able to qualify for the Boston Marathon “with 21 minutes to spare” in her age group, with a time of 3:38!

Webb’s story is a worthwhile guidebook for (a) anyone interested in taking up running, (b) runners who want more out of their run, and (c), perhaps more important—women runners who want more out of themselves. It is easy to go for a jog every so often, but to ask more from your body with every step, every mile, takes a lot of mental planning, emotional toil, and impressive determination. As Webb puts it, “I ran my way into the best shape of my life. And in that journey, there is no finish line. There are no competitors, no winning or losing. There is only the striving, the continual striving to find the joy, the thrill, and the love in it.”

 

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