Running for a lifetime

Joan Benoit Samuelson (shown in 2011) won the gold medal in the first Olympic women's marathon. AP Photo/Stew Milne

In 1979, I won a marathon for the first time. Thirty-three years later, with countless races under my belt, I continue to compete. More importantly, I still love the sport of running as passionately as I did three decades ago.

Other runners often ask me how I have been able to motivate myself over a long career. It's no secret that running is a difficult sport, and even the most avid runners often fall prey to burnout or nagging injuries. I think my longevity boils down to the fact that I have been blessed with the gift of knowing my own body and mind.

Here's my best advice for making your relationship with running last a lifetime:

Listen up

When it comes to burnout, overtraining is the enemy. Training at an intensity that your body cannot handle will impair your enjoyment of the sport at best -- and at worst will lead to physical injury. In order to prevent this downward spiral, pay attention to how your body responds to training. Compensation in your stride is a common warning sign. This means your body is crying out for more recovery time, and you should rein in your training. Increased fatigue, constant muscle soreness and plateaus in performance are also signs that you need to take a break.

Make it count

Now that I'm 55 years old, my training is very different than it was in my 20s and 30s. When I was younger, I ran twice a day, six days a week. I'd often rack up nearly 100 miles per week due to a schedule packed with track workouts, tempo runs, long runs and auxiliary workouts. After having children, two-a-days were no longer practical for me. I ran less, but made every run count, and I stopped adding mileage for the sake of upping the number. It's important to adjust your training tactics to accommodate life changes. Trying to stick to the same regimen, regardless of your schedule, can lead to resentment of the sport. Keep things positive by being open to modification and understanding that you can maintain the same fitness by doing more with less time.

Mix a lot

Incorporating cross training into your normal running program will help prevent overuse injuries. If you notice a negative response to training, cut back on mileage and alternate running with different activities, such as swimming, cycling, walking, spinning or elliptical training to nip potential injury in the bud. Remember to reduce both your mileage and cross-training activities leading up to a major event. It's important to perform a sound taper so that you reach the starting line of every race feeling excited and rested. This type of ebb and flow will help you train and race well now and in the future.

Race for a reason

Nourish your love of running by making every race matter. You can't set a personal record in every 5k, 10k and marathon-- and reaching this goal becomes even less probable as you age. Instead, choose races for a larger purpose and run to fulfill that story. In my youth, I ran races to win. Now I run marathons to test personal limits and to celebrate the sport. In 2008, I ran the Olympic Marathon Trials with a goal of breaking 2:50 in the same city where 29 years earlier I had won the Boston Marathon -- the race which kick-started my competitive career. The following year, I ran the New York City Marathon to commemorate the race's 40th birthday and the 25th anniversary of my Olympic win. Most recently, I ran the 2012 Boston Marathon with my daughter as a way to honor the 40th year of Title IX legislation. Find your own story and make it count.

Live in balance

It is important to find balance in your workouts. Personally, I include one speed, one distance and one tempo run each week in my training. I have remained healthy and avoided injuries by spacing these different workouts equally throughout seven-day cycles. I know that for me, doing more than this will lead to burnout. If I have a race scheduled for a weekend, I use the race as my speed workout so as not to overtax my body. These three different workouts have allowed me to stay focused, motivated and competitive in the sport. Discover a flexible formula that works for you in order to enjoy longevity and sweet success. Run on!