News, Culture & Society

Can you REALLY run your first marathon at 63? Yes…but there’s a strict recipe to getting it right

The Great British Bake Off finalist Jane Beedle has always dreamed of running the London Marathon

The Great British Bake Off finalist Jane Beedle has always dreamed of running the London Marathon.

However, while she has always been relatively fit from her 20 years as a garden designer (plus golf and tennis and twice-weekly visits to the gym ‘to cycle for an hour and do weights for my bingo wings’) — she’s never run to keep fit.

‘I found running a bit tedious — I still do, to be honest,’ says Jane, who was in the 2016 Bake Off series.

But then her gym routine went out the window during the preparation and filming of Bake Off. And a year ago, after an off-the-cuff tweet about wanting to run it, she found herself signed up with 12 other Bake Off contestants in a baker’s dozen running the event this weekend.

At 63, Jane is the oldest in the group. Other members include 2013 winner Frances Quinn, 36, and 2016 contestant Selasi Gbormittah, 31.

As a first-time runner, it’s been something of a learning curve, and Jane feels she might have left the training a little late. But having lost a stone and become the fittest she’s ever been, she says she’d recommend running a marathon to other older women.

‘When I decided to do it, it was a year away and I thought: “I’ll start training straight away and everything will be fine”,’ says Jane, from Beckenham, Kent, who is married to Ray, 70, and has two grown-up children.

‘In the end, I didn’t start my training until Boxing Day. I did the first run — a 6k — with my daughter Amy, but there was a lot of walking, especially uphill. I just went out in old trainers, a pair of leggings and a T-shirt.’

Jane’s training regimen involved one long run at the weekend and two shorter 6k or 10k runs a week, as well as two one-hour gym workouts. ‘I struggled with the distance, but I surprised myself with how far I’ve come — doing 10k now doesn’t faze me and I can run up the hills I had to walk up only a few months ago.’

She recently completed her first half marathon in two hours, 48 minutes (compared with a typical average for women her age of about two-and-a-half hours). ‘The run itself demoralised me, as it was one of the worst I have done,’ she says. ‘At 4k, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. It put me off, but I went out and did another long run and felt more positive.

‘In hindsight, I should have given myself double the amount of time to train, given that I’m older and starting from scratch.’

Running is becoming one of the most popular forms of exercise in the UK — two million of us run to keep fit — and more over-40s are doing marathons.

Over the past five years, the number of 40 to 70-year-olds running the London Marathon has increased by more than 20 per cent — and this year they represent almost half of all runners.

More than half of those running the marathon on Sunday have never run one before (people are more likely to sign up on the brink of a big birthday — with a ‘9’ in their age, according to research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014.)

But is running 26.2 miles a good idea, especially if, like Jane, you’re older, and haven’t even jogged to keep fit, let alone run a marathon?

The simple answer for most people is yes, says Dr Courtney Kipps, assistant medical director for the event and a consultant sports physician at the Institute of Sport, Exercise & Health at University College London.

‘Running a marathon is a challenge at any age. However, the human body is built for running — it’s very good at regulating temperature by sweating, which means we have the ability to run for hours and hours. We also have long tendons connected to short muscles, which make us efficient endurance runners compared to apes and other animals.

‘Age itself is not a factor,’ she adds. ‘In fact, doing it for the first time in later life can be a good thing when managed well; that means building up slowly.’

Professor Stephen Harridge, director of the Centre for Human and Applied Physiological Sciences at King’s College London, agrees. ‘It is never too late to gain the benefits from exercise.’

Research he conducted with the University of Birmingham on cyclists aged 55 to 79 found that the exercisers had the immunity, muscle strength and cholesterol levels of a young person.

Meanwhile, a study recently published in the journal Circulation found that starting exercise in middle age — at an average age of 53 — even if you’ve always been a couch potato, can reduce the risk of heart attack.

‘The “sweet spot” in life to get off the couch and start exercising is in late-middle age, when the heart still has plasticity,’ said the U.S. researchers.

Marathon running specifically helps speed up metabolism, improves cardiovascular, muscle and bone health — the impact exerted on the body as you run encourages new bone formation.

And contrary to popular belief, older runners are not more likely than non-runners to get knee arthritis, according to a study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in 2008.

There are some potential dangers, however. Research presented at the American Academy of Family Physicians in 2012 found that men are at greater risk of a heart attack during the race, particularly those over 49 — and the last three miles are by far the most dangerous.

However, the overall risk is small. (Since the London Marathon began in 1981, there have been more than a million runners and 14 deaths.) So while it’s certainly achievable to do a marathon for the first time in your 60s or 70s, a check-up with your GP is advisable if you have a history of heart disease, or unexplained chest pains or discomfort when you exert yourself, says Dr Kipps.

Overtraining — where you don’t give yourself enough time to recover after a run — can make you more prone to infections as the body releases the hormone cortisol which temporarily suppresses the immune system.

One runner in the Virgin Money London Marathon last year on April 23

One runner in the Virgin Money London Marathon last year on April 23

But overall, the message remains, running is good for you. ‘Even if you start running in later life, aged 60 or 65, the benefits to your health will still be quite significant,’ says Professor Harridge.

Jane can attest to this: ‘Everything is working a bit better than before: I was having to think about how I get out of the car because my knees were cranky; now they’re fine and I’ve lost a stone since Christmas.’

Most people will need at least four months to build up to a marathon — but if you’ve never run before, you might need another four to eight weeks of gentle exercise first, says leading running coach Martin Yelling.

‘The more prepared you are, the less it will hurt,’ he says.

Jane, who is running to raise money for Great Ormond Street Hospital, would like to complete the course in under six hours. ‘It’s going to be an amazing experience and I’m definitely going to continue running afterwards.

‘Would I recommend it to older women? If you’re fit and healthy and your legs work, then why not?’

To sponsor Jane, go to and search for Jane Beedle. 

And what about in your 80s? 

Retired delivery driver John Starbrook, from Surrey, is about to run his 32nd London Marathon, at the age of 87. John, a father of three, who has four grandchildren and is married to Judy, 79, hopes to finish the race in six-and-a-half hours — the same time he managed two years ago.

During the race, people ask me how old I am as they run past and I say: ‘I’m 75.’

I don’t want their sympathy and I certainly don’t think my age has got anything to do with my ability to run the marathon.

I did my first one in 1983, when I was 53, in five-and-a-quarter hours and found it so tough that, straight afterwards, I said: ‘I’ll never do that again.’ But, within a week, I had signed up to the 1984 marathon and have carried on ever since.

Since turning 70, I go to the doctor each year to check I’m OK to enter.

I missed last year’s race, as I had a stroke at Christmas 2016 and, although I was back running a month later, I wasn’t fit enough to take part.

Six-and-half-hours is a long time for me to be on my feet, but I’m lucky that I’ve got no aches and pains, and my knees and ankles are fine.

Training for me is two-hour runs five times a week. Yes, running on your own during training can be lonely, but the actual race is fun; there’s always something going on and lots of folk running in fancy dress.

My secret? I do eat a good diet, thanks to Judy — she makes sure I eat green veg, rather than curry — I don’t smoke and only have the odd beer. I’ve never been overweight; I’m 12st and 5 ft 11 in.

Everyone is amazed that I carry on. I really enjoy it and I help raise money for good causes — this year I’m fund-raising for Age UK. It gives me the incentive I need to keep going.

Interview by LUCY ELKINS