I had been thinking of writing an article on ways to reduce the drop off of running speed with age. Recently by good fortune amongst a pile of saved articles on athletics I found a great article on this subject In a January 2004 issue of 2004 Peak Performance.
Here is some of the good information mainly from the above article by Hamilton and his team of researchers and my own research.
Based on world record statistics: Aging diminishes muscle power sooner and more dramatically than endurance. So based on this and other reasons endurance runners maintain their endurance better than sprinters maintain their speed as they age. Regular resistance training can help sprinters offset this trend and diet can also protect aging joints.
Muscle fibre is lost at an increasingly fast rate as we age— between age 20 and 80 about 30% of fast twitch muscle fibre is lost. So it appears we should be working more on retaining muscle as we age and not less as is the usual case. E.g., As we age, fast twitch muscle fibre (for speed and power) declines faster than slow twitch fibres (for endurance). Our late distance runner friend Ed Whitlock had the idea and good habit to do more distance running with age to compensate for the increasing loss of endurance. See my recent (summer 2020) article on Facebook On Exercises to Retain Fast Twitch fibres. Basically, these are frequent fast and/or intensive exercises.
As age we lose more growth hormone which leads to reduced protein and increased muscle atrophy. Growth hormone is stimulated during intense short exercise with short intervals which results in increased strength and improved exercise performance. The more intensity the more growth hormone. To increase growth hormone the scientific coach Phil Campbell recommends 2 grams of glutamine powder (based on research and his own research) before an intense workout. I have this good habit.
To make matters worse with age creatine phosphate required for sprinting or short- term activity declines with age. However, the regular anaerobic workouts help’s replenish creatine phosphates. In a study reported by Hamilton: seven sprinters after just one week of placebo or creatine supplementation completed four consecutive sprints. Compared with the placebo sprinters the creatine sprinters increased their running speed by 1.4% and stride frequency by 1.5%, but not their stride length. Hence creatine supplementation is a good option for older sprinters to increase muscle power and contribute to lean muscle mass.
Stride length declines and contact time increases with age, but stride rate remains largely unaffected; this is widely known. This data refers to a study by Hamilton who compared age 35-39 sprinters with 90-year olds. For example 2.36 m per step at age 35 to 1.42 m per step at age 90 or 66% more steps for a 90 year old in a 100m race. The good news is: it is still possible to maintain a significant amount of speed with age. Hamilton found stride length declined at increasingly more rapid with older runners but stride frequency did not decline significantly with age.
Uphill training can help slow the reduced stride length and the increased contact time with age. The gradient will emphasize dorsiflexion (a greater toe-up position on foot strike which “will generate more work for the calf muscles on push-off.” “Hence due to stronger calves and ankles stride length is enhanced and contact time reduced when on the level.”
It is also important to stress dorsiflexion in sprint drills as the toe-up prevents landing on the toes which results in a shorter stride as you can easily imagine.) Also, Hamilton states lower limb and ankle strength are crucial for sprinters of all ages.” Also, the importance of stronger calf and Achilles muscles in producing longer strides is demonstrated from a more resent research study by Dr. De Vita and colleagues. They state that calf and ankle muscles age sooner than those muscles above. Stronger glutes, quads and hamstrings had less effect on stride length according to the DeVita study.
The Peak Performance article also describes the importance of the free leg as it leaves the running surface and is pulled through quickly and powerfully, folding up towards the butt as a short lever. (This requires strict attention in training during the ABC sprint drills during the warmup stage.)
Range of motion at the knee joint before the free returning foot is landed— is also important as this reduces with age from about 120 degrees to 95 degrees between age 35 and 90 thereby shortening the stride. The hill sprints combat this lower leg lethargy by creating greater leg drive. This increases the speed of the free returning leg.
Weight training will offset fast twitch fibre shrinkage— particularly training with 75% of one rep maximum according to Hamilton. Also training with less weight and more reps protects sprinters from injury.
Plyometrics, e.g., bounding and hopping are also very effective for enhancing stride length. Here the softer inner field is recommended.
Flexibility also declines with age as our soft tissue hardens and joints stiffen. I recommend daily stretching once or twice a day and if possible a weekly yoga session, and of course the stretching before and after training. It is amazing what 10 minutes of a daily habit can accomplish in the long term, for all. Maintaining flexibility with age is essential for sprinters.
A final suggestion. I usually finish a sprint workout with few short sprints with exaggerated strides—somewhat like reduced bounding. This requires more use of the calf and ankle muscles. If this doesn’t help, it still feels good.
And last but not least, a good proper diet will help combat degenerative or inflammatory Joint conditions. This is a big subject but worthy of investigation.
In summary the importance of the following to reduce the decline of speed with age was covered above. These will require frequent attention:
– Regular high resistance training
– Also lower resistance with more reps
– Regular fast and/ or intense exercise to maintain fast twitch fibres
– Supplementation with Glutamine and Creatine
– Up-hill running
– Strengthening of calves and ankles
– Concentration of proper technique, e.g., dorsiflexion, etc. during ABC sprint drills
– Diet specifically for joints