How Runners Decline in Performance with Age

The following abbreviated information is from my book, “100 Years Young the Natural Way (Body Mind and Spirit).

World Record Holders Decline in Performance % /Year from Age 35 to 62.5

Using data from World Masters (specific) Age Records 2005 edition. (I was honoured and very fortunate to be on the cover of this last edition of specific age world records.)

%/Year Men 1st column Women 2nd column

Conclusions:

  1. Increased performance loss per year as the distance becomes longer. Compared to long distance runners, sprinters show the lowest decline /year with age since they are doing a great deal of flexibility and anaerobic strength training, i.e., fast movements exercising the fast twitch muscles.
  2. Women decline significantly more than men at all distances

Author Dr.Vonda Wright examined the age related decline of athletes at the 2001 U.S. National Senior Games and also of American Masters track and field athletes for age 35 to 85. She concluded:

  1. Between age 50 to 75 for both men and women in both groups above there was about 2% /year decline in performance with slightly more decline for women.
  2. Between age 75 to 85 the decline was 8% /year average for men and women for the Senior Olympians , and for the American Masters record holders the decline was 4.1% /year for men for men and 10.3%/year for women.

World Record Holders Decline in Male Performance % /Year from 85-90

Conclusions:

  1. Sprinters decline in performance slower by a factor of 2, than middle distance or long-distance runners.
  2. Decline per year for world record holders at 85-90 is about 3 to 4 times higher than between age 35 and 62.5.
  3. World record holders decline in performance at a much slower rate than Senior Olympians. Hence it is reasonable to expect sedentary people will age much quicker than Senior Olympians, American National athletes and world record holder athletes.

Maintaining Running Speed with Age

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

– Plyometrics

– Diet specifically for joints

Benefits of Barefeet at Home

Those who wear sandals or not while at home will be interested to learn below how they can strengthen the feet prevent injuries, improve posture plus many other advantages. As you know it is essential to park the outdoor footwear at the door to prevent the transfer of microbes fungus and any virus to the house floor.

Two days ago I was wearing my slip-on sandals exclusively at home as usual for the past several decades. This day without socks in my sandals I nearly fell while descending the stairs with both hands occupied carrying an object and tripping on my sloppy sandals. And later in the day nearly falling backwards while tripping on my unsteady sandals on entering the front door. Granted with socks sandals are more steady, but I have noticed unsteady problems wearing sandals also sometimes while outside and definitely not recommended while driving. A day later a good female friend phoned me at 7:30 in the morning, believe it or not, to recommend an ongoing television program on running shoes. The thing that caught my attention was her mention that the program was recommending runners go barefoot around the house to strengthen the feet. This opportune additional information made up my mind to ditch the sandals in favor of safer and advantageous barefoot wear around the house.

Many research studies have shown the following are some of the advantages of barefeet around the home or preferably in comfortable heavy socks, (to prevent pickup of bacteria):

– Better foot mechanics leading to improve mechanics of hips, knees and core.
– Helps strengthen feet and toes and other parts of the body.
– Helps prevent plantar fasciitis, shin splints, bursitis and tendonitis.
– Improved balance and posture.
– Greater blood circulation and less inflammation.
– And even improved sleep.

Believing in these advantages will help make them come true. There are some additional advantages while walking barefoot on grass or in the sand, besides feeling great. And without footwear in the home the following are encouraged and easily accommodated during the day or whenever the mood strikes you. Example: To improve balance, stand on one foot and keep increasing the time every week or every day. Or to further strengthen feet, toes and calves: press yourself up on toes and lower slowly about ten times.

by Earl Fee