How to improve performance and reduce the chance of injury as an older runner?
A couple of weeks ago I went to a running symposium with Dr Rich Willy and Dr Christian Barton two prominent and world acclaimed running physiotherapists and researchers. I learnt a lot, so I thought I’d share some of the take home messages in the form of a few articles over the next few weeks on Run Culture.
In this first article, I wanted to go over what Dr Rich Willy discussed with the older runner. I have had a few readers ask for articles more targeted to the older running population, so here is a great topic. I’m sure 90-95% of the older runners (anyone 30 and over) aren’t doing what Dr Rich Willy suggests to improve our ‘durability’.
Every year after approximately the age of 30 there is the completely natural process called; ‘sarcopenia’ at play in every human. This is the natural loss of muscle mass with aging.
Of course this process can be slowed down with consistent exercise. However, running daily doesn’t totally negate it.
The cross sectional area of a muscle is heavily associated with its strength. So, with aging we naturally lose strength even if we jog alot.
Tendons also lose their stiffness as we age. For example; with the same amount of force applied to a young and old tendon; the older tendon stretches a lot more. This reduces the older tendon’s passive energy return during the running cycle. Liken this to an elastic band, a stiffer taught band will offer more spring than a loose, stretchy one.
If I was to tell you that in the sagittal plane the calf encounters 6-8 times body weight of ground reaction force, you can see how important this muscle is for a runner.
In the older runner; with the loss of cross sectional muscle mass and tendon stiffness in the calf, propulsion power is greatly effected. This causes a shorter step length and increased step rate in older runners.
There is also a rise in calf, achilles and plantarfascia injuries; due to the age relate loss in muscle and tendon strength in the plantarflexors. Hence, the origins of the phrase; ‘Old man’s calf’.
To better hold off the effects of sarcopenia, Dr Rich Willy suggests that all older runners should include 1-2 heavy strength exercises in their week. By heavy, he means greater than 70% of 1 repetition maximum. So roughly, a weight that fatigues your muscle by 8-10 repetitions. He referenced a systematic Review by Bohm et al 2015 that showed strength training any lighter than this wasn’t stressful enough to elicit any change to the stiffness of our tendons. So, simple bodyweight calf raises aren’t enough, we need to add external weights.
He also suggested 1-2 high intensity running sessions each week; be it speed intervals or hills. The trouble with this is that the older body heals and adapts much slower than our younger counterparts, so be sure to incorporate these sessions into the week with care and patience.
Heavy squats and calf raises with weights and doing regular weekly hills and speed work almost goes against ones instincts when caring for an older runner. It makes complete sense though, as distance running alone is not sufficient enough to hold off the natural loss of strength with aging.
A stronger calf and Achilles puts some spring back into your step and performance. It will also make that dodgy calf more durable to load. If you want more information on this please don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.