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How to run strong and injury free as you get older

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that losing your running speed and muscle mass as you age is just part of the natural process and that there’s not a lot you can do about it. And to be honest, this was kind of what I thought when I started researching this article today. Well, it turns out there’s a shedload you can do to slow this process down and that the decline in running performance doesn’t have to be that big!

In this article:

  • How aging affects a runner’s physiology and anatomy

  • How getting older affects a runner’s biomechanics

  • The calf muscles/Achilles tendon have a lot to answer for

  • Recipe for running strong and injury free as you get older

Here's the video of the livestream I did about this in the Sports Injury Group.



The decrease in endurance and sprint performance that we observe in Masters runners (over age 35!) are due to a combination of physiological and biomechanical changes. Physiological changes has to do with how the heart, lungs and circulatory system works. Biomechanics refer to how your body moves when you run and is influenced by your muscles, tendons, joints and bones.


How aging affects a runner’s physiology and anatomy


As we get older our cardiovascular function naturally reduces. Cardiovascular function is influenced by things like how well your heart contracts, how fast it beats, how well your blood is circulated through your body and how easily and effectively your muscles extract the oxygen from your blood. Runners specifically experiences a drop in their maximum heart rate during exercise.


Our aerobic capacity (VO2 max) also decreases. Aerobic capacity or VO2 max is defined as the maximum rate at which your heart, lungs, and muscles can effectively use oxygen during exercise. A high VO2 max is directly linked to better endurance performance.


But running can dramatically slow this loss of VO2 max down! The aerobic capacity or VO2 max of lifelong endurance runners in their 80s are reported to be nearly twice as high as inactive age matched adults! This is important because lower VO2 max due to aging is a massive risk factor for developing chronic diseases.


In research where they compared highly trained older runners with highly trained young runners, they found that their VO2 max decreased by about 7% during each decade between the ages of 30 and 70.


Older runners who maintained both a high training volume and intensity throughout the years experienced a smaller dip in their VO2 max than their peers who trained at lower volumes and intensities.


In contrast with endurance athletes, sprinters don’t use oxygen as their main energy source when they run. They rely on their anaerobic energy system where they produce energy directly from glycogen. When you create energy via the anaerobic system, you produce lactate as a by-product which can be measured in your blood.


A group of researchers investigated the blood lactate concentrations in a group of male and female masters sprint runners (40-88 years) following competitive 100 m, 200 m and 400 m sprint running. They found that the blood lactate concentrations were significantly lower in the sprinters aged between 70-88 years. This may mean that part of the reason that we see a decrease in sprint performance as we get older could be due to a decrease in our ability to generate energy from anaerobic energy sources.


We all have a combination of fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibres. The fast twitch fibres produce strong, powerful muscle contractions and are used for tasks like sprinting and lifting weights. The slow twitch muscle fibres are used for endurance activities. Another reason why we lose some speed as we get older is that some of our fast twitch muscle fibres are replaced by slow twitch ones.


Our muscles and how well they contract are controlled by our nervous systems. Getting older also affects how many nerve endings we have in our muscles and how well they fire.


The good news is that heavy resistance/strength training can help you build fast twitch muscle fibres and activate your nervous system, but more about this later.



How getting older affects a runner’s biomechanics


Biomechanics refer to how a runner moves their body when they run – their step length, how much their joints bend, where they land on their feet, how fast they move etc.

Besides running slower, older runners tend to also give shorter steps (stride length).


Experimental models have predicted that a runner can expect their stride length to decrease by about 20% between the ages of 20 and 80. This is accompanied by a higher step rate or cadence which makes sense because in order to maintain your running speed, when the steps are shorter, you’ll have to give quicker steps.


They also tend to have a more flexed knee at footstrike; their ankles, knees, and hips move through a smaller range of motion; and they don’t oscillate (move) up and down as much.

Finally older sprinters and endurance runners also demonstrate decreased peak propulsive and vertical ground reaction forces. Researchers believe that these two factor explain why we see the reduced step length and speed in older age.


The calf muscles and Achilles have a lot to answer for


Your calf muscles contribute more to the forward propulsion force when you run than any of the other muscles in your legs. The stronger your calf muscles are the better you propel yourself forward and the bigger the steps you give when you run.


As we age our calf muscles lose some of their muscle mass, cross-sectional area (size) and its ability to produce force. Concentric ankle power during running (when you push off) can reduce by as much as 47.9% between the ages of 20 and 80.


The Achilles tendon which attaches the calf muscles to the heel bone also loses some of its stiffness. The Achilles is meant to work like a spring when you run, so the stiffer the better. This reduction in tendon stiffness reduces the Achilles’ ability to propel you forward.


With this in mind it will come as no surprise that the research shows that older runners (over 50) are more prone to injuries like calf strains and Achilles tendinopathy.


What the research is currently showing is that running can slow this age related decline in lower limb muscle strength down, but it can’t stop it. Interestingly, there is one study that showed that highly trained Masters runners who trained at the same volume and intensity as highly trained younger runners did not show this decline in ankle power.



Recipe for running strong and injury free as you get older


What this research may suggest is that maintaining high training volumes and intensities could protect against these age related changes (drop in VO2 max and muscle strength). The only problem is that we also tend to recover and heal slower as we get older. High training volumes and intensities may not be possible for everyone and may actually put some people at a higher risk of injury.


Not only has strength training been shown to reduce running injuries by up to 50%, but it can also help to preserve your muscle mass, force (build fast twitch fibres) and propulsive power(activate the nervous system) as you get older.


Remember that your Achilles tendon also becomes softer and more flexible with age – causing it to lose its spring like properties? Heavy slow resistance training has been shown to improve your tendon stiffness as well.


Strength training programmes for runners can come in many forms but I hope it is clear from the above that you have to include exercises for your calf muscles and your Achilles tendon. I discuss this in more detail in the video above.


You can also download a general gym-based strength training programme for runners here or a quick-fire routine that you can do at home here. But remember, to get the strength benefits you have to work the muscles hard. If you’re serious about maintaining your strength as you get older, I would suggest that you consult someone who can work out a training programme that is right for you.


Let me know if you have any questions. Remember, you can also consult me online via video call for a diagnosis of your injury and a tailored treatment plan.

Best wishes

Maryke


About the Author

Maryke Louw is a chartered physiotherapist with more than 15 years' experience and a Masters Degree in Sports Injury Management. Follow her on LinkedIn, ResearchGate, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.



References:

  1. Couppé C, Svensson RB, Silbernagel KG, et al. Eccentric or Concentric Exercises for the Treatment of Tendinopathies? Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy 2015;45(11):853-63. doi: doi:10.2519/jospt.2015.5910

  2. Delvecchio L, Korhonen MT, Reaburn P. THE EFFECTS OF RESISTANCE TRAINING ON SPRINT AND ENDURANCE PERFORMANCE IN MASTERS ATHLETES: A NARRATIVE REVIEW. Journal of Fitness Research 2016;5(1)

  3. Lauersen JB, Bertelsen DM, Andersen LB. The effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Br J Sports Med 2014;48:871-877.

  4. Mckendry J, Breen L, Shad BJ, et al. Muscle Morphology and Performance in Master Athletes: A Systematic Review and Meta-analyses. Ageing research reviews 2018

  5. Willy RW, Paquette MR. The Physiology and Biomechanics of the Master Runner. Sports medicine and arthroscopy review 2019;27(1):15-21.