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For Masters runners, the first thing to go isn’t our eyesight, our memory, or even our metabolism, no matter how much we’d like to blame our love handles on the latter. The first thing to go is our stride. By the time we’re 30, our stride length begins to decrease an average of 1 percent per year—which, left unchecked, leads to an equivalent increase in pace-per-mile during runs and races.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” wrote Lao-tzu.
So does every one of our runs. And it’s the combination of stride length and stride rate (the frequency of our strides) that determines how far and how fast we travel. Studies over the past two decades have shown that stride rate remains unchanged into our 70s and 80s. But our stride length decreases by 40 percent. The result is the masters’ shuffle: older runners trying to stave off slower times by adopting an unnaturally fast stride rate combined with a shorter stride length, leading to a frenetic, abbreviated gait.
Luckily, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Shortened stride length can be traced to three culprits:
1. Decreased muscle mass.
2. Decreased hip, knee, and ankle flexibility.
3. Decreased nervous system efficiency.
Training that addresses all three culprits can mitigate, postpone, or even reverse their effects. Here are three workouts that will have you striding out like a youngster for years to come.
We begin to lose skeletal muscle mass in our mid-20s. But it turns out this loss is mostly confined to our faster (speed and strength) muscle fibers, with our slow-twitch (endurance) fibers resistant to atrophy. Since faster fibers power our race stride, the result is reduced stride length and a slower pace. But faster muscle fiber loss is not a fait accompli. This is a case of use it or lose it. Unfortunately, most masters runners don’t “use it.” That’s because workouts like distance runs and tempo barely touch faster fibers. To recruit 100 percent of your available faster (and slower) muscle fibers—and to teach your nervous system to use them simultaneously and efficiently—you’re going to have to include sprint workouts. And no sprint workout is more effective than hill sprints.
The workout: Find a hill that’s steep, but not so steep that you can’t manage an approximation of your normal stride. Sprint uphill for 6-10 seconds at 95% effort, then walk slowly down the hill for recovery. Do 4-8 reps. Next, sprint downhill for 8-15 seconds at a controlled 85-90 percent effort, walking slowly up the hill for recovery. Do 4-6 reps.
A 2013 study by Fukichi, et al., found that older runners suffer reduced flexibility in their hips, knees, and ankles, echoing numerous previous studies. But we Masters runners don’t need a study to tell us we’re getting stiffer by the year. We can deduce that by trying to touch our toes—or to tie our shoelaces mid-run. The problem is a combination of reduced flexibility in our joints and a decline in the muscle force required to move those joints. The answer is the lunge clock, which both strengthens and stretches.
The workout: Stand straight, feet hip width apart, arms at your sides. Step forward toward a “12 o’clock” position, bending at the knee until your thigh is parallel the floor. Don’t let your forward knee extend beyond the toes of your lead foot. Then return to your starting position. Next, step toward the various “hours” of the clock, lunging forward and to the side, sideways, backward and to the side, backward, etc. Do 1-2 reps of the clock.
“It is well known that to stay young, intensity of exercise is more important than volume,” says Earl Fee, who recently ran 79.04 for 400m at age 85, adding to his more than 50 age group world records. In fact, a 2009 study on aging and running found that intense training led to “significant gains in maximal and explosive strength and improvements in force production during running.” Track repetitions at 1500 and 3K pace not only provide the intensity required for strength gains, they also retrain stretch receptors within your muscles called “muscle spindles.” Muscle spindles monitor changes in the length of muscles. When muscles stretch during running, muscle spindles alert your nervous system to contract the muscle, which protects against overstretching but also limits stride length. By performing thousands of strides at a faster pace, muscle spindles adapt, allowing a longer stride length.
The workout: Perform 200m repetitions at 1500m or 3000m pace (8-16 reps for 1500, 15-30 reps for 3000) on the track or on a flat, even surface. Use twice rep time for recovery.
For Masters runners, preserving our stride is the first line of defense against reduced performance, and it’s the best way to avoid the masters’ shuffle.
About The Author:
Pete Magill is the fastest-ever American age 50+ at 5K (15:01) and 10K (31:11), the 2013 USA Masters Cross Country Runner of the Year, and the author of Build Your Running Body (The Experiment, 2014). Learn more about Pete at his website, PeteMagill.com.