I’m 36. And as much as I hate to admit it, I’m not getting any younger.
But I am still getting faster. Right now, my goals are primarily performance based. (I’m still on the hunt for that BQ Unicorn!)
However, I also know that consistency over time is one of the biggest performance advantages I have at my disposal. And it makes sense - if you’re overdoing it, or your body isn’t strong enough to handle your mileage and intensity, and you’re getting hurt all the time, you aren’t making as much progress as you could be if you were able to seamlessly continue training without interruption, right?
That said, my other primary concern is health and longevity. I want to run as far into the future as I can imagine, and I’d like to continue doing it as seamlessly as possible. But I’m being greedy, because I want both longevity and performance.
I want to be #fasterasamaster.
Now, obviously I know at some point it will no longer be feasible to continue getting faster. But if Heather Knight Pech, who is still setting personal records and national age group records across distances from the 10k to the marathon at age 60+ is any consolation, I have a lot of time to continue making progress. (For reference, she recently finished Boston in 3:03:47, setting her age group all-time record in the process - beating the standing record held by none other than Joan Benoit Samuelson.)
I wrote about Heather in a previous blog post that details many of the things she does to take care of her body, from adjusting her training mileage to strength training to fueling, etc. Her performances (and those of many others - including a recent mile PR of 6:48 and 5k PR of 21:54 set by none other than Run Empowered Strength Team's own Scott Green) fly in the face of this belief that we will automatically slow down as a natural byproduct of aging.
Of course, there’s some truth to that notion. But perhaps it doesn’t have to happen as soon or as dramatically as we think. In this regard, one of the biggest contributors to continued performance success and longevity is strength training.
If you think about it, making running training adjustments as we age is sort of a passive accommodation. We know that our bodies won’t be able to handle quite as much volume and intensity and will require a little more recovery, so we adapt our training to reflect that by removing stimulus.
But strength training is a proactive approach that enables our bodies to handle our running and maintain or even improve our running economy. Especially if you haven’t been strength training at all. (P.S. It’s NEVER too late to start!)
How Strength Saves Speed
Strength and power are significantly related to running speed. Together, they help us improve and maintain stride rate and stride length while enabling us to better handle the impact forces of running. Stability work also helps us better distribute those forces and limits unnecessary or excessive motion involved in the transfer of power through the movement chain, allowing us to maintain better running economy and performance over time. All together, mobility, stability, strength and power help reduce injury risk and improve performance for all age groups.
But it’s the rate at which we lose strength over time that has the greatest impact on our performance declines. Every decade after the age of 40, we can lose as much as 10% of our muscular strength and 17% of our muscular power … if we do nothing to mitigate that loss. And that’s the part I think people forget: “If we do nothing.”
Use it or lose it is real, folks. Strength declines in general and the rate of strength decline in particular are far from a given. Plus, the more strength you develop and maintain now, the longer it will take you to lose it to the same degree as someone who has never strength trained.
What’s more, is the positive hormonal impact strength training has on our bodies. Running has a catabolic hormonal effect, meaning it encourages breakdown. Strength training has an anabolic hormonal effect, meaning it encourages building up. Recovery from running workouts is largely a hormonal process. So strength training and the anabolic hormonal effects can help mitigate that increase in required recovery time we typically see in older athletes.
What About Cardiovascular Declines?
Now, there are some cardiorespiratory declines with age as well. For example, HR max gradually dips lower as we age considering the layman’s formula for determining HR max is 220 minus your age. VO2max also decreases over time, with one study showing a 5-7% decline in VO2max per decade in highly trained male distance runners. However, we are learning that running economy is a better predictor of running performance than VO2max. And what’s something you can actively engage in to improve your running economy? Mobility, stability, strength and power!
If all we’re doing to counter the effects of aging and stay ahead of risk of injury is that passive reduction in running training, how in the world would we expect to improve or even maintain any kind of performance metric?
So, What Do I Do?
So what kind of strength exercises should masters runners do? Honestly, the same as every other runner looking to maintain or improve longevity and performance. Volume and intensity may need to be adjusted, especially if you’re brand new to strength training, but functional movement patterns like squatting, hinging, pushing and pulling will never go out of style. Layer in some single leg work, plus targeted postural and stability exercises along with regular mobility work and you’re golden (It doesn’t have to be as overwhelming or complicated as it sounds).
For me, if I expect to maintain or improve my level of performance as I age, then strength training must be a given part of my routine. I must actively engage in the process of improvement instead of doing nothing but reducing my running training and wondering why I’m losing steam. We have to continue to challenge our muscular and neuromuscular systems in general, but in particular as we age, in order to avoid or mitigate losses in strength and power that ultimately impact running performance and longevity.
In the words of Heather Knight Pech, “Our best is in front of us!”
If you want to get faster as a master or you’re looking for a running-specific strength training program that covers all of this for you so that you can get all the health and performance benefits without having to worry about planning your workouts, check out Run Empowered - Strength Coaching for Runners!