How To Keep Your Speed With Age

Like thousands of runners around the world, we want to continue to improve and get faster the more we run. Time however, is not always on our side and as we get older there are some physical changes that happen to us all. Knowing what these changes are and how to mediate their impact on our performance is really the key to continuing to enjoy and improve our running. Smart training based on 20+ years of research can slow down, even hold off, the effects of ageing on our running performance.

Success in endurance running depends on many different factors, not least the time spent training. One really simple reason many people struggle to match or beat their younger selves is the time and effort spent in training. Life happens, so we must make sure to use our limited time wisely.

CER recommendations for older runners;

  • No junk miles. With limited training time and energy, make sure you work hard but smart

  • Include short and middle range interval work (increase your anaerobic power and lactate threshold)

  • Take care of nagging injuries or niggles before you have to take time off training

  • Add strength work to prevent muscle and strength loss

  • Keep an eye on stress levels and lack of sleep - both will negatively affect performance

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The science of running talks about running economy, maximal oxygen uptake and lactate thresholds. Simply put;

  • how efficient is your running?

  • how much oxygen can you take in and use when running?

  • how quickly do you accumulate and get rid of lactate?

These (and other factors) go towards determining good running performance and as luck would have it they are all trainable qualities. As a runner approaching, or in middle age, it would serve you well to prioritise your training in favour of the qualities that will be hardest to keep improving, and the ones that make the biggest differences. Tolerance of lactate and improving this important quality could be the key to your continued running success.

Research from the 80’s showed that even without equal oxygen uptake capabilities, elite older runners (in their 50’s) were able to match younger non-elite runners by being able to race closer to their maximum for much longer. Purely aerobic fitness then may not be the best use of training time once it’s well developed.

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How can we improve the other qualities?

Interval training at moderate and high intensities is one such method. Running fast 400-1200m intervals is tough but really quickly works to improve lactate threshold. Any sprint efforts lasting 20-40 seconds will be high intensity enough to improve this internal system. Longer sprint efforts are of course going to be slower but still have a great impact on this system when up to about 2 minutes of work is carried out. Rest periods can be complete (you are recovered enough to do the same effort each time) or incomplete (you’re only partly recovered so each set gets harder and harder to hit the same intensity/speed).

A 2008 study explains that age related decreases in VO2Max and lactate threshold may be partly due to external factors as well as the physiological changes of ageing. Reduced training time and intensity, external demands of life and the higher prevalence of injuries. This theory gives us reason to plan more injury prevention training and strength work, as well as including recovery strategies and stress management.

We know that hormonal changes as we age lead to reduced muscle mass and consequently a harder time keeping off excess fat mass. Strength training can help to reduce this impact on performance and make the muscle you have do more for you. Work on maximal strength using lower reps (1-6) and heavier weights, and some time on simple low level plyometric drills like the ones in our toe taps and pogos video.

We can’t hold back time, but we can run away from it!

By Alex Adams