Ask anyone older than yourself and they will likely give you a long list of things that change as we age. While not thrilling to know most of them are negatives we are powerless to change, we are never-the-less obligated to cast a critical eye on all of them to see if current wisdom may just be wrong.
Case in point may be the slowdown runners appear to experience as they age. While world class runners are often still able to maintain amazing times in their events, those times are no where near the times they clocked one, two, and three decades prior. While most of us would except this is true, the better question is why does this appear to be so and is there anything we can do about it?
These are the questions a few researchers set out to answer. Researchers found stride length shortened and ground force reaction decreased as runners age. These things together significantly impact speed. The mechanical basic for these changes could be the body seeking to shift force generation away from the ankle. At walking speeds, older adults shift force generation away from the ankles and up into the hips. Extra hip action helps keep walking speeds up as ankle action decreases. Initial research seems to indicate this natural shift in force generation does not occur in older adult runners at running speeds and may be the biomechanical reason top speeds decrease as runners age.
As we age, the lower extremities are prone to injury at a greater rate than areas closer to the trunk. The Achilles tendon and calf muscles experiences changes on a tissue level that leaves them vulnerable. Science is wondering if the body may alter our running gait (unbeknownst to our conscious selves) in order to protect the more vulnerable tissues.
But what can be done about this? The jury is still out but common sense tells us tissues will be healthier, more elastic, and better able to repair if the network of blood vessels serving those tissues stays dense and strong. This can be accomplished (like most things) through proper diet and exercise. Add to that a program designed to keep the muscles, tendons, and ligaments strong and properly flexible and you will be making the most of the common sense tools available to any age body.
If you have questions about what a proper lower leg and foot strengthening program entails, you can check out this article written by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. It gives several stretches and exercises that may just keep you PR-ing for years to come!
Interested in reading the biomechanical study? Click here!