If you’re like most of us, you may be over the hill before you even realize there was a hill to go over in the first place.
The book “Running Science: Optimizing Training and Performance,” by John Brewer, indicates that muscle strength peaks around 25 years of age before plateauing and eventually declining. For an average person, VO2 max peaks in the late teens and stays level for much of the 20s, before declining. It makes sense that a 2011 study found peak performance of Olympic track athletes to be 26.
However, zoom out to longer distance events and that age gets pushed back. Marathon performance peaks around 30 or even later. For 100 milers, a 2013 study found that peak performance was 39 for women and 37 for men. It seems that the fountain of youth may be hiding on registration websites for ultramarathons.
Experience follows the science. On the Olympic track, a runner over 30 like Nick Willis is the exception that proves the rule. In ultramarathons, an athlete like 2017 US 50 Mile Champion Liza Howard, 47, is closer to the exceptional rule. Not only that, there are countless athletes into their 70s and beyond excelling at all distances.
What explains the offset, and how can we use it to our advantage when training for trail races?
According to a 1995 study, and as summarized by top coach Joe Friel, after the mid-20s, without training, muscle fibers begin to change in property and composition. Type II fibers (fast-twitch muscles used mostly for more explosive movements) become less predominant, and according to Running Science, there is a loss in protein from all muscle fibers. Around the same age, VO2 max declines by as much as 1 percent a year for untrained individuals, possibly due to decreases in max heart rate, the amount the heart pumps with each beat, and changes in the circulatory system. Even bones lose strength due to calcium loss.
Training changes everything. No matter when you start exercising, you can slow down or even reverse almost every age-related element of decline. Smart training may not be the fountain of youth, but it could be the spigot of continued development over time.
Those fast trail racers in their late 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond are likely losing a bit of their peak strength and maximal aerobic capacity like the rest of us. But instead of giving up and watching TV news all day, they use the changes to their advantage. As described by Training Peaks, athletes past their peak may be able to perform with higher relative levels of chemical byproducts associated with fatigue. As Type II FT fibers become less predominant, endurance powerhouse Type I slowtwitch fibers could pick up the slack. Plus, just because max strength peaks doesn’t mean sub-max strength decreases. Sustained aerobic development over time could improve aerobic threshold even while VO2 max stays constant or goes down.
This is all a fancy way of saying that the body is highly adaptable. There are some general rules of the aging game, guided by baseline physiology. But you can game the rules to get faster as you go.
1. Strength train
The best way to counteract muscle strength loss is to strength train like a boss. Numerous studies (like this one on cyclists and this one on runners) and anecdotal stories extol the benefit of strength training for master’s athletes, even in small, relatively short doses. While it’s immensely complicated in practice, the general summary is simple: get strong, stay strong, be strong and you could maintain or improve both max and sub-max power output. Plus, strength work can make bones, muscles, and joints more resilient. It can even reduce the amount of energy it takes to go a given pace by improving running economy.
You can start anytime, but the younger the better. Focus on dynamic movements, emphasizing body weight exercises unless you are working with an expert (some studies use maximal strength protocols involving heavier weights, but they can be risky without guidance). Almost any routine works. For our athletes over 40, we like this circuit two or three times per week:
– 10 forward lunges with both legs
– 20 rear lunges with both legs
– 10 side lunges with both legs
– 50 to 100 single-leg step ups per leg
– 10 to 20 single-leg squats per leg
– 1-minute front plank (can do variations of these with movement after you gain proficiency)
– 1-minute side planks
– 30-second rear plank
– 20 to 30 push-ups (on knees works great!)
– 10 to 20 dips (supporting some weight works great; you can even use a sturdy chair with handles for this)
– 10 to 20 above-head military presses with light weights
We usually add some dynamic flexibility routines as well, like Coach Jay Johnson’s myrtle routine. There is no perfect plan, so find what works for you, focusing on good form above all else. When you are super advanced, you can add extra weight, and even use strength work graduate school exercises like deadlifts.
The key is just to do some strength and mobility work, starting as young as you can, but remembering that starting at any age is beneficial. If you have a water pot that is leaking, don’t just watch the trickle. Patch it up and pour some more in.
2. Work on speed
Chris Solinsky, one of the best track runners in American history, has been attributed with the line that he knew it was time to consider retirement when he had to do fast strides after every run to avoid slowing down. That may be apocryphal, but it’s a universal experience for runners. The top speeds that come more naturally early on take more work as you age.
But more work can mean more fun. Short strides and intervals essentially act as running-specific plyometrics, a type of strength work involving explosive movements. During a stride of 20 to 30 seconds, your power is high, your muscles fire with authority and your heart’s stroke output increases to keep up. Raise that power ceiling, and there could be more space to play in your aerobic house.
Most weeks, Liza Howard does two or three sets of flat-ground strides. Mark Tatum, a 58-year old mountain-running star, will do a similar quantity of hill strides most of the year. Nancy Thomas, a 48-year old podium finisher for her age at the US Cross Country champs, swears by “Nancy’s Hills,” 20-second uphill bursts that start at a gallop and end at a sprint. These over-35 athletes counter-intuitively focus more on speed and power than athletes in their 20s.
While there is a lot of individual variation, we usually have our athletes age 35 to 45 focus on flat strides around 20 seconds. Above 45, we transition mostly to hill strides, which involve lower impact forces and may have reduced injury risk.
As always, the magic is not in the details, but in the general principles. As we age, our speed diminishes. Eventually, speed loss will affect how fast you can go at aerobic efforts, too. Speed is like any complex skill—it needs constant practice.
3. Cross train
As the body changes with age, you’ll need training options that don’t involve the pounding of running but still allow for sustained aerobic development. While improving running economy relies on running, and the principles of specificity indicate that running is most important, general aerobic adaptations can come from any endurance activity. To avoid aerobic regression with less training volume (or in times of injury), cross training can be indispensable.
There is no perfect approach, and cross training itself can be controversial for some coaches. For our athletes, the hierarchy of cross-training activities goes:
– Stairs or stair-mill
– Bike or elliptigo
– Swimming or rowing
Over 50, we like athletes to add one to two days of cross training per week. Under 50, we like athletes to add one day a week if they have lots of time to spare, or at least to have an option to lean on when injuries pop up or we need to add some aerobic training load.
4. Strategically break down training between easy and hard
For athletes of any age, most training should be easy, usually meaning below aerobic threshold. The same goes for masters athletes. However, as an athlete ages, keeping easy truly easy is especially important, due to higher injury risk.
Plus, honest easy days let the body be maximally recovered and ready to perform on hard days. And because the body adapts to those hard, acute stresses, it’s important to keep the chronic load low enough to avoid compromising them.
Our masters athletes focus on high-quality, shorter intervals (similar to the protocol described by Coach Friel here). Tatum thrives off of 10 to 20 minutes of hill intervals broken down into 1- to 5-minute bouts separated by equal recovery to allow performance closer to max aerobic capacity. Howard does many flat intervals between 1 and 3 minutes focused on speed, with a bit more recovery between intervals than some athletes in their 20s. Then, they will use races or long runs to add more sustained work (like lactate threshold efforts), focusing the stress on one or two days a week rather than spreading it out. Sometimes, we’ll even have masters athletes do two workouts in one day to concentrate stress.
There is no magic to the specifics of training, whether an athlete is 20 or 80. But get strong, get fast and make a few small tweaks, and you may find out that you can get better no matter your age.
David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.