Aging runners always seem to say "I don't have the speed I used to have, but I can still run forever. I should move up in distance." For every Carlos Lopes for whom this works, there's a million who fail miserably. There is an inevitable decline with age, but it's not as great as one would expect; neurons fire more slowly, which is why maximal heart rate drops and reflexes slow, but this accounts for a 10% decrease from age 20 to age 50, whereas most people experience a much sharper decline. What causes this and can it be changed?
If you look at successful masters runners, there's some trends to note. The early records are set by people who take up the sport late. They get slowly supplanted by those who started early and then took a break of twenty years or more (while keeping in shape some other way). Finally, those who were specialists at one distance, were extremely talented and trained lightly, chip away at the records.
An example of this was the race for the first 4 minute mile by a man over 40. In 1991, Wilson Waigwa was the leading candidate, as he'd run a PR of 4:06 at age 36; he'd been a star at 5K in college and was chasing, I think, Bill Stewart's 4:11 over-40 mile - Stewart raced a lot on the roads for decades when he set the record. Waigwa didn't break 4, but it was expected the record would fall quickly, as John Walker and Steve Scott, both who had run more than 100 sub-4s (Scott as late as age 37 - I think), were turning 40. Walker had spent his career injured and couldn't put together enough uninjured days to be competitive. Scott had overtrained and over-raced for decades and didn't have anything left. The other greats of the time were out: Coe wasn't interested, Ovett's career was ended by overuse injuries, Cram was like Walker in always being hurt. The barrier finally fell three years after Waigwa, when Eamonn Coghlan did it; Coghlan had just turned 40, had the fastest PR, had raced the least and trained the lightest.
I went to a masters track race last summer and saw one of my old nemeses. His running form had fallen apart since the last time I'd seen him; he'd had a major injury two years earlier and never totally recovered. I thought, "I could take him now!" and then recalled that I couldn't run a mile at any pace just then.
The wear and tear of training causes its own slowing. As one gains experience, one gets more efficient, but this also tends to mean making smaller motions, which cause the body to tighten so that it can't make the larger motions needed for top speeds. Working muscles causes small tears, which when healing can cause growth, but also get cross-linked to decrease the risk of further injury and this shortens and tightens the musculature, which leads to decreased performance.
When I was 24, I was clocked by radar running 26 miles per hour. To get an idea of how fast that is, Usain Bolt's world record 100m was at 23 mph - but he maintained it for 20 times as long and not with a flying start (and I was going downhill). In 2007, I thought I could probably run 19-21 mph, but only hit 17, though it felt faster. It felt as if I had chains attached at various places, holding me down. I tried to train to run more explosively, but kept getting hurt and by 2010, I was down to 15 mph (no four minute mile for me, unless I could maintain that pace for minutes).
The question is: can that be reversed? Could flexibility, mobility, strength, plyometric and other training bring back the old speed? Or does such training just accelerate the slowing due to training insult? Unfortunately for me, my Achilles tendons have calcified to the point that I'll never have the necessary elasticity - a genetic problem most don't need to worry about.
I think there's good news.I've undone a bunch of problems and I think what I've learned can help others avoid the pitfalls. And with that tease, this post has become long enough.
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