In Parts 1-2 of the Faster Master Series, we talked about how our hearts, lungs, and body compositions change as we age, and what can be done to reduce the impacts of these factors on the master’s runner. Now, let's bring those components together. It’s time to explore the ways aging influences HOW we run. The terms “biomechanics” and “running economy” get thrown around a lot in the running world. Let’s unpack what these terms are actually referring to and their significance to the master runner. Then, we will walk through the day to day changes YOU can make now to maximize your master’s running potential.
What is Running Economy?
Running economy is often used to describe how efficiently an athlete is running. However, it is a stand-in for three distinct measurements: metabolic efficiency, cardiopulmonary efficiency, and your ability to convert power output into the actual desired movement.
Metabolic efficiency refers to how well your body is able to utilize energy, thus making it available for exercise.
Cardiopulmonary efficiency coincides with what we touched on in Part 1. It refers to how well your body is able to transport and use oxygen when you exercise. This is often tested with VO2 max treadmill tests that assess how efficiently you are replenishing oxygen stores to your tissue. If you do this well, you are able to sustain maximal effort aerobic exercise for longer.
The third factor is how well you are able to translate the energy and oxygen available into forward movement (running fast). In other words, it's describing how well your muscles, tendons, and joints propel you forward. This last component is often referred to as “running mechanics”.
Why Does it Matter?
Now that we have an idea of WHAT these terms are talking about, why does it matter? Well, “running economy” (how efficiently your body uses energy, transports molecules to and from your muscles, and translates that into efficient forward movement) is an excellent predictor of running performance. Aging alone does not doom you to a poorer running economy. As we’ve discussed, training can have a protective effect against cardiopulmonary and muscle composition changes. However, some startling trends towards less efficient running mechanics are widespread amongst masters athletes.
Stride Changes Adapted by Master’s Athletes
As we age, if left unchecked and untrained, the way we run changes. First and foremost, let's talk about running cadence. Cadence is a popular buzzword amongst runners. Cadence refers to how many steps a runner takes in a set time interval. It is usu
ally measured in steps per minute. Our watches spit out a value for this (although our watch’s reliability is questionable at times). Some sources claim there is an ideal step rate that we all should be striving for. The reality is, that cadence varies by person and based on the speed at which you are running. Cadence is not a one size fits all value. The ideal step rate varies between individuals. Contrary to what you might intuitively think, master’s runners tend to adopt higher cadences. Amongst this population, taking more steps per minute is not the key to better running form. Here’s why:
More Steps Does Not Equate Efficient Running Gait
This increased step rate is typically an adaptation to reduced stride length. In fact, research analyzing the gait of athletes across the age spectrum found a 13 percent decrease in step length between 20 and 60 years old. This trend is even more pronounced, expanding to a 20 percent reduction in step length by age 80! Essentially, masters athletes are forced to take more steps, because their ability to generate sufficient power to propel themselves through the air with each step is reduced. Imagine you are in a paper bag bunny hop race. If your legs are not strong enough to take big leaps forward, your only chance of keeping pace with your stronger competitors is to take a series of quick small hops in succession. It is clear to see how this strategy would be more fatiguing over a long distance, as is the case with taking many small successive strides when running.
So, WHY is this happening? In short, masters athletes as a group are able to generate less power. Their ability to generate force and push themselves forward is reduced as a result of muscle and strength changes. As discussed in part 2, changes in the calf muscles in particular tend to be marked in masters athletes. This is of significance as calf muscles contribute heavily to the forward “push”necessary to produce a powerful stride. In fact, ankle power during running (generated by the calf) can decrease up to 47.9% between ages 20 to 80!
The other big contributor to a shortened stride and quicker step rate amongst masters is related to a decline in hip and ankle flexibility. An efficient stride requires the thigh bone to come back behind your center of gravity, creating a stretch through the hip muscle that then rebounds you forward. As we age, there is a trend towards having less flexibility in the front of your hip, limiting your ability to reach backwards in your stride to optimize your power potential. Similarly, general ankle stiffness limits your ability to take full advantage of this elastic, energy releasing stretch and contract mechanism in your calf muscles and achilles tendon.
These strength and flexibility deficits correlated with age cause the masters athlete to take shorter, less powerful steps. These changes translate to a reduction in the running economy, and an increased risk for injury. Also, a less efficient running economy means we can’t run as fast or far without tiring. As discussed previously, these changes are common, but by no means inevitable. In fact, research studies implementing different techniques for changing and improving running form have yielded success. It is possible to improve the way you run. Join us in taking some small steps now to combat these changes.
What You CAN Do:
Strength. We harp on this a lot, and for good reason. Stronger muscles means more power to propel yourself forward. This helps you run more quickly and efficiently, spending less time on the ground. Building in strength exercise can be as simple as joining a Runners Foundation Class or performing weighted calf, knee and hip exercises. In essence this will keep your stride strong rather than turning into more of a shuffle.
Running Drills. Running drills help prime your neuromuscular system for efficient movement. In addition to getting you warmed up for your run, they help you keep your form clean. They also have the added benefit of enabling you to practice efficient tendon loading. With drills,, you are practicing stretching and shortening the tendons in your legs in an efficient manner.
Short Hill Repeats. Faster paced repeats up a moderate grade hill can be a great way to add stimulus for building and maintaining calf strength. Hill repeats are also a great opportunity to focus on your form. However, if you are someone prone to calf or achilles strains, this strategy should be approached with caution. This is something to be introduced gradually, after sufficient baseline calf strength and ankle mobility have been established and a proper warm up has been performed.
Strides. (aka Accelerations) Strides are such an important aspect of training for runners that they warrant their own separate blog post. Essentially, doing flat accelerations, once you are properly warmed up, is a great way to fine tune aspects of your form and to work on your stride. Strides are important for all athletes and are an easy component to incorporate into your running routine without adding on much extra time.
Maintain and Improve Flexibility This is an important component that we have not touched upon as much previously. If your hips, ankles, back, ect are not moving through their full range of motion, this is going to hamper your running form. It will prevent you from taking full advantage of your muscle and tendon’s capabilities. This in turn changes your running mechanics, making you less efficient and more at risk for injury. Thus, it is important not to skip out on mobility exercises to get your tight muscle or stiff joint moving efficiently.
It is important to recognize that you don’t know what you don’t know. Determining the areas in need of improvement that impact your running form can be hard to self identify. If you are in need of more guidance we are here to help. A detailed and individualized physical therapy assessment can help you to determine what aspects of your running have potential for improvement. Although age related changes to running gait are common, they are not unavoidable. Making a few adjustments to your usual exercise routine can change your running for the better.
Barnes KR, Kilding AE. Running economy: measurement, norms, and determining factors. Sports Med Open. 2015 Dec;1(1):8. doi: 10.1186/s40798-015-0007-y. Epub 2015 Mar 27. PMID: 27747844; PMCID: PMC4555089.
Borgia B, Dufek JS, Silvernail JF, Radzak KN. The effect of fatigue on running mechanics in older and younger runners. Gait Posture. 2022 Sep;97:86-93. doi: 10.1016/j.gaitpost.2022.07.249. Epub 2022 Jul 25. PMID: 35914388.
Brisswalter J, Nosaka K. Neuromuscular factors associated with decline in long-distance running performance in master athletes. Sports Med. 2013 Jan;43(1):51-63. doi: 10.1007/s40279-012-0006-9. PMID: 23315756.
Fukuchi RK, Stefanyshyn DJ, Stirling L, Duarte M, Ferber R. Flexibility, muscle strength and running biomechanical adaptations in older runners. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2014 Mar;29(3):304-10. doi: 10.1016/j.clinbiomech.2013.12.007. Epub 2013 Dec 14. PMID: 24380685.
Dallam GM, Wilber RL, Jadelis K, Fletcher G, Romanov N. Effect of a global alteration of running technique on kinematics and economy. J Sports Sci. 2005 Jul;23(7):757-64. doi: 10.1080/02640410400022003. PMID: 16195026.
Majaj RM, Powell DW, Weiss LW, Paquette MR. Ankle kinetics and plantarflexor morphology in older runners with different lifetime running exposures. Hum Mov Sci. 2020 Aug;72:102660. doi: 10.1016/j.humov.2020.102660. Epub 2020 Jul 16. PMID: 32721378.
Pfitzinger P, Douglas S. Chapter 5 The Older (and Wiser) Marathoner. In: Advanced Marathoning. Third ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2020.
Willy RW, Paquette MR. The Physiology and Biomechanics of the Master Runner. Sports Med Arthrosc Rev. 2019 Mar;27(1):15-21. doi: 10.1097/JSA.0000000000000212. PMID: 30601395.