The Inside Game

Tom Derderian, coach of the Greater Boston Track Club and fellow 60+ runner with a 2:19 marathon PR, summed it up pretty well when he said after a USATF-New England Grand Prix race last year, “I know what to do, I just can’t do it” Granted, Tom’s standards are high. However reconciling memories of past times with current reality proves a challenge as we age.

When Father (or Mother) Time starts visiting varies significantly among runners. Debilitating injuries interfere with our mechanics. Maladies such as knee arthritis or worn cartilage make sustained training problematic. And the longer we have run, the more likely overall wear and tear. There are as many training plans and life circumstances as there are runners. But the questions remain: Why do we slow down? And what can we do to delay the onset?

To answer the first question, it’s critical to probe what is really going on in our bodies as we age. First, muscle strength is critical to performance. And assuming no change in training regimen other than aging, a study of active men aged 15 to 83 by Taylor Lexell showed both a change from Type II (fast twitch) to Type I muscle fibers and an overall decrease in the number of motor fibers as we age. In automotive terms, we scale down from 8-cylinders to six, or even four with each piston a bit smaller. No wonder climbing hills becomes more of a challenge! With fewer muscle fibers available to recruit, it’s akin to trying to field a competitive 50s or 60s team as the cohort shrinks!

There are also biomechanical changes in our aging muscles. The fundamental unit of muscle is called a sarcomere, within which reside two protein filaments, actin and myosin. Without getting too technical, when our muscles contract, actin and myosin slide across each other. This is called the “sliding-filament theory.” To this end, landmark research being done by Mark Miller, professor of Kinesiology at UMass Amherst, is looking at how age affects myosin actin cross-bridge kinetics. Dr. Miller describes the four levels of muscular function: whole body, whole muscle, single muscle fiber, and molecular. We certainly know about the first two – we run forward and use our leg muscles (e.g., hamstrings and quads) to do this. But the real action is inside, first with long, cylindrical bundled sarcomere cells and finally with the myosin and actin. It’s here where Miller is finding things work less well as we age. The actin and myosin slide, but not like they used to. Things get a bit sticky. So when Tom sees the finish line but his kick isn’t there, his actin-myosin bridge may not be cooperating. Not exactly what any of us want to be thinking about at that stage of a race!

To be honest, all of this is rather depressing! What do we have to look forward to?

If we’re going to keep running, we do have to come to grips with this. But it’s not necessary to accept the dramatic decline the age-grade tables suggest. Let’s recall those tables are based on actual performances. So if we can develop strategies that are above average, we may find ourselves moving up in age-grade %. What might those strategies be? I have found five:

1. Modify training that allows for continued hard efforts. The athlete used to running 50-60 miles a week and 6-7 days, may need to scale back to 35-40 miles over 4-5 days with two or three of those days quality, including speed or a race, long runs, and hills.

2. Work out aerobically every day if possible. It’s the “Use-It-Or-Lose-It” principle playing out. That means finding other cross-training outlets. Deep water running is great, as is StairMaster, cycling, and the various elliptical options.

3. Stay limber. A previous blog post gets into specifics about range of motion. The hard truth is we become less tensile as we age, and it’s critical to offset that with stretching, foam rolling, yoga, and jumping & skipping drills. In particular, please see my post on eccentric heel dips.

4. Hit the weights! There’s nothing like an all around weight program to slow muscle loss. And for those who have not partaken, to build it! Our vulnerable running parts — hips, legs, knees, and feet — are protected by strong quads, hamstrings, calves, and upper and lower back muscles.

5. Stay in awe and enjoy the ride! The human body is a truly amazing instrument and sticking with a training program in spite of declines in performance is a powerful statement to ourselves and others – we’re still vital and have things to do!

Perhaps you’ve seen the Pixar movie, “Inside Out, ” which depicts how our experiences and memories affect emotions. Similarly, we have muscle memory that gives us the confidence to enter a race and push ourselves. In the long run, if the effort is the same, that supersedes the results. We’re out there – attacking, not dreading, the hills and doing our best!

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.