What are the major determinants of maximum running speed in masters athletes?

The Introduction

Sprint running speed decreases with age. Most research examining this decrease in speed has focused on stride length and stride frequency and found age-related decreases in both of these factors. However, what about factors that may contribute to these declines such as ground reaction forces and nerve and muscle factors? What affect do these have on the age-related decrease in sprint running speed?

The Research

sprintersA group of Finnish sport scientists, one a colleague of mine (Dr Marko Korhonen), investigated the age-related decline in sprint running ability through comparing biomechanical (Ground reaction force, ground contact time, swing time, and stride cycle parameters – length and frequency) and skeletal muscle characteristics (muscle size, muscle fibre size, muscle strength, muscle power) in 77 competitive male sprinters aged 17-82 yr across age groups.  They also looked at the relationship between all these parameters to see what the major determinants of sprint running speed were.

The Results

The main findings were:  1) the progressive age-related decline in maximum running speed was mainly related to a reduction in stride length and an increase in ground contact time, whereas stride frequency showed a minor decline and swing time remained unaffected by age; 2) the average braking and push-off resultant ground reaction forces  declined with age and were associated with streide length, ground contact time and running speed; 3) there was an age-related decline in muscle thickness, the speed and power-producing Type II fibre area and maximal and rapid force-generating capacity of the lower limb muscles; and 4) muscle thickness of the thigh and calves was a significant predictor of braking forces.

The So What?

Age-related slowing of maximum running speed was mainly determined by a decline in stride length and an increase in contact time along with a lower ground reaction forces. The sprint-trained athletes showed an age-related decrease in muscle size and reduced force capacity that contributed to the slowing of sprint running speed with age. The results strongly suggest the need for both hypertrophy (muscle enlargement) and power training (in the gym and pliometrics on the track or in the gym), both of which are discussed in detail with excellent resources suggested in the book “The Masters Athlete” by Dr Peter Reaburn.

Korhonen, M., Mero, A., Markku, A., Sipila, S., Hakkinen, K., Liikavainio, T., Viitasalo, J., Haverinen, M., Suominen, H. (2009). Biomechanical and Skeletal Muscle Determinants of Maximum Running Speed with Aging. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 41(4): 844-856.