Why do older sprinters get slower?

The IntroductionSprinters - masters

The purpose of this review was to identify the major factors leading to declines in sprint (run) speed in track athletes. The German-based research describes the factors that affect age-associated changes, including reduction of training overload, reduction of maximum force, and change in body composition (mainly a decrease in muscle mass due primarily to a reduction in fast twitch muscle fibre size) associated with aging. The three major factors the research suggests are responsible for a decrease in sprint speed in older track athletes are: the lower maximum strength of the lower limb muscles, the slower rate of force development and force transmission to the ground, and reduction in the elastic energy storage and recovery in tendons.

The Research

The researchers reviewed 34 papers that have examined the effects of aging on the speed of muscle contractions and tendon elasticity in both rats and humans including non-athletes, endurance and sprint runners.

The Results

They concluded that aging sprint runners preserve their stride frequency but appear to reduce their stride length as they age. Moreover, this reduced stride length appears due to reduced propulsive ground reaction forces and the rate of development of this force. That is, the ability to push off the ground quickly is reduced. This reduction appears mainly due to three major factors:

  1. Lower maximal strength of the lower limb muscles (about 30% from young to old) due to reduced size of the fast twitch muscle fibres;
  2. The slower rate of force development and transmission of this force to the ground; and,
  3. Reductions (about 35% from young to old) in elastic energy storage and energy recovery in tendons due to reduced tendon stiffness in older athletes.

The So What?

The news isn’t good is it? However, while declines in all these factors appear inevitable in older sprinters, we can reduce the rate of decline in a number of ways. First, ensure hypertrophy (muscle enlargement) resistance training becomes part of a sprinters training regime, especially in the off and pre-season. This will help build or at least maintain muscle mass. Specific details (exercises, sets, reps, loads etc) on how this is done are found in chapter 7 of my book The Masters Athlete. Second, power training including pliometrics (bounds, hops, and jumps) and gym work (e.g. jump squats) is included in all training programs. This type of training develops the rate of force development and elastic energy stored in tendons and the tissue surrounding muscle fibres. Specific details on pliometrics (examples, principles, suggested repetitions) are found in chapter 8 of my book The Masters Athlete. Finally, flexibility training is crucial for all masters athletes, especially sprinters whose stride length decreases with age. Again, chapter 9 of my book The Masters Athlete discusses in detail the principles and how to’s of flexibility training.

Arampatzis, A., Degens, H., Baltzopoulos, V. and Rittweger, J. (2011). Why Do Older Sprinters Reach the Finish Line Later? Exercise & Sport Sciences Reviews. 39(1): 18 – 22.

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