Speed and age – The bad news is that speed declines with age; the good news is that you can arrest, even reverse, this degenerative process
Of all the physiological variables, speed seems to get written off most quickly as we age. Football pundits make jokes about outfield players being ‘a few yards slower’ and goalkeepers diving in ‘instalments’ as soon as the former hit 30 and the latter become David Seaman. But England’s Rugby World Cup winning pack averaged well over 30 and, despite being called ‘Dad’s Army’, still fathered a victory; the likes of Neil Back and Martin Johnson were certainly very speedy around the field. In track, Carl Lewis, Frankie Fredericks, Linford Christie and Merlene Ottey are- or were- still winning titles well into their thirties and, in the case of Ottey, beyond. But can veteran athletes still put in speedy sprinting performances in their forties, fifties, sixties- and beyond?
First, let’s take a look at why we slow with age. One significant factor is a decline in muscle mass and muscle fibre (sarcopenia). We will all experience a 10% decline in muscle mass between the ages of 25 and 50 and a further 45% shrinkage by our eighth decade- if we do nothing about it. To illustrate this decline by example, the biceps muscle of a newborn baby has around 500,000 fibres while that of an 80-year-old has a mere 300,000. As we age, we also produce less growth hormone, which leads to reduced levels of protein synthesis and, again, muscle atrophy. This is not the kind of acceleration needed by the veteran athlete in search of speed, as decreased muscle equates to reduced strength and power and less ‘oomph’ for sprinting.
Unfortunately, the bad news keeps on coming! Fast-twitch muscle fibre, that most precious of commodities for speed and power, displays a much more marked decline than slow-twitch fibre as we age. Speedsters, it appears, are not as blessed as endurance athletes in the ageing-and-performance stakes. The latter can expect to maintain their slow twitch fibres and even increase them- by as much as 20% with the right training- as they ripen. They can also hold on to nearly all their aerobic capacity until late into their fifth decade at least. If only it were so for their sprinting counterparts, whose fast-twitch fibre can decline by as much as 30% between the ages of 20 and 80.
To add another blow, creatine phosphate, that premium ingredient for short-term activity, also declines with age. With less quick-release energy in our muscles, we’re theoretically less able to tackle high intensity sprint-type workouts.
Flexibility, another important physiological variable for sprinting, also declines with age as our soft tissue hardens and our joints stiffen.
What are the known effects on performance of these various reductions in capacity? It gets worse! Numerous studies have indicated that stride length declines considerably with age. Korhonen analysed the performances of 70 finalists (males 40-88, females 35-87) in the 100m event at the European Veterans Athletics Championships in Jyväskylä, Finland in 2000, using high-speed cameras with a panning video technique to measure velocity, stride length, stride rate, ground contact time and flight time(1). Unsurprisingly, his research team discovered a general decline in sprint performance with age, which was particularly marked for those aged 65-70. Velocity during the different phases of the run declined, on average, between 5 and 6% per decade in men and 5-7% in women. Key to this decline was an accelerating reduction in stride length and an increase in contact time, with stride rate remaining largely unaffected until the oldest age groups in both genders.
Table 1: Masters world age records
Age group Time (secs) Athlete Age when record set Country
40 10.84 Erik Oostweegel 40 NED
45 10.96 Neville Hodge 45 US
50 10.95 William Collins 50 US
55 11.57 Ron Taylor 57 GB
60 11.70 Ron Taylor 61 GB
65 12.62 Malcom Pirie 65 AUS
70 12.91 Patton Jordan 74 US
75 13.40 Patton Jordan 75 US
80 14.35 Patton Jordan 80 US
85 16.16 Suda Giichi 85 JPN
90 18.08 Kozo Haraguchi 90 JPN
95 24.01 Erwin Jaskulski 96 AUT
100 43.00 Everett Hosak 100 US
Source: World Masters Athletics Association as at 24/09/02
Hamilton compared 35-39-year-old runners with 90-year-olds and found that stride length declined by as much as 40%, from 4.72 metres per stride (2.36m per step) to 2.84m per stride (just 1.42m per step). The implication is that the oldest veteran sprinters may need to take almost twice as many steps in the 100m as their younger counterparts. More positively, though, this research group also found that stride frequency did not decline significantly with age (2).
If you take a look at table 1, you’ll find some much better news. Take note of the phenomenal times recorded by master 100m sprinters; these indicate that it is possible to maintain a significant amount of speed with age. So now let’s take a look at what we have to do to achieve that goal.
Hill training for stride length
As we’ve seen, two crucial factors affecting speed decline in the older sprinter are a reduction in stride length and an increase in ground contact time. Hill sprinting can reverse these negatives; the gradient will emphasis dorsiflexion (a greater toe-up foot position) on foot strike, which will, in turn, generate more work for the calf muscles on push off, enhancing stride length and reducing contact time on the level. Lower limb and ankle strength and power are crucial for sprinters of all ages, although they can be overlooked by coaches and athletes in favour of conditioning the quadriceps and glutes.