Speed training for veterans: how to combat the decline of speed and power

Speed development for master athletes

With more and more people joining the masters sports world, John Shepherd takes a look at why we slow down with age

Of all physiological variables, speed is lost the most quickly. However, master sprinters achieve phenomenal performance (see tables 1 and 2 below). So what can be done to match their performances and keep the grim speed reaper well and truly in the rear view mirror?

Why do we slow down with age?

  1. Declining muscle mass
    Muscle is important for creating speed horse-power. The more muscle fibres we possess, the more fleet of foot and powerful we will remain. Everything else being equal, a larger muscle will be a more powerful one. However, we will 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. Weight training is crucial in this respect, as will be indicated in part 2.
  2. Decline in muscle building hormones
    As we age, less of our muscle-building and stimulatory hormones will be buzzing around our bodies. Crucial to speed and power maintenance (and numerous other body functions) are growth hormone and testosterone (although the later is the male growth hormone, women also produce it). With a reduced amount of these ‘androgen’ hormones muscle building capacity will be restricted and with it the potential for speed and power generation.

Muscle declinethe biceps of a new-born baby has around 500,000 muscle fibres, that of an 80-year-old around 300,000

  1. Loss of fast-twitch muscle fibre
    Fast-twitch muscle fibre is crucial for producing speed and power; it declines to a much greater extent than endurance producing slow twitch fibre as we age. Master sprinters are therefore not as blessed as mature endurance athletes in the aging and performance stakes. The latter can expect even to increase the number of their slow-twitch fibres, by as much as 20%, with the right training as they age (they can also hold on to nearly all their aerobic capacity until at least late into their fifth decade). If only it were the same for master sprinters, who can lose up to 30% of their fast-twitch fibres between the ages of 20 and 80 (however, as will be pointed out in part 2, this decline can at least be challenged).
  2. Decline in power creating muscle compounds
    Creatine phosphate is a premium muscular ingredient for speed and power based activities. It provides short-lasting energy for repetitive sprints. With age, its ability to be created and replenished declines. And with less of this quick release energy in muscles, the master sprinter will be less able to tackle high-intensity sprint type workouts.
  3. Declining flexibility
    With age, soft tissue (muscle, ligaments and tendons) hardens and joints stiffen. This can leave speed training efforts in middle and older age literally hamstrung. Possessing the optimum range of movement for sprinting is technically crucial and is equally important for injury prevention.

Sprinting decline: a specific focus on age-related factors

Researchers have found that the most significant brake on master athletes’ sprinting speed is applied by a decline in stride length and an increase in the time the sprinter’s feet contact the running surface. Research from Finland discovered a general decline in sprint performance across the masters age groups. This was particularly marked in the 65-70 year age range. Specifically, the Finns discovered that velocity during the different phases of the100m sprint (acceleration, maintenance and decline in speed to the line) fell away on average by 5 to 6% per decade in males and by 5 to 7% per decade in females. Interestingly stride rate (leg speed) remained largely unaffected until the oldest age groups in both genders.

Further research from America discovered that stride length could actually reduce by as much as 40% when comparing 35 to 39-year-old runners to 90-year-olds (in fact, average stride length reduced from 4.72m for a left and right leg cycle stride (2.36m per step) to 2.84 m per stride (just 1.42 m per step)). This could result in twice as many steps being taken over 100m by the older sprinter. As in the Finnish research, it was found that stride frequency did not decline significantly.

In tables: 1 and 2 you’ll see master age group 100m records. These make for extremely positive reading and show just what can be achieved.

Tables 1 and 2: Masters world age records as at May 2007 Men Outdoor 100m

Men Outdoor 100 m

Age group Mark Name Country
M 35 10.03 Linford Christie GBR
M 40 10.42 Troy Douglas NED
M 45 10.72 Willie Gault USA
M 50 10.95 William Collins USA
M 55 11.44 William Collins USA
M 60 11.7 Ron Taylor GBR
M 65 12.5 Jorma Manninen FIN
M 70 12.77 Bobby Whilden USA
M 75 13.61 Wolfgang Reuter GER
M 80 14.35 Payton Jordan USA
M 85 16.16 Suda Giichi JPN
M 90 17.53 Frederico Fischer BRA
M 95 21.44 Friederich E Mahlo GER
M100 30.86 Philip Rabinowitz RSA

Women Outdoor 100 m

Age group Mark Name Country
W 35 10.74 Merlene Ottey JAM
W 40 11.09 Merlene Ottey SLO
W 45 11.41 Merlene Ottey SLO
W 50 12.5 Phil Raschker USA
W 55 13.3 Phil Raschker USA
W 60 13.89 Brunhilde Hoffmann GER
W 65 14.1 Nadine O'Connor USA
W 70 15.16 Margaret Peters NZL
W 75 15.91 Paula Schneiderhan GER
W 80 18.42 Hanna Gelbrich GER
W 85 21.18 Nora Wedemo SWE
W 90 23.18 Nora Wedemo SWE

Source: World Masters Athletics Association as at 27 May 2008

You can also watch master sprinters and other action from the 2008 European Championships held in Slovenia and hear from some of the champions.

Drills, training methods and advice that will improve your sprinting irrespective of age:

  1. Hill train to improve foot-strike, stride length and running technique

    Two crucial factors affecting speed decline in the older sprinter are reduced stride length and an increase in the time the foot stays in contact with the ground. Hill sprints can off-set these negatives.

    Here’s how: Let’s consider the action of the foot and ankle on foot strike and how this contributes to pushing the sprinter forward at maximum velocity. Running up a slight slope will emphasis a greater toe-up foot position (this is known as dorsiflexion) on foot strike. Indeed, the sprinter can consciously work on holding their toes up when sprinting up the hill (and on the flat). This ‘cocking’ action will trigger a greater propulsive reaction on the part of the calf muscles on push-off into each stride. This can enhance stride length and reduce contact time when the sprinter does workouts on the level. To further explain: many sprinters (particularly of master age) will have been encouraged to run ‘on their toes’. This is actually contrary to contemporary sprint training wisdom, as a high position on foot strike will invariably result in the sprinter’s heel collapsing toward the track, losing vital milliseconds and more importantly propulsive power. With the foot up the ankle cannot collapse and more power will go to where it is needed – toward propelling the athlete forwards down the track.

    Do: 4 x 60m runs at 90% effort concentrating on your foot strike and leg pull-through (see following). Use a hill with a slight gradient. Too steep an incline will negatively affect the dynamics of the sprint action.

Training tip:

Calf muscle and ankle strength and power are crucial for sprinters – irrespective of age – but these areas are often overlooked in training in favour of the quadriceps and glutes (thigh and butt) by coaches and athletes alike.

  1. Maximise sprint technique

    As noted in part 1 of this article, perhaps the major nemesis of the master sprinter is a decline in stride length. This is particularly manifest in the action of the free leg as it leaves the running surface and its foot travels up beneath and behind the body to an in front of the body position in preparation for the next foot strike and stride. An older sprinter’s ‘return/recovery phase’ (as it is technically known) is much less dynamic than that of their younger counterparts and their heel may not get very close to their butt at all during their return/recovery phase.

    To optimise speed transference into the next running stride, the master sprinter’s lower leg needs to ‘fold up’ under their body toward their butt and be pulled through quickly and powerfully as a short lever. This relies on hip flexor strength in particular. Hill sprints can again assume an important function in speeding up the master sprinter’s return/recovery phase. The hill will create the need for an additional leg drive which by reaction can increase the speed of the free leg as it comes up and through to the next stride. Specific sprint drills are also important:

    1. Running emphasising the return phase

      Set-up: cones placed at 40 and 60m on a running track

      How to perform: the sprinter builds up speed to the 40m mark and then sprints at near maximum speed for a further 20m whilst emphasising pulling their heel toward their butt and a dynamic pull-through on each stride

      Do: 4 to 6 runs with a full recovery between efforts
    2. Leg cycling

      Set-up: use a fence or wall for balance

      How to perform: place your hand closest to the wall against it or on a barrier for support. Lift up onto the toes of your inside foot. Keep your chest elevated and look straight ahead. Cycle your leg in a running action under your hips. As with the previous drill concentrate on pulling the heel up high toward your butt, and pulling the leg through dynamically to a position forward of your hips. You then ‘sweep’ it back, down and round to complete the cycle. Speed should gradually be increased as exercise confidence develops.

      Do: 3 x 20 reps with 1 minute’s recovery between sets
  2. Weight training

    Weight training is crucial for the mature sprinter determined to hang onto as much zip as possible, particularly post 50, when the most significant decreases in muscle mass begin. In fact it may well be the most important speed-maintaining variable.

    A very interesting piece of research…

    A very interesting piece of research was performed by a team of researchers from Finland and published this year (2008). The study was extremely relevant as it focused on elite master sprinters aged from 53 to 74.

    Central to the research was the fact that the 12 world class 100-400m runners in the study were not regular weight trainers – most of their training comprised of speed, speed endurance and plyometric (jump) training. The Finns tested numerous measures and discovered for the sprinters who followed a specific 20-week weight training programme:

    • isometric (held) strength (measured by knee extension) improved by 21%
    • concentric (muscle shortening as it contracts) strength (measured by Smith machine half squat) improved by 27%
    • reactive power (measured by quick succession straight legs jumps performed on a force platform) improved by 29%
    • spring (dynamic power) measured by standing triple jump improved by 10% and measured by squat jump (for height) improved by 4%

    Positive changes in muscle composition

    As well as physical performance improvements, positive fibre changes in the sprinters muscles were identified. The Finns found an increase in speed and power producing type IIb fast-twitch muscle fibres after the 20 week programme. Although the distribution of all fast-twitch fibres compared to slow-twitch did not change significantly, the masters still had a fast to slow-twitch fibre ratio that was on a par with sedentary young men. Research indicates that fast-twitch fibre number declines with age – see part 1. This is due to the nerves that activate these fibres dying out and not being replaced.

    Specifically the proportion of type IIb fibres increased from 10.7 to 12.1%, and these fibres also increased in size (a larger muscle, all else being equal, will be produce more power). A muscle biopsy of the thigh muscle was used to determine these changes (a muscle biopsy requires a needle to be pushed into the relevant muscle and a tiny amount of muscle tissue removed for analysis)

    THE REAL PAYOFF - sprint performance (leg speed, stride length and speed) improved……

    The 60m time of the weight training master sprinters improved from a pre-periodised weight training programme average time of 8.69 to 8.52 seconds.

    Stride length (of the main propulsive phase) was increased from 1.79m to 1.85m. There was no improvement in stride rate – commensurate with other research findings.

    What created all these positive speed and power changes in the master sprinters?

    The researchers attributed the startling increased performance of the master sprinters to the 20-week periodised training programme and the use of power combination training methods within it (power combination training combines weights and plyometrics in the same workout – research indicates that such a combination enhances the power output of fast-twitch muscle fibre, which would in turn boost sprint speed).

    What weight training will work to enhance master sprinter speed?

    As indicated power combination training as used in the Finnish research will enhance sprint power. During these sessions about 75% of one rep maximum should be used for the weights exercises as this will supply the necessary trigger to fire up fast-twitch fibres. The weights and plyometric exercises should target the same muscle groups.

    Sample power training workout:

    Squat and jump squat
    Bench press and medicine ball chest pass (as fast as possible) against wall
    Lunge and split jump
    Calf raise and straight leg jump

    Do: 6 reps of each exercise (except medicine ball chest pass – 12 reps). Take 1 minute’s recovery between each exercise pairing and 2 minutes between power combination sets

    Research ref: Acta Physiologica 2008 193 (3), 275-289

Training tip:

Weight training can also be vital for the master sprinter by helping to reduce potential injury by strengthening soft tissue.

  1. Plyometrics

    Plyometric exercises condition the stretch/reflex in muscles and can increase speed and power capability. As indicated stride rate does not decline significantly with age but stride length does, plyometrics, like hill training, offer the older sprinter another significant training option to combat this decline. However, as the Finnish research indicates plyometrics alone may not be sufficient to significantly enhance sprint performance. Master sprinters should be mindful of the toll that heavy plyometric exercises such as bounds and especially hops can have on their body and note that their are numerous less intense – but equally effective – drills that can be used, such as the line bounce.

    Line bounce:

    Stand just behind the start line on a running track. Using a very low trajectory jump just over the line with both feet to the other side. Land on the toes and immediately react and bounce back to the start position. Continue backwards and forwards as fast as possible. This drill can improve ground reaction time and acceleration.

    Do: 4 x 20 jumps with 1 minute’s recovery
  2. Boost growth hormone release

    Exercise stimulates growth hormone (GH) release. GH production declines with age (as noted in part 1), but is crucial for maintaining numerous bodily functions, such as muscle growth, libido and maintaining vitality. By stimulating GH production the master sprinter will be able to hold onto more muscle. The good news is that sprint workouts are among the most effective at promoting such a release due to their intensity. GH release begins almost immediately after exercise is commenced.
  3. Creatine phosphate and creatine supplementation

    Intense speed and power training can lead to a fight back against age-related declines in the quick, high energy release muscle compound creatine phosphate. Research indicates that anaerobic (and aerobic) training increases the production of creatine phosphate. Sprint training’s regular anaerobic (stop/start) workouts will maintain and increase the ability of muscles to replenish this high-energy compound regardless of age.

    But there’s nothing wrong with giving mother nature a legal helping hand. Master sprinters could supplement with creatine. Numerous studies indicate that this naturally occurring substance will increase muscle power and power maintenance over a series of anaerobic repetitions, such as sprints. It does this by fuelling your muscles with more quick-release energy. Although there is little negative research relating to creatine use (it does do what it says on the tub) master sprinters should consult with their doctor before using the supplement as it can have an adverse effect on kidney function.

And finally… train smart

The master sprinter should have a ‘wise head on their shoulders’ and hopefully use it! Their training needs to be intense to reap the pay-off of minimising a decline in sprint speed, but it also needs to account for the fact that older bodies may be less able to sustain daily flat-out, power-orientated work. Rest, proper nutrition and supplementation, as well as a common-sense approach that involves ‘listening to your body’ must be a key feature of the master sprinters’ training routine. Of all the training variables, weight training and specifically power combination training appear to a particularly crucial training element in maintaining and even improving sprint speed.


Speed Training for Master

John Shepherd has written a Peak Performance special report – Speed Training for Masters and it’s available from this website: go to: http://www.pponline.co.uk/books/speed-development-masters

The book provides even more detailed advice and training programmes on how the master athlete (whatever their sport) can hold onto as much speed and power as possible


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