Think back to a school athletics carnival and breaking into a top-speed sprint was second-nature. Whether it was a kick required to finish the race in a winning position or simply the kind of sprint that saw you ham it up for the crowd before passing out at the finish line, getting the legs turning over with that kind of pace was a no-brainer. There may have been the familiar stiff-legged stagger at the end of the race, but give it a minute or two and the sensation practically wore off, leaving us feeling new again as we took to sprinting towards the vending machine.
The same can’t be said for sprinting in your late 20s. Suddenly the joints feel stiff, the legs don’t turn over as quickly as they used to, and even pumping the arms to keep up with the lower limbs seems a huge effort. It might be the case that more people move into endurance events as they age, but still sprinting is a requirement. Even outside of the realm of running, sprinting serves us well in every day life, too. We need to sprint for that train, after a dog, and in a competitive game of touch footy during Christmas.
But as Alex Hutchinson details in Outside, “The problem is that sprint speed starts declining after your 20s, and most endurance athletes have no clue how to preserve it.” Hutchinson then cites a recent paper in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity which asked the question of why sprinters get slower as they age and how we can train to basically slow the decline?
According to the study, older sprinters take shorter steps, with their feet spending longer time in contact with the ground. This seems to suggest that they’re less able to generate explosive force with each step, perhaps a result of less fast-twitch muscles than younger sprinters. Other studies build on this, noting that you lose strength more rapidly than you lose muscle. As the authors note, “motor control becomes more coarse-grained, movement smoothness diminishes, motor precision and efficiency decline, and energy costs and injury risks increase.”
It might sound bleak, but there could be ways to train against the decline of speed as you age. It starts with getting stronger. The study authors suggest doing resistance training that includes workouts that aim to build size, workouts aimed to build strength, and workouts designed to build power. Other elements that can improve muscle quality include exercises that challenge balance, stability, and reflexes, such as single-leg balance drills.
It also goes without saying that you don’t recover as quickly as you age, so the goal is to stay healthy to avoid feeling less recovered. To mitigate the risk of injury, reintroduce sprinting gently and gradually, perhaps with post-run strides once a week. Then you can move onto eccentric loading exercises for the hamstring and calf strengthening exercises, with the goal to then maintain high-speed running as a regular fixture in your training.
Finally, ensure you’re getting enough fuel for your workouts. As these kinds of training stimulate a surge of muscle-building, it’s important to be getting enough protein. As Hutchinson notes, “A typical recommendation for athletes in their 40s and beyond is to aim for about 0.4 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight with each meal and after workouts. That works out to 25 to 30 grams of protein for a 150-pound adult: a tuna sandwich with a glass of milk and handful of nuts, for example.”
So, there you have it. It might take a bit more than a single tuna sandwich and glass of milk, but perhaps our top speed can be retained with these handy tips.