JOURNEY 21: WHEN STIFFNESS ISN'T BAD! Maintaining Running Capacity
When I recently attended La Trobe University’s ‘Running Symposium’ for health professionals, I’ll admit my motivation for leaving my long weekend getaway early to attend on a cold, wet, windy Friday night was more than professional…
Richard Willy, a physical therapist and researcher from University of Montana, presented some interesting findings in his presentation titled “The Master Runner: Maintaining Durability”.
From a biomechanical, performance, and injury prevention perspective, I have always partaken in the commonly held belief that “it’s all about the glutes”, but Richard begs to differ- suggesting that “it’s all about the plantarflexors”. Put simply, these are the calf muscles, which are attached to the Achilles tendon.
Most of the propulsive force in running comes from the calf muscles, and unfortunately, these are the leg muscles to take the biggest hit in age-related reduction in size. With reduction in calf muscle size, the Achilles tendon stretches – becoming less stiff, resulting in around 30% reduced ankle power and propulsive force compared to younger runners, reduced step length, and increased risk of Achilles tendinopathy and calf strains. Also, old Achilles tendons take up to 36 hours to recover stiffness after a run session.
So: age-related reduction in leg stiffness = slower running + more chance of injury.
But, chronic endurance training i.e. long runs, are not enough to counteract age-related reduction in muscle mass and reduced leg stiffness. So what is an aging runner to do?
Evidence-based recommendations were as follows:
Regular heavy leg weight sessions (multiple studies consistently showed that heavy weights resulting in contractions of >70% maximal force were necessary to increase lower leg/Achilles tendon stiffness, while light weights, or only running resulted in no change)
Regular treadmill running
Regular bouts of interval running/track work
Regular hill repeats
Of course, all of these, including strength training need to be periodised, but need to continue all year round to maintain the benefit.
Speaking from personal experience, I’ll give some examples of how these look for me. The weight session I’m currently doing twice a week is:
2 sets x15 deadlifts, 40kg
2 sets x15 squats, 40kg
2 sets x10 lunges, 30kg
2 sets single leg heel raises, holding 12kg kettlebell
2 sets x15 chest press, 10kg dumbells
2 sets x15 arm raises, or reverse flys, 6kg dumbells
As for the running, examples of such sets in my program include:
30 minutes easy or tempo treadmill running, sometimes with builds, with instruction to concentrate on form, usually leaning forward from ankles and hips (with no other distractions, the treadmill is perfect for working on form);
Track sets include anywhere from 200m to 1k efforts with floats in between, usually followed by a tempo run. Total distance covered can be anywhere from 8 to 20+km, depending on phase of training;
Hill repeats can either be long hill repeats, or shorter efforts. One that stands out in my memory is:
10mins warm up run then: 10 x 30sec hill repeats at 90%/walk down and go float
Note: run these like they are run throughs
2 x (3 x 3min climbs at 80% work on drive back please/jog down + 1min float) + 3mins rest
10mins jog down
This was Christmas Eve 2017, I read it as 2x3x3 = 18 x 3 min hill repeats, and once you add in the jog downs, plus floats, it became a 2 ½ hr + session. And it was hot. But it wasn’t until the following week where a similar set was written as 2x (4 x 3min), with all else the same, that I thought this is going to take me AGES…then I twigged. Was meant to have been 6 last week, 8 this week!!!
…Misread sets. Another topic of discussion.
You’re probably doing most of these as part of your training program, but speak to your coach or health professional if you need help with targeting your plantarflexors!
Disclaimer: advice and information provided is not prescriptive, and is not recommended for your personal situation. Should you choose to include any of these examples in your training, please consult a professional coach prior.