Senior runners can easily improve muscle tone by any number of simple excercises involving resistance, which can be divided into two categories: strength and plyometrics.
In essence, strength training is making simple excercises harder by adding weight or resistance in some way. The muscles have to work harder to resist the weight, so over a few weeks of consistent effort, they develop more strength. This can be achieved either naturally or by machines.
Good, simple examples of strength work are:
- Hill repetitions
- Circuit classes with classic push ups, sit ups, lunges, star jumps and squats
- Gym workout with advice from instructors on best practice and specific machines to use
Plyometrics incorporates resistance and elasticity with some element of flexibility. Some excellent examples are:
Remember the two golden rules of strength training:
Increase load CAREFULLY
Increase load GRADUALLY
In the beginning, as with running, don’t do too much too soon. The easy days in between sessions are really important to allow the body to rest, recover and get stronger.
There are many benefits to maintaining flexibility and strength after 60, or even 50 years of age. It will improve our overall physical performance, improve posture, decrease the risk of injuries and continue to give us all that essential enjoyment from our running as we get older.
- If you are a regular runner you will be familiar with the reality that distance running shortens tendons and ligaments, resulting in stiffer feeling muscles, especially after longer runs.
- Loss of flexibility with age happens naturally anyway, so if you intend to run regular distances as you get older, your body gets a “double whammy”.
- This whole process, whether self-inflicted by many running miles, or with age catching up with us, slowly decreases our range of motion, making us less flexible.
- Muscle tone also decreases with the years with the resultant feeling for example that the local hill on one of your regular runs just seems that little bit harder now. Unless you are prepared to take a little time to address this, it results in lower knee-lift, less hip flexibility, and so on, and we end up running even more slowly.
- However, all is not lost, for with a little work you can regain flexibility after 50 or 60 and build muscle strength too.
- Simple steps, and a few minutes a week, can and will improve and even reverse the process temporarily.
How can we keep our muscles flexible over 60?
We lose flexibility with age, due to changes in tissue connectivity. This results in less elasticity, putting more strain on our bodies, especially our lower limbs if we are running regularly.
As mentioned before, but well worth mentioning again so you grasp the key point: this results in lower knee-lift and shorter stride-length coupled with reduced hip movement: all key biomechanical elements in how to run better.
The simplest way to keep muscles flexible at any age is by warming up well or taking the first 10 minutes of any run very easy, coupled with some pre-run dynamic stretches (see below).
Post-run, or for the last 10 minutes of your run, just dial back the pace to finish with an easier few minutes of running. Soon after finishing incorporate some static stretching on the key muscle groups used in running (see below).
There are several different ways to stretch, and while most coaches agree stretching is beneficial for anyone (especially as you age), opinions differ on the relevance of when to stretch and which stretching routines are best: dynamic or static.
Time is a precious commodity for us all. If you are the type of person who usually pays lip service to stretching and strength, try and schedule a day where you haven’t planned a run to undertake a good 30-45 minute session.
Dynamic stretching means natural stretches involving movement. Research suggests it is useful to do these before running, after a short speed walk or jog warm-up. Examples of dynamic stretches:
- Arm and shoulder rotations or shoulder ‘shake-outs’. Any number of ways of rotating or circling your arms and shaking out your shoulders so the muscles are more relaxed.
- Slightly exaggerated skipping routines with the knees raised a little higher. Just a few metres skipping along to start, then slowly exaggerating the knee lift.
- One-legged kicks where one leg is on the ground while the other leg swings back and forth with a gradual extended range of movement, both forward and backward.
Static stretching, as the name suggests, involves less movement. It is usually focused on a particular muscle or group of muscles, holding for between 15-30 seconds and repeating a few times. See below for examples.
Most coaches agree these are more beneficial after running. However, in general, they can also be performed moderately before a run. Some studies show overstretching muscles before exercise can be counter-productive to good performance.
Best stretches for older runners
Achilles and Calf Stretches
The calves are the key muscle at the back of your lower leg, linked to the foot by the Achilles tendon behind your ankle.
Stand with your feet half on / half off a step or kerbstone and slowly raise and lower the ankles. Hold the position at the lower point and you should feel your calves and Achilles slowly stretching.
Another classic calf stretch is to lean against a wall or post with arms at shoulder height. Slightly bend one knee while keeping the other leg straight. Bend your arms and lean towards the wall so as to stretch out the calf muscle in the straightened leg. Hold for 20 seconds and then do the same with the with other leg. Repeat 2-3 times on each leg.
Your hamstrings are the big muscles at the rear of your upper leg, between your knee and your backside.
Stand upright and cross one foot over the other. Slowly bend forward to stretch the hamstring without straining your back too much. It is fine to hold on to a door, wall or table to assist balance if necessary. Repeat with feet crossed the other way for your other hamstring.
Your quads are the big muscles on the front of your upper leg between the hips and knees.
Stand upright and bend one knee to enable you to grasp your foot. Pull the foot up towards your backside as far as comfortable, while trying to keep the quad muscle in line with your standing leg. You should feel the quadriceps (on the front of the thigh) pulling slightly. Repeat standing on your other leg for the opposite quad muscle.
Your glute muscles are the collective group of muscles around your backside and they are really important to look after if you’re a runner.
Kneel down on a mat or a carpet. Slowly lean forward and prostrate yourself so your hands are flat on the floor and you are bent double. Slowly push your hands forward and you should feel the muscles in your backside stretching out. (This is good for the lower back too.)
Remember the two golden rules for stretching:
STRETCH but don’t STRAIN
EASE into each stretch SLOWLY
Feeling slightly uncomfortable is fine as you coax tight muscles to stretch, but it shouldn’t feel painful at all. If in doubt on any exercise, err on the side of caution and seek help from a gym instructor or an experienced runner / sports enthusiast.
Is strength training good for older runners, or is it too late?
Absolutely! It's never too late.
Should seniors lift heavy weights?
As always, any training has to be relevant to your aims (and of course, capacity). Most people reading this whose goal is to be able to run comfortably say 3-4 times a week will get little or no benefit from heavy weights. Most of us are not trying to build body mass to get huge strength gains as a sprinter or rugby player would. We are trying to maintain muscle tone to enable longevity and hopefully maintain – if not increase – our speed. Lighter weights with more repetitions is a more sensible option to maintain muscle tone. If you have a coach or trainer or can talk to a PT or someone at your local gym, they can advise for your own personal aims.
What exercises should seniors avoid?
Unless you are used to a particular exercise, avoid any suddenly explosive strength training or anything drastically overstretched and different to your normal routine. Seniors can and do accomplish many things, but if you have an underlying mechanical or health issue, respect for the aging process is needed.