2016-03-21

Runners Lose Ankle Power With Age

How's that for a descriptive headline?

The other day I came across an important article for older runners (i.e. seniors), but its implications for runners who are aging, but not yet seniors, are worth unpacking.

The article, written by one Mackie Shilstone, does an excellent job of citing and summarizing some recent running physiology research on how gait changes with age. Shilstone does such a good job, in fact, that I don't have much to add. However, it's unlikely that many people have seen the article - certainly not likely that as many people who could benefit from reading it have done so - so I wanted to link to it. Read the whole thing.

I'm not a senior, and neither are most of my readers, but even so, we all stand to gain insight from the findings. Shilstone writes:
High-speed video cameras and force plates were used to assess the biomechanics of each the runner, while maintaining their normal pace across "runways." Body mass index and height were also measured and applied to the ground reaction force (GRF) of running. 
The researchers found an, "inverse and linear relations between age and basic running kinematics: as age increased, stride length and running velocity decreased." 
It seems that the culprit may be a weakness in the ankle joint and the resulting altered biomechanics. "Overall, reduced ankle power may be related to the in- creased rate of Achilles (from the bones of your heel to your calf muscles) and plantar flexor (a group of nine muscles in the lower leg that function to extend the ankle) injuries in older versus younger runners."
This caught my eye because one of the points made in the indispensable Better Training for Distance Runners by Martin & Coe is that African runners often out-pace North American runners due to the wider range of motion in their ankle joints. In other words, we North American runners tend to run like old men, even when we're not old men.

That African runners may gain early experience with barefoot running has been a hypothesis offered to explain why they develop this wider range of motion, but I can neither confirm nor deny the validity of this hypothesis.

Shilstone and the study's authors offer the following suggestions for older runners:
The researchers suggested that strength or power training the ankle plantar flexors might be a viable solution for altering the reduction in running biomechanics with age... Adding various forms of heel raises, especially eccentrically – lowering from a step with one forefoot, then pushing up with both feet – will help strengthen the ankle.
This is, of course, an important recommendation for older runners, excellent preventative medicine for aging runners, and valuable training advice for everyone. So, whether you're hoping to run well into older age or simply improve your ability as a runner, heel raises, calf raises, and toe taps are all exercises that we should incorporate into our regular training.