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Ask the Coach: Maintain Speed with Age

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Illustration by Jeremy Duncan

I want to continue distance running as I age, but what can I do to maintain my speed and avoid the shuffle?

—Lee Marvin, Los Angeles, CA

Recent studies suggest that aging muscles have to be kick-started to maintain their ability to react quickly. No, you can’t stay as fast as a younger person, but you don’t have to lose as much as many runners do.

A study published in the June 2009 American College of Sports Medicine journal found the causes of slowing were a decrease in stride length and staying in contact with the ground longer with each step, i.e. the infamous shuffle. The researchers from Finland noted that continuing to train fast helps you stay fast: “The decline in performance in older people is due to a reduction in specific exercise stimulus rather than aging per se.”

They suggested doing intervals, which require high-velocity contractions to recruit fast-twitch muscles, and strength training. Coach suggests trying fartlek intervals on trails by alternating one- or two-minute speedy sections with the same time at an easy trot for a couple of miles, or even more structured repeats of half miles or full miles at a pace that feels “comfortably hard.”