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Training Articles

Training for Senior Athletes

By Don McLean

(One person’s view)

Our running speed is determined by two factors - leg speed and stride length.

Sports scientists tell us that leg speed is a matter of genetics – the type of muscle fibre we have at birth.

The scientists tell us that leg speed can only be increased by a maximum of 10% with training.

We are also told that stride length can be increased by up to 40% with training.

A later study of older athletes found that leg speed did not alter very much with age. Our lower running speed is caused by a shortening of stride length.

It can be seen in both studies that the big variable is stride length.

Training can be broken down into several components.

  • Leg speed
  • Leg speed endurance
  • Stride endurance
  • Stride length endurance

Training needs to address each of these components. Currently most programs concentrate on leg speed, leg speed endurance and stride endurance omitting the last two components. These last two are the components most affected by aging. Sprinters concentrate on leg speed and leg speed endurance. Distance runners concentrate on stride endurance. Any gains made are through endurance rather than the two components of running speed which are leg speed and stride length and it is only stride length which is variable to any degree.

The Fallacy of Leg Speed:

Our brain only registers leg speed when we run. It cannot factor in stride length and is unaware of any but the most dramatic of changes in stride length. The brain gives us a false impression of our speed based on our leg speed. We feel that the faster we can move our legs then the faster we must be running.

This is not so. Taken to an extreme the fastest leg movement we can achieve is when we are running on the spot – and getting nowhere. Much of our leg speed is achieved at the cost of stride length and is counterproductive. Everyone will have an optimum mix of leg speed and stride length but our mind and our training only concentrates on leg speed and leg speed endurance. For distance runners the focus is on stride endurance.

By observation, the optimum mix of leg speed and stride length is obtained when running 200m. This occurs from about 40m through to 100m for most athletes. Stride length then starts to diminish for two reasons. One is the lack of specific stride length endurance training. The other is a shortening of stride when we try to increase leg speed beyond the optimum. In the last 50m leg speed also tends to diminish.

For athletes regularly running 200m an adjustment to the training program will improve stride length endurance. In all cases, if we recognise that leg speed alone is not the answer, then concentrating on holding stride length when we race will pay dividends in our times.

For athletes only running distance greater caution is needed when increasing stride length and leg speed.

A Caution for All Athletes:

Never suddenly change programs. Feed in any new component very gradually having at least three sessions at each level as the workload is increased. Think long term. It is a program for the rest of your running life. Even if stride length and stride length training do not appear to benefit you it will at least stop the deterioration due to the ageing process.

Training for Stride Length and Stride Length Endurance.

For those who already run 200m; take a note of your best stride length. Concentrate on training for endurance of that stride length by maintaining it for as long as is comfortable. To do this drop the speed aspect to as slow as is possible while still holding the stride length. There will be an optimum mix once again. At a slower speed the stride can be maintained for a longer distance. It is the effort of maintaining the stride which should impact rather than the effort of maintaining leg speed or a feeling of running out of breath. In other words it is done within your aerobic capacity. The tiredness which develops is akin to that of distance runners and may be a new experience for sprinters and a different feeling to training of the past. Time and distance to run are meaningless when doing this training. Run until the effort of maintaining the stride starts to impact. Do not struggle to hold the stride beyond that point. Bad habits are formed when striving too hard. Start with only two repetitions. The distance covered will increase as the training takes effect. Do not rush to increase repetitions. Slowly and surely is the best way forward.

For distance runners and those who wish to increase stride length; stride length can be developed by gentle runs of from 50 to 100m with a focus on striding at a length slightly above normal stride length. Start with only two runs for whatever distance is comfortable. Develop the distance covered and the number of repetitions very slowly over the rest of your running life. If you have time out drop back a level or two when you restart.

(At age 78, Don McLean is Doncaster venue’s most senior member. He has a background in distance running and was a talented steeplechase performer with St Stephens Harriers in his youth. He has had 45 years experience in track, cross country and road running from 400 metres to marathons and competed in Masters’ Athletics for many years, most recently winning the Victorian Championship M75 400 metres in 2010. He has since retired from competition with knee problems but coaches several Masters’ athletes and regularly officiates at Doncaster venue meetings).