Improve your strength, speed and explosiveness as you get older with these nine exercises.
Masters runners often feel as if the hills they’ve been running for years have suddenly gotten steeper, the tracks have gotten longer and that an increase in gravity has made climbing stairs that much more difficult. Fortunately, the reality is simpler than a complete unraveling of the laws of physics. The reality is that we Masters runners have gotten weaker—not as the inevitable consequence of aging (although there’s certainly an aspect of that), but as the predictable consequence of limiting the strength training element of our fitness routines.
It’s as simple as: Use it or lose it.
A 2009 study from the University of Jyväskylä found that “to maximize the training effects on fast fibers, rapid strength, and speed performance [for aging runners], the optimal training regimen requires a strength training component.” And another 2009 study, published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, determined that dwindling speed and power in older runners is due to a reduction in the “magnitude of contact forces that the runners are capable of producing in the short contact phase.” In other words, stronger legs result in a more powerful foot-strike, which leads to a quicker rebound off the ground (less contact time), a longer stride and a quicker stride rate.
The best part of strength training is that you reap benefits almost immediately—you don’t have to wait for your muscles themselves to get bigger and stronger. That’s because nervous system adaptations are responsible for most early strength gains. In fact, research suggests that it takes between four and twenty weeks before muscle growth overtakes neural adaptations as the primary contributor to increased power.
With that in mind, several of the following exercises (e.g., quick hops, suicides, Burpees) target your nervous system to ensure rapid strength gains. The other bodyweight exercises will simultaneously spur muscular development.
Incorporate these nine exercises into your training once or twice per week and you’ll soon reverse any perceived increase in gravity that has accompanied aging, leaving you stronger, faster and able to tackle tall hills in fewer bounds.
Photos: Diana Hernandez
These are the bodyweight version of squats, the best exercise for strengthening your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.
Instruction: Stand straight with feet hip-width apart, toes pointed slightly out, arms at your sides. Bend your knees, pushing your hips back until your thighs are parallel the floor, while bringing your arms up, extended in front of your shoulders. Then push up with your quads to return to your starting position. Start with 5 reps, build to 10-15.
These strengthen hip flexors and build stability in your hips and knees.
Instruction: Balance on one foot, standing on a step or low platform, your free leg bent slightly at the knee. Lower your hips, keeping your weight on your front foot and keeping your knee in line with that foot. Bend down just far enough to tap the ground behind you. Then straighten your bent leg while bringing your suspended leg forward, lifting the knee in front of you to waist height. Repeat. Do 5-10 reps with each leg.
Side Leg Lifts
These work your hip abductors, key muscles for maintaining the stability of your stride.
Instruction: Lie on your side, legs stacked, with your head resting on one arm. Lift your top leg to 45° in a smooth motion, then bring it back down. Do 10–20 reps with each leg.
These work both your hip abductors and hip adductors, helping to maintain a stable stride.
Instruction: Sit with your hands behind you, feet in front of you with a 90° bend at the knees. Roll your legs laterally from side to side, touching the closest knee to the track. Do 10 reps (each side).
These strengthen your abdominals, aiding core stability and knee lift.
Instruction: Lie on the floor, knees slightly bent, heels on the floor, hands behind your head, with your head lifted slightly off the mat. Now raise your feet to 45°, keeping the slight bend in your knees. Then lower them until your heels almost touch the floor. Start with one set 10-15 reps, build to 40-50 reps.
These decrease ground contact time and build quad strength (this is a plyometric exercise).
Instruction: Stand with feet hip-width apart, a slight bend at your knees. Staying low to the ground, use both feet to hop forward. Focus on speedy jumps, not height or distance, for a total of 20-40 meters of hops.
These develop quick, nimble legs and feet (this is a plyometric exercise).
Instruction: Stand in front of a box or platform with one foot on the box/platform. Quickly drop the foot while lifting your opposite knee—tap the top of the box/platform with your foot. Just as quickly, reverse the action, tapping with the other foot. Do 5-10 reps (each foot).
These develop upper body strength and full-body nervous system efficiency.
Instruction: From a standing position, drop first into a squat (hands on the ground), then kick your legs backward, forming the top of a normal pushup position. Hop back to the squat position, then stand with hands above your head. As you improve, you can complete a pushup from the pushup position and add a jump when you return to the standing position. Work these for 30-90 seconds.
These recruit your full range of muscle fibers (slow-twitch, intermediate fast-twitch, and fast-twitch), both strengthening them and improving your nervous systems control of their use while running.
Instruction: Best done on a football field. Start at the goal line, then sprint to the 10-yard line, bend to touch the line (or as close as you can get), and sprint back to the goal line; touch the goal line, then sprint to the 20-yard line, touch, and sprint back to the goal line; repeat going all the way to the 30-yard line (25-yard line for less-fit runners). Do 1-2 reps, with 2-3 minutes between reps.
About The Author:
Pete Magill is the fastest-ever American age 50+ at 5K (15:01) and 10K (31:11), the 2013 USA Masters Cross Country Runner of the Year, and the author of Build Your Running Body (The Experiment, 2014). Learn more about Pete at his website, PeteMagill.com.