LOOKING for that magic, simple answer is something that drives a lot of us. What will be Saturday’s winning lottery numbers? Can I devise a method to select them? What should I eat to make myself run faster? Wearing what socks will knock how many minutes off my time?
Of course, there’s never one simple conclusion, but I have to say my eye was drawn to some fascinating new research that claims will stop the inevitable – getting slower as we age (although running does make you live longer!). And better, it promised to be very easy.
Assuming ageing hasn’t meant an increased love of pie and the resulting extra 15lb being a couch potato involves, the key to all of this are your ankles and calf muscles. Keep those bits of you in good shape along with your aerobic system and weight, and you might even be able to run faster.
As you can imagine, ankles and calf muscles play a huge role in your stride pattern. The study showed that older runners tend to have the same cadence as younger rivals – about 165 strides per minute. However, older runners have a shorter stride which therefore means they run slower – about a 20 per cent decline in the years 20-59. In that time, ankle strength drops off by a whopping 48 per cent.
Further research says it’s not actually your ankles that are solely at fault but rather it’s your calf muscles as well. Work these and this you’ll gain the most benefit with more lower-leg strength and power training. Ankle joint mobility is hugely important in all of this, but all the forward propulsion of your run comes from your calf muscles.
Of course, it goes without saying you shouldn’t just jump into doing loads of leg lifts or hopping, or any other type of explosive work that strengthens the appropriate muscle groups. Chances are you haven’t done exercises like that for years and given they have been declining in strength and becoming less mobile, anything unusual will almost certainly end up with you getting injured.
Interestingly, it’s not a million miles away from another bit of research which suggests two minutes of hopping a day can strengthen hip bones in older people and reduce the risk of fracture after a fall. In this case, a study led by Loughborough University showed bone density in the hopping leg improved after just one year.
Dr Sarah Allison says: "We know exercise can improve bone strength and so we wanted to test a form of exercise that is both easy and quick for people to achieve in their homes."
I did send that snippet of information to my mother, but quickly thought better of it and followed up my email with a phone call. Telling an 85-year-old who has had double hip replacement surgery to hop around the front room regularly probably isn’t the wisest thing to do.
She agreed and assured me she would ease into such a programme slowly, say one hop a year for the next decade. And likewise so should you ease into anything like this (make sure you do a proper warm-up!). Researchers said it was important to build up any exercise gradually, and hop with caution as falling could cause a fracture in someone with weak bones. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!