Clint Eastwood knows what works for runners.
Lieutenant Briggs: So do I, longer than you, and I never had to take my gun out of its holster once. I’m proud of that.
Harry Callahan: Well, you’re a good man, lieutenant. A good man always knows his limitations…
– Magnum Force (1973)
At some point in our careers, we run smack-dab up against our limitations.
We hit a plateau. We aren’t exactly going backward, but we’re mysteriously unable to go forward, either.
When it happens, we naturally feel frustrated. “I’m doing the work – how come I’m stuck?”
As you know if you’ve been running longer than six months, the reason can be any number of things.
Lots of things can hold us back. A single, tiny, missing ingredient in our diet can do it. Or too little sleep. Too much speedwork. Too little recovery time. Stress in our work or relationships. All can deep-six our energy and progress.
In the last year, I’ve had puzzling periods of low energy and zero progress. Recovery took forever. I wasn’t improving.
My old hound-dog gusto deserted me. I fixed the problem, finally, with inexpensive supplements: one for thyroid, the other for adrenals.
As an ancient runner, I have to work extra hard to avoid the “old-guy shuffle.” You’ve seen those old-timers shuffling along like tired armadillos – barely able to put one foot in front of the other. They might as well be pushing a walker.
When my legs began to show signs of “ancient creeper” mode, around age 65, I was determined to find answers. I was fortunate to discover several excellent articles and videos by Pete Magill and Barry Ross (Allyson Felix’s high school strength coach).
I also found some articles about a landmark Harvard study that examined the factors that contribute to a runner’s speed. What’s the primary physical component that makes a runner fast? Is it stride length? Stride frequency? Muscle elasticity?
The researchers found, much to many a runner’s surprise, that it’s none of the above. Rather, it’s “power to the ground.”
The old myths of why aging runners slow down are wrong.
Magill and Ross made effective use of this principle, starting long before the Harvard study came out. They separately discovered unique ways runners can increase their leg strength and power, and keep running fast as they age.
Magill discovered the value of uphill sprints and bounding and skipping exercises. Partly as a result of these practices, he became the oldest runner to break 15 minutes in the 5k, running 14:45 at age 49. Since turning 50 he’s run a 15:02 5K and a 31:11 10K on roads.
Barry Ross’s approach emphasizes doing heavy deadlifts at the gym.
If you’re reminded of Arthur Lydiard, you’d be right. The legendary New Zealand coach was using uphill bounding, springing, and high-knees exercises when Ross and Magill were still in diapers.
I can testify that both approaches work extremely well. After I started doing deadlifts, hill exercises, and bounding drills on grass, my leg strength and “runnerliness” improved dramatically. Not only did they help my running; they were huge fun. It’s lovely to be able to hop around like a teenager, when you’re 71.
But leg strength has enormous implications, far beyond simply increasing our speed.
Here’s an interesting thought. If our legs tire before our hearts and lungs do – where does that leave us? We’ll only be able to improve our ability to process oxygen to the point where our legs run out of gas.
Our legs drive everything. If you’re an old guy, or a young guy who’s reduced to a shuffle as your legs expire, how on earth will you improve your oxygen processing power? Your weak legs will limit your VO2Max to that of a sloth.
At over 70, my legs are pile drivers – they’re tireless machines that just keep going. Yesterday, I hammered up a half-mile hill on the Stanford campus to the Knoll, the site of the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics.
On the way up, I realized an important thing. In fact, a game-changing thing: my powerful, tireless legs were working effortlessly, but my lungs were not.
When your legs can work hard with effortless ease, and your lungs and cardiovascular system are chugging hard to keep up – what’s the implication?
It’s obvious, isn’t it? Leg Power Drives Fitness.
If you can turn your legs into pile-driving machines, you can use them to force your lungs and heart to get better. Your legs will be working easily, effortlessly, while your heart and lungs get a nice improving workout. You’ll be doing less work and getting more progress for your buck.
It’s a wonderful discovery. And the best part is, training your legs is fun.
Perhaps you’re thinking – “Uh, last time I did deadlifts at the gym, I didn’t have a real good time.”
I like deadlifts because they strengthen my whole body. Deadlifts are the centerpiece of many a strength athlete’s workouts, including bodybuilders, powerlifters, and football players. Deadlifts plus a few situps, presses, and pull-ups give you a complete, highly efficient full-body workout. But to each his own.
I no longer feel like an old runner. At the end of many of my runs, I’ll sprint up the 100-yard ramp at the Stanford softball stadium – effortlessly, with lightness and joy. Heck yeah, I’m running like at 20-year-old.
And isn’t that the point?