The Impact of Aging on the Running Gait Cycle

Runners older than 50 years old have shown the greatest increase in participation rates among long distance runners.  In a previous post we described the impact of aging on running speed.   In each decade after age 40 a runner will lose approximately 10% of their VO2 max due to changes in their musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems.  Thus a runner wishing to hold a 7 minute per mile pace into their later decades of life would need to run at a higher intensity to maintain the same speed.  Our prior post detailed research showing older runners demonstrated decreased step length, but no change in step frequency, compared to their younger peers likely explaining part of this change in speed.  

In addition to participating at higher rates, older runners also sustain a greater number of injuries compared to their younger counterparts (McKean et al. 2006).  Authors believe the greater impact forces and loading rates at foot contact, as well as, reduced decelerating motion in lower extremity joints may explain some of the increase in injury rates among this age group (Fukuchi et al. 2008).  These loading biomechanics are associated with stress fractures, heel pain, and shin splints. Until recently, it was not known if male and female older runners differed on their running mechanics.  

A recent article in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy confirmed prior findings of younger vs. older runners (Kline et al. 2015).  The authors studied 41 subjects divided into four groups based on age and sex and data was collected during their running gait.  The researchers found higher forces and loading rates in older vs. younger runners but little difference between male and females.  

Older runners should work to maintain flexibility and strength in their hips, knees, and ankles to allow these joints to dissipate forces associated with the gait cycle.  In addition, older athletes are encouraged to work with a local Physical Therapist on their running gait to reduce the risk of lower extremity injury and time off running.