Where Did My Leg Muscles Go?
“Use it or lose it” is a common prescription for older athletes. But many longtime runners find that, despite regularly using, they’re nonetheless losing, at least when it comes to their leg muscles. These runners do the mileage, the faster workouts, maybe even regular strength training, and yet when they compare current race photos to ones from their prime, things look different. It’s not just that their legs aren’t as toned as they once were. There’s often simply less leg to look at.
Some of that is inevitable. Loss of muscle mass is a natural part of getting older, and is one of the main reasons we slow as we age. Masters runners, however, often aren’t the sort to go gently into that good night. They want to slow the rate of slowing as much as possible. Here’s what such runners can do to address the loss of leg-muscle mass, as well as some surprising reasons why it might be happening.
Causes and Effects
The technical term for age-related muscle loss is sarcopenia. It usually starts in one’s 30s. Generally accepted theoretical culprits include lower levels of anabolic (muscle-building) hormones; a decrease in neuromuscular efficiency, or the quality of communication among the brain, central nervous system, and muscles; and reduced ability to synthesize protein.
Inactive people can lose as much as 3 percent to 5 percent of muscle mass per decade. Although “it’s clear we can slow the decay in all physical systems with regular exercise,” says Scott Trappe, Ph.D., director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University, “regardless of how active we are, aging still wins.” An expert on what happens to muscle during periods of misuse, especially age and space flight, Trappe says, “There’s a gradual consistent loss until your 50s or 60s, then the rate of decline seems to accelerate.”
There’s no clear evidence that, on average, one gender loses muscle mass more rapidly. “Women going through menopause have hormonal changes,” says Trappe. “But men experiencing andropause have a decrease in anabolic components. The different hormonal panel affects everybody at some point.” Trappe is also reluctant to say that one body type, such as small-boned, lightly muscled ectomorphs, is more affected.
In Trappe’s research, he’s found that aging seems to target fast-twitch muscle fibers, the ones used for short, explosive motions like sprinting, more than slow-twitch fibers, the ones used for lower-intensity endurance activities like distance running. “This provides a bit of explanation for the common observation of speed going before endurance,” he says.
There are other causes more specific to runners. Perhaps partly because of fast-twitch fibers deteriorating earlier, many older runners gravitate toward longer races and easier running. Doing so, of course, only encourages fast-twitch fibers to decline. Related, a steady diet of almost all aerobic running can contribute to the neurological changes that are already happening. “It’s not just whether you still have that lean muscle, but also the activation of the muscle,” says physiotherapist Phil Wharton, who has worked with dozens of elite runners over the years. “Can your central nervous system still get it to signal?” When it can’t, atrophy is likely.
Adding to the snowball effect for runners is an accompanying loss of muscle elasticity with age.
“That’s likely the primary factor for a decrease in stride length,” says Daniel Frey, D.P.T., a physical therapist and competitive runner in Portland, Maine. “The more inelastic our muscles, tendons, and soft tissue in general, the less fluid our movement patterns are. This change in quality and also muscle timing limits push-off during running. It’s fair to speculate that this then trickles down to cause less efficient muscle contraction and overall harder maintenance of muscle mass with running, equaling more loss of muscle with age.”
For example, says Frey, as loss of elasticity leads to more rigid landings when you run, your calf muscles don’t take on as much of the load. Similarly, as older runners get more restricted through their hips, their quadriceps don’t load as well. One quad muscle—the vastus medialis, the teardrop-shaped muscle visible above the inside knee—can be particularly affected by this change. Over time, as these muscles aren’t as involved in your running, their tone and size can lessen.
Another common area of loss is the glutes and hamstrings. “In my work, I see the effects daily of people detraining their posterior chain [the muscles and other soft tissues along the backside of the body],” says Wharton. “The way so many of us live—sitting in front of screens for hours a day—is shutting off the very muscles we should use to run and walk with.” As a result, says Frey, “Even when you’re running, your glutes aren’t firing as much as they should be.”
If you care about your running times, none of this good. But even if you’re the rare runner who is nonchalant about performance, you should care. “As these changes accumulate, they can increase your risk for injury,” because you’re distributing more of the load of running from your muscles to your joints and tendons, Frey says. “People don’t seem to accept that we’re in a contact sport when we hit the ground,” Wharton says. “Like in any contact sport, you need a baseline of muscular strength or you’re going to get hurt.”
What to do About It
“Think about when you get a new car,” Frey says. “The first few years, you’re fine with just routine maintenance. For longtime runners, that’s like your teens and 20s. But then these changes start. Now your car’s at 75,000 miles. It needs a lot more love. New problems seem to pop up out of nowhere. The repairs become bigger. If you haven’t stayed on top of maintenance, it’s going to be even worse.”
“A lot more love” for older runners who want to address loss of muscle mass includes addressing the following areas.
Ambitious Strength Training: “You have to do more strengthening to build back what’s lost,” says Frey. “If you’re doing it properly, you almost can’t do enough resistance training to offset what’s happening,” says Wharton.
“Twice a week is sufficient if it’s of good quality,” says Trappe. “You don’t need to be exotic if your goal is basic strengthening to build muscle—three sets of eight to 10 reps at 70 to 75 percent effort with good form. If you’re using the right amount of weight, it’s going to feel heavy. If you can do only six reps, it’s too heavy. If you can do 15, it’s too light.”
Target the large muscle groups most affected with exercises such as leg lifts, squats, dead lifts, and calf raises.
Do Your Drills: “You want to get the synapses working a little cleaner to get some of that neural communication back,” says Wharton. With their emphasis on quick, light, coordinated movement, running form drills can help with that. They can also improve muscle elasticity, helping you to regain the smoother gait of your youth and place more of the running load on your major muscles.
Basic drills that incorporate skipping, quick landing, and light bounding are helpful here. The videos below show some of the drills four-time Olympian and U.S. masters marathon record holder Meb Keflezighi considers key to his longevity. Keflezighi does drills six days a week, either before a hard workout or after a recovery run. Aim for at least two days a week. As Keflezighi says, if you’re pressed for time, cut a couple runs a week short by a mile and spend that time doing drills.
Regularly Run Fast: “Even if you’re not going to compete, do something to recruit fast-twitch fibers,” says Trappe. “They don’t need a lot of work to stay viable.” He recommends short spurts during a regular run or short hill repeats for non-competitors.
If you race and do track workouts, tempo runs, or other typical hard sessions, don’t neglect regularly getting down to mile race pace or faster, which requires recruiting more fast-twitch fibers than does half-marathon or even 5K pace. This can be accomplished with postrun strides a couple days a week or ending hard workouts with a few challenging 200-meter repeats.
Plan Your Protein: When people think about building muscle, eating more protein usually comes to mind. Does doing so work?
“There’s a lot of information that suggests yes and a lot that suggests no,” Trappe says. “Protein is important, no doubt, but as long as you’re getting a quality diet and an adequate diet, the protein follows. If I were hedging my bets I would say you don’t need protein supplements.
“That said, if you have a busy lifestyle—you run, you go back to the office and immediately start to work for several hours—you can start to make a case for portable nutrition with protein soon after a workout to allow muscle recovery.”
That’s because, Wharton says, what’s known as “the glycotic window,” or the period immediately following exercise during which your muscles are more receptive to refueling, becomes more important with age. “Get some good, high-quality protein within 30 minutes after a hard or long run to help with rebuilding,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to keep a food journal, to find out what types of protein you best respond to.”
Look at Your Lifestyle: Finally, says Frey, be more mindful of how what you do when you’re not running affects your muscles when you run.
“If you do your run and then a few minutes of strengthening, but then sit 10 hours a day, I’m sorry, but your exercises aren’t going to magically undo that,” he says. “Stand more, take the elevator less, do whatever you can to open up your hips more and allow your glutes to be more active so that you can run more like a kid.”
Massage Improves Weak and Atrophied Muscle
Muscle atrophy is more common than most people realize, especially in such a sedentary society. It is important to exercise daily to maintain muscle mass and strength, as well as flexibility. While massage therapy cannot directly build muscle, it can minimize pain and provide the optimum cellular circulation and nutrition to maintain the maximum tone and prevent atrophy as long as possible.
Muscle atrophy is essentially a decrease in muscle mass and strength. Weak and atrophied muscle can cause significant pain and reduce one’s ability to move freely, and even to move at all. Muscle can atrophy from disuse, as is the case for those with seated jobs, medical conditions and injuries that limit movement or those with low activity levels.
The lack of movement associated with aging is also a form of disuse atrophy. Muscle can also atrophy from neurological conditions such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), Guillain-Barre syndrome, muscular dystrophy and neuropathy. Muscle tissue can show signs of atrophy from disuse in as little as three days and become significant in less than two weeks.
We tend to think of muscle atrophy as something that happens to old people or those who are suffering from severe medical conditions. The word “atrophy” brings up images of an older person who is skeleton-thin, with sunken cheeks and hunched shoulders. While this is sometimes the case, it is important to remember that muscle, like a business, is either growing or deteriorating (atrophy).
We see this in middle-aged people, as those over age 30 tend to lose about 3% to 5% of muscle mass per decade. This loss of muscle does not correspond with weight loss and, in fact, it can result in weight gain as muscle burns more calories even at rest. Weight gain can often result in loss of mobility and even more atrophy. The muscle lost is replaced with fat as the body requires less and less calories to maintain its lower muscle mass.
In muscle there are two main types of muscle fiber: fast-twitch and slow-twitch fibers. Slow-twitch (type-I) fibers are what gives us endurance. The fast-twitch fibers are made up of moderate-twitch (type-IIa) fibers which react quicker and wear out faster than slow-twitch and fast-twitch (type-IIb or type-IIx) fibers which are the fastest to react and most powerful. The fast-twitch is what is engaged when we are near our maximum effort. Each type has a distinct physiological characteristic and metabolism, resulting in different sensitivity to atrophy. Fast-twitch glycolytic fibers are more vulnerable than slow-twitch oxidative fibers when exposed to the conditions that encourage atrophy. This means that when atrophy is occurring, we lose strength and power before we lose endurance.
The most common treatment for weak or atrophied muscle due to disuse is exercise, but in cases where the person is unable to move, electrical stimulation sometimes aids in maintaining muscle tone. Injections of anabolic steroids also provide some resistance to the continued atrophy of the muscle tissue.
Benefits of Massage Therapy
Massage therapy on weak and atrophied muscle can have some very therapeutic effects, including an increase in blood supply and nutrition to the muscle tissue, increased circulation and a dilation of blood vessels, decreased congestion and a return of blood and lymph for re-oxygenation and filtration. Massage can also prevent the adhesions of muscle fibers and increase local muscle tissue metabolism. The increase of blood flow means an increase of red blood cells and nutrients to the area, optimizing muscle growth and delaying further atrophy.
In some cases, muscle tension is involved in the compression of nerves, causing neurogenic muscle atrophy. An example of this is carpal tunnel syndrome. Nerve function in a peripheral nerve is interrupted and, while massage cannot directly strengthen atrophied muscle, it can release muscle that is impinging on the nerves and increase circulation in the affected tissue, bringing in fresh blood supply, oxygenation and nutrition.
Massage can also reduce inflammation that can result in impingement on peripheral nerves through increased circulation and lymphatic return. In addition, studies have shown that when muscle is massaged, it senses that it is being stretched and there is a reduction in the inflammatory response as a result.
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