As runners get older, they become more susceptible to calf injuries, particularly male masters runners. David Habas, an accomplished 56-year-old endurance athlete from Lafayette, Cal., has completed numerous events, including an Ironman triathlon, three marathons, and ten half-marathons, but has had to deal with injuries that have hindered his ability to continue competing.
According to research on injury rates among runners, about half of male masters runners suffered from running-related injuries in the previous year, compared to only 45% of younger runners. Additionally, master runners were more likely to suffer from multiple injuries than their younger counterparts.
While many associate running and aging with arthritis, studies suggest that running is beneficial for cartilage and reduces the risk of knee arthritis. However, older runners are more susceptible to recurring muscle strains, especially in the calf muscles.
Male runners are more prone to calf muscle injuries, likely due to the greater age-related changes in muscle and tendon stiffness in men than in women. The calf complex comprises the gastrocnemius and the soleus, with the former, which mainly consists of fast-twitch muscle fibers, usually injured during quick or explosive movements, while soleus strains occur due to overuse, repetitive stress, fatigue, uphill running, or at the end of long runs.
Willy, an assistant professor, and researcher at the University of Montana attribute the increase in calf injuries in older runners to age-related changes in the muscles and tendons. Aging leads to a loss of collagen in the tendon structure, which reduces tendon stiffness, leading to more strain on the tendon and calf muscle, making someone more susceptible to Achilles tendinopathy and calf strains.
Calf muscles are essential for runners, and the power of the calf muscles during running can decline by up to 50% between the ages of 20 and 80, with no corresponding increase in power from the quads, glutes, or hamstring. This decrease in calf power leaves the muscles more vulnerable to age-related changes in function.
Habas, who experienced calf strains in his mid-30s, believes that a lack of strength in both calf muscles was the primary cause of his injuries. Physical therapy and active release technique (ART) helped, but when he stopped doing strengthening exercises, the strains recurred.
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Willy stresses that calf muscles are perhaps the most crucial leg muscles for runners, and the loss of calf function due to aging leads to injuries in the calf of masters runners. Along with physiological changes, a decrease in stride length also plays a role in altered biomechanics, putting more stress on the calf muscles.
For many runners like Habas, calf injuries can be frustrating and lead to a reduction in running duration to prevent re-injury. Despite the challenges, these runners continue to train and compete, demonstrating the determination and resilience of the human spirit.