Neural Training to Run Faster and Age Slower
Earl W. Fee is the author of How to be a Champion from 9 to 90.
The book is about Body,Mind & Spirit Training.
To retard aging, neural training is practically unknown compared to strength training, stretching and general exercising. Neural training involves fast intensive movements (explosive strength training) to activate the fast twitch muscles. The particular advantages of anti–aging and faster running by explosive strength training are explained here.
Neural training is a very important concept or principle for all athletes which if practised frequently will help you to age slower than your rivals. But first a short course on the central nervous system is in order. The brain and spinal chord constitute the central nervous system, which communicates with the muscles via peripheral nerves. Each nerve is a bundle of nerve fibres or neurons either motor or sensory. The motor neurons carry signals (or electrical impulses) to the muscles; the sensory neurons bring information back to the brain. Each neuron is associated with many muscle fibres forming a motor unit.
As we age we lose strength and flexibility, so it is wise to exercise and do frequent weight training and stretching exercises, but this is not enough. We must also continue to activate the neurons associated with the fast twitch muscles by explosive resistive movements or these neurons atrophy from disuse as explained below.
The advantage of explosive movements to improve the neural pathways is shown in the comparison below. For example, a study in 1994 by Ron Johnson PhD, exercise physiologist, showed more than a 2 percent improvement
in running economy for female distance runners after 10 weeks of leg, "abs", and arm weight training
. However, in a 9 week Finnish study by Heikki Rusko a whopping 8 percent improvement
in running economy was achieved by a group of endurance runners who spent one third of training time on “explosive” strength training
(i.e., sprints, plyometrics, and low resistance weight training). The runners doing this training also improved their 20 metre sprint times by 3.6 percent; the control group who did more running training and no explosive training showed no improvement in running economy or speed.
Kirkendall and Garrett in an 1998 research paper “The Effects of Aging and Training on Skeletal Muscle,” American Journal of Sports Medicine, state the following pertinent facts: “With age the number and area of fast twitch fibres [Type II] decreases. The loss of muscle mass with age is secondary to age-related denervation of muscle fibres, particularly the denervation [non use of neurons] of Type II fibres. With age large numbers of type II motor neurons become nonfunctional; the neural input is disrupted. With reduced demand on skeletal muscle it adapts to the new lower requirement, but with increased demand the declines due to aging can be minimized.”
Based on the above, the important point I wish to make is that nonfunctional fast twitch Type II neurons can be reduced by increased demand on fast twitch muscles. This can be accomplished by fast resistive movements on a frequent basis.
The demand on the Type II muscles has to be the right type. Many athletes with great strength do not possess the required power to sprint a fast 100 metres or shorter distance; to do so the specific fast twitch muscles required must be exercised rapidly in a like manner. “Resistance training can improve the central nervous system recruitment [enervation] of muscle, hypertrophy [increase in area of fast twitch fibres], and force output” (Kirkendall and Garrett); I have added comments in the brackets. However, there must be sufficient intensity and duration over many weeks. Endurance type of weight training would have less effect on fast twitch development but is still very beneficial as shown by the Rusko study above. There is a high rate of activation of fast twitch neurons during sprinting and other competitive/intensive sports; these neurons must be exercised in practice sessions to achieve top speeds and fast reactions. The following exercises will assist to activate the fast twitch motor units and prevent their atrophy with age:
Actions that involve split–second decisions
Fast feet drills
Fast arm drills
Fast step-ups with or without light dumbells
Fast squats with light dumbells
Small punching bag exercise
Tennis ball reaction catching against a wall
Moving weights fast in weight training
Mental exercises involving fast movements or one of the above
Plyometrics involving explosive actions (see details below)
Note that in the above exercises it is important to exercise both the upper and lower body. To run fast train fast. Similarly, lifting weights fast (e.g., the leg press) and plyometrics (e.g., hopping or jumping onto and over boxes) will assist you in running faster by improving neural response. In moving weights fast the muscle is stretched under load storing energy (during lowering or the negative phase), and if the muscles are immediately contracted explosively this stored energy is released, producing a maximum force. Similarly, in plyometrics the muscles store energy during the landing (stretching phase) which is released in the immediate rebound. The stretching during the lowering stimulates the nervous tissue within the muscles. This results in a greater number of muscle fibres called into action and simulates closely the situations like sprinting, high jumping and long jumping. It follows for maximum power the muscle lengthening must be maximized and the time between stretch and shortening (concentric contraction) must be minimized. To develop power, sprinters move weights as heavy as the speed of movement will allow; exercising fast with light weights does not develop as much power. However, endurance runners will benefit more from low resistance weights moved rapidly. Plyometrics Some master sprinters have reported big speed improvements due to the addition of plyometrics to their training. After one is used to plyometrics: the strengthening of muscles, tendons and joints will assist in preventing injury; and the athlete’s ability to generate maximum force in the shortest time will be improved. Explosive plyometric exercises are for example: skipping, double leg hops, single leg hops, bounding, jumping from and over boxes, jumping over hurdles.
It is particularly important to do plyometric drills on a rubberized track or on grass in view of the shock to the body. Good support shoes should be worn.
Plyometrics is very fatiguing and should only be done after the leg muscles are developed with strength training over many weeks. Proceed gradually in intensity and volume. Condition the legs with double leg hops before attempting single leg hops.
Avoid lower–body weight training on days when lower-body plyometrics are used if either is intensive.
Plyometrics or weight training if intensive should be the very last session (after running) in your practice day.
For the average runner plyometric workouts should be done ideally twice weekly during the off-season, and once weekly during the in-season.
Allow sufficient recovery between intensive plyometrics, weight training or running sessions.
Sprinters are doing a great deal of the above in their training, i.e., exercising the neurons associated with the fast twitch muscles, compared to very little or none for other runners. Therefore, sprinters show the slowest decline in performance/year compared to middle and long distance runners. In summary, all athletes wishing to age slower than normal should do some form of fast movements, preferably explosive, similar to the above, on a continuous basis. Use it or lose it! You need some frequent fast powerful movements to keep sharp, run faster, and to retard aging.
The above are mainly excerpts from my book titled HOW TO BE A CHAMPION FROM 9 to 90 —Body, Mind, and Spirit Training. If interested in this 25 chapter, 404 page fitness/running (signed )book see my website www.feetnessforlife.com for detailed description and order form. The book includes a foreword by the great Payton Jordan, coach of 1968 USA Olympic team and training by Charlie Francis.
To order either 1- See my website order form. 2- Or phone Canada 905-828-0051. 3- Or fax Canada 905-823-8230. Cost is $19.25 US + $7.75US for shipping by sea= $27 US. Orders by phone or fax will be invoiced.
by Earl W. Fee © 2003