How should I adapt my workout routine as I get Older?

Saturday, July 23, 2011 • Chicago, IL 60657


One of the recurring themes in coverage of the 2008 Olympics was that old people can be just as strong and fast as their juniors. At 41 years of age, swimmer Dara Torres won three silver medals; marathon runner Constantina Tomescu-Dita won gold at 38; and 61 year old Ian Millar picked up a remarkable silver medal in the team equestrian event. But it’s not entirely clear what lessons the average middle-aged or elderly exerciser can draw from these one-of-a-kind models.

            Probing that question by studying “masters” ATHLETES –  the definition varies from sport to sport, but it often refers to ages 40 and over – has become a hot research topic in recent years, in part because masters competition is the fastest-growing segment of sport in North America. “We’re not trying to encourage everybody to become a masters athlete,” says Patricia Weir, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Windsor. “Most adults simply won’t choose to undergo that level of training.” Instead, Weir and collaborators like Bradley Young of the University of Ottawa are trying to figure out what key factors allow some athletes to train and compete at a high level for many decades to see whether there are insights that could help weekend warriors stay active as they age.

            The basic principles of training for older athletes are the same as for younger athletes, according to a review of the topic by University of Wisconsin-La Crosse sports scientist Carl Foster and his colleagues in 2007. However, the optimal mix of stimulus and recovery may be shifted by the risk of injury, as well as the speed and magnitude of the body’s response to exercise. To combat the steady loss of muscle with age, for example, Foster recommends weight training, even – or perhaps especially – for skinny endurance athletes.

            Studies of masters athletes have found that the most successful manage to suffer fewer injuries than their peers. This may seem like a matter of luck but it’s not necessarily that simple. “Maybe they’ve got good genetics,” Young says, “but maybe they’re also smart.” You can improve your odds through what Young calls “deliberate acts of recovery,” such as taking an extra day between hard workouts. Cross-training may also be more valuable for older athletes, since they’re less able than younger athletes to recover from doing the same activity every day.

            Champion masters athletes continue to train intensely, Young and others have found, but their training becomes more focused on the essential. Top age-group distance runners, for example, spend proportionately more time training their endurance as they age. But the dominant factor appears to be consistency and continuity of training. Top masters athletes manage to accumulate months, years, and even decades of relatively unbroken training. Although champions train for their chosen sport year round, many recreational masters athletes prefer “sampling”:  they participate in different sports throughout the year but are never totally inactive for long stretches. Ultimately, this may be the most important lesson we can draw from the exploits of aging Olympians: if you play hockey for six months a year, find something else to keep you active for the other six months.