The Maturing Monsters of Fitness
On the whole, masters athletes are the most poorly trained group of athletes in the world of fitness. But, before I address that, I must give an anonymous shout out to one of my athletes. The title of this post (Four Principles) was chosen specifically for him because he hates the watered down Internet content of fitness websites that include bullet pointed information. I was hoping he would lose his temper when he read that and so, even though I wrote it in my typical fashion, I named it as such. You know who you are. Now that that is done, back to the issue of masters athletes being poorly trained. I believe this is influenced by a number of factors which include, older athletes not understanding their changing bodies, older athletes taking on the training protocols of their successful youthful counterparts, a lack of global education on training in the field, the flourishing of hormone replacement therapy, and a variety of other contributing factors. Nonetheless, there are four major principles you can likely apply to improve the performance of aging athletes. These four concepts are contraction reduction, intensity reduction, greater emphasis on recovery, and more ‘auto-regulation’ in the program design. I believe following these concepts will lead a maturing athlete to much greater success.
The reality of the Sport of Fitness (CrossFit ™ or Grid or local competitions non sanctioned) is that there are usually a TON of contractions in the tests. It has become commonplace to squat, kip, pull, push, and jump 1,000’s of times over the course of a week in order to maintain a competitive level in the sport. With that style of testing generally comes a ton of muscular strains, tendon strains, tendon tears, and a host of other soft tissue problems. Younger athletes, as a result of better mobility (on the aggregate), a lower training history, and less cumulative stress on the body (less hours sitting, running, etc) generally have better positions in the movements of the sport than their older counter parts. In addition to this, they have more resilient endocrine systems to recover when actual ‘tweaks’ do occur in training. Most older athletes deal with this in two ways. First, they may give up and say things like, “I am not what I used to be” and quit doing the physical things they still wish to do. The second and most common route I’ve seen are older athletes trying to keep up with the younger athletes despite physical warning signs, while blindly ignoring the symptoms their bodies are manifesting that indicate they may not be recovering. Those that choose this path are constantly covered in K-tape, always modifying training sessions to work around injuries, warming up for two hours at a time, don’t get long term quality training cycles completed, and over the long run struggle with severely decrepit joints. I propose that these athletes keep training hard and as often as they want, but use the advances in training implements to lower the repetitive singular plane contractions of the sport. This could include swimming instead of running if knees/hips/ankles/low back are the biggest issue (be careful of shoulders here with people who have shoulder injuries), accumulating training volume on the rower/airdyne instead of doing ‘met-cons,’ doing isometric holds/carries in place of squatting/deadlifting, and utilizing strength training that exposes the joints to more rotation/balance/coordination instead of the more simple repetitive movements. Exercise selection, movements in workouts, the energy system effect of a workout, and a variety of other variables can be altered to create a proper training for people without over stressing the system or joints.
The next concept that is important for an aging athlete is intensity reduction. This comes down to the long-term changes on the internal physiology of a high training (and biological) age athlete. Many high level power-lifters will talk about how they cannot lift to maxes often due to the impact it has on their central nervous system. On the other end of the spectrum, high level endurance athletes will talk about this same concept with regards to how many races they do per year. This is not only a result of age, but also a result of the internal body becoming more stress resilient over time. As you get deeper into your training, your nervous system becomes more efficient at contracting larger muscle groups, your cardiac physiology improves to put out more aerobic power, and a variety of other adaptations take place in the body which make each session MORE stressful than a younger less trained counterpart. As a result, high intensity sessions with high frequency seem to become exponentially more damaging to the system in aging athletes. This doesn’t mean that all young athletes should train a lot and all older athletes should train infrequently. Our ability to take volume is largely genetically and life style influenced. So, volume should be adjusted relative to the person. If someone is notorious for his or her capacity to tolerate a high volume of training, their older selves might still, to the outside world, look like they do an enormous amount of training. However, in comparison to their younger self this may actually be a radical reduction. Finding this sweet spot requires a lot of experimentation or a detailed coach to continuously evaluate subjective and objective data points to confirm where the appropriate training load is for any particular athlete. So, on the whole, as you get older, your volume should start to lighten to reflect your increase in age.
A great way for aging athletes to deal with this decrease in actual training time is to increase the amount of time dedicated to recovery throughout the week. Recovery can be classified into both passive and active recovery. Passive recovery can be a variety of things including massage, sleeping, baths, eating, napping, etc. These types of recovery protocols often times give high level athletes of all ages anxiety. That is another topic all in itself and I believe most people need to learn to enjoy taking time off. But, recovery can also satisfy both the mind AND body to include active recovery aerobic work and ‘mobility.’ In our sport, that could include static stretching, joint distraction work, foam rolling, swimming, biking, hiking, walking, and doing mixed modal easy aerobic work. This is a great way for athletes to train at a high frequency without doing much musculoskeletal or endocrine damage, and to ensure that the actual training sessions completed are done at a higher intensity. This seems to very underutilized as a training component for older athletes because they believe it’s ‘too easy’ and they don’t get enough of a stress stimulus from things that don’t leave them on their backs, covered in sweat, gasping for air. This is a big misconception in the general population of trainees because lower intensity training can provide tremendous performance benefits over the long term for athletes of all ages.
The last major concept important to older athletes is ‘auto-regulation.’ This is essentially a more complex way of saying ‘listening to the body.’ As people get older, their lives, thoughts, feelings, jobs, relationships, and purpose become more complicated. With a young athlete who is doing nothing but training, you can push them into training phases of over-reaching without worrying too much how it will impact their lives outside of training. In an older athletes, pushing them into a period of over-reaching cannot only cause a scenario in the body they can’t recover from, but also add to the external stressors they face. Being tired can make them less effective at their jobs, less effective in their marriages, less functional as parents to their children, and more. So, it is essential that you get to know a masters athlete and what their priorities in life are in order of importance. It is imperative, even if it becomes ‘imperfect training,’ that the quest as an athlete is always kept in perspective in relation to the other life factors. If not, there will come a fork in the road where the athlete will have to give up their quest or make tremendous life changes.
Training athletes is always a blend of both art and science. I believe working with masters athletes falls further to the art end of the spectrum. As the human being becomes more complex, deep, and experienced, their body becomes less resilient to the changes we try to impose on them. I believe that all people, if you want to reach your potential, need a specifically designed training structure, and this holds especially true for masters athletes. They must be dealt with care, as human beings, trained with excellent principles, and pushed just enough to cause positive adaptation without excessive fatigue. So, if you are an older athlete, look to train smarter if you hope to continue doing what you love with your body for as long as possible!