Strength and Conditioning in the Aging Athlete
Guest post written by: Judah Boulet
One day you wake up and you realize your body feels different. Maybe it’s that you cannot do some of the things you used to do anymore, or maybe your body is screaming much louder than it did before while doing the same exact thing. Maybe the nagging aches and pains are more constant than they were in the past. You work hard to eat well and train/exercise to keep your body and mind healthy, but regardless of the steps you take, things are different.
On the interwebs, one can find a countless number of training programs for anybody’s access. Many of these out there are not necessarily written for the common everyday average joe athlete in mind, never mind the common everyday average joe maturing athlete. I get lost with the 40 is the new 30 and such, but adults/athletes in the age range of 35-55 are unique in my mind compared to adults/athletes in their prime. Within this age range, each succinctive step between 35-55, there potentially adds slightly more and more complexities, which may need to be addressed.
As an athlete (or pretend athlete if I want to be realistic about things) over 35, I came to the realization that athletes over 35 need different training focuses than younger athletes. This I feel is regardless of whether training for health and longevity or performance. While performance is an interesting topic, a majority of people choose to train because they find exercise/training fun and rewarding and do so for the fringe benefits of optimal health and hopefully longevity. LIke their lives they also hope to be able to sustain a healthy training regimen as they age. The focus of this article is for those seeking health and longevity in a training program, however, there is much carryover to those seeking performance related goals.
I think it is important to recognize that there is a clear distinction between the actions we may choose to take in order to achieve or maintain some level of performance, and the actions we choose to take which will confer upon us the greatest level of health and longevity. Many master athletes, whether it be Ironmans, CrossFit, Powerlifting, etc.. perform awe inspiring feats of endurance and strength. However, the training they need to do to be competitive may not necessarily be the training one needs to do for optimal health, longevity, and sustainability in a strength and conditioning program, but that is a sacrifice those athletes choose to make. Compared to sitting on the couch eating bonbons and watching Sally Jesse Raphael re-runs (the crowd this article is written for should get that reference), training for a performance related goal is optimal compared to living a sedentary lifestyles, health and longevity wise, however, most of us do not exercise or CrossFIt to be high level performance athletes. Most of us are just looking for a program to get us or keep us in shape, that is fun and exciting. Most of us are just looking for a sustainable program which will help us keep our health. Unfortunately, most of us are average joes and not the outliers of the world who make getting older seem effortless. Those people are my inspiration but not my reality.
Exercise, like medications, is dose dependent, and the ability of the body to deal with the dosage of exercise as one ages, changes. The therapeutic index narrows. Give too little of a drug or exercise, it does not work. Give too much, it’s toxic, give an appropriate dose, and it works great! This is something Dr. James O’Keefe demonstrated by looking at endurance athletes, and his research showed that more was not always better , and exercise and mortality rates correlated to a dose response curve, similar to drugs.
As one ages, there are several key aspects which need to be focused on and maintained.
I believe any strength and conditioning program for an athlete 35 and older should focus on the following. By incorporating these aspects into a sustainable training program now, the progressive benefits seen in the immediate future will also have a lot of carry over to many years down the road, as long as a similar training program is maintained.
- Strength and Power:
Rippetoe said it best, stronger people are harder to kill, and more useful in general. Whichever program you follow or gym that you choose to go to, there should be some type of periodized strength and power program built in. While strength gains may be harder to come by, continuing to build strength as well as maintaining strength is extremely important. The stronger you are, ideally the harder it will be to kill you. The stronger you are the faster you will get yourself out of a hospital bed should you ever find yourself there. The stronger you are the less likely you will hit that medic alert button because you have fallen and cannot get up.
While one should focus on building strength, constantly stressing the body with absolute strength tests may not be necessary and ill advised. The ability of the body to handle max effort lifts week in and week out may be extremely stressful, and recovery could be difficult depending on life variables. It is important to make sure the volume and intensity of any strength program is measured appropriately by someone who understands you, your goals, and your life situation. Undulating periodized strength programs I feel have hit the mark in this regard for the aging athlete. Ashman Strength Systems Protocol or the Cube Method are variations of a cyclical undulating periodized system where the volume of maximal efforts between lifts is considered.
Along with general strength there should be some focus on building up lean muscle mass. The more lean muscle mass you have the more metabolically active tissue you have, ideally the less fat you have, and the hardier you are. You lose muscle when you age, when you are diseased (older you get more likely), and if you are inactive (Get old, get diseased, becoming inactive for a period of time is more likely). The more lean muscle you carry at 40 means the more you will carry when you are 50 and 60 given you focus on staying active and eating a nutrient dense diet. The more muscle mass you have at 60, the better the outcome if you are laid up in a hospital bed for a week or two. Strength work alone will give some hypertrophy, but exercises and/or rep ranges to encourage hypertrophy should be included. In many strength and conditioning programs, including the two I previously mentioned above, hypertrophy ranges are found in the accessory work. With CrossFit, many of the metabolic conditioning work, aka WODs, have higher rep ranges which skirt the hypertrophy range and could be useful in this regard, in conjunction with a strength program.
- Kinesthetic Awareness:
While it may not apply yet to a 40 year old athlete, balance is something one loses as they age. The stronger and more powerful you are the more it helps in regard to balance, however, more awareness of our bodies as they travel through time and space is important. It is important to maintain your body’s awareness of the space around it through training. This has a huge carryover in my mind, and the practice of balancing should be incorporated into all training programs for older athletes. Along with the practice of balancing, the incorporation of static holds is something which also should be utilized, as it engages and strengthens the stabilizing muscles of joints, as well as strengthens the connective tissue in our joints. The practice of balancing while walking (on a beam? a fallen tree?), being upside down, getting up from the floor using our hands as well as not using our hands, holding ourselves in a plank, etc, all has tremendous potential to decrease injury, as well as increase longevity in any training program.
Not every joint should be mobile. Some joints help to maintain stability, others need to be mobile through a specific range of motion. Mobilization of the joints which are meant to be mobile through their full ranges of motion is important as it helps prevent injury, from which recovery from takes longer the older you are (Connective tissue injuries as they are heal very slowly). Making sure that the joints which are supposed to maintain stability do so, also is important to prevent injury, and static holds are useful for this. Another key piece to the mobility/stability puzzle in my opinion is making sure there are no muscle imbalances between left and right side. Incorporating unilateral exercises into any training program to address and prevent muscle imbalance is also an important piece of the puzzle. I particularly like kettlebell specific exercises like the turkish get up, kb windmills, single leg deadlifts to work on preventing/fixing left/right muscle imbalances. Many of these exercises are great to incorporate into a warm up regimen or as accessory work.
- Aerobic capacity:
Basic aerobic capacity decreases 1% every year after 25. By being physically active you help to slow the age related declines in VO2 max. There are many ways that aerobic capacity can be tackled, and its good to mix up the energy systems being worked. There has been a general trend to focus on interval training at the expense of longer aerobic training, however, I feel it is important to include all modalities of training, and not just focus on glycolytic training for optimal health and longevity. Going for a longer walk, swim, bike ride, etc at an easier pace for a longer period of time (over 30 minutes) is not detrimental but helpful in obtaining optimal health and aerobic capacity, just as incorporating some sprints or HIIT into your training regimen is equally important.
The need for a distinctive training program for older athletes is that these athletes have several variables which younger athletes in their prime do not necessarily need to worry about, or the effects of these variables is in a different light. The first of these variables is physiological. Hormonally, the older one is the more different their natural hormone profiles are from their prime. Hormonal levels are greatly involved with the ability to handle training/exercise as a good stress, and recover from those sessions. While recovery is an important aspect of any training program, regardless of ones age, however, in a Master’s level, it may be even more so. Male hormone (Vitamin T) levels start dropping off after age 30 at a rate of ~1% a year. This drop off, combined with already below normal testosterone levels in the general US population to begin with could be problematic for older male athletes. Females over 35 also have changing hormone levels which could affect their recovery as well.
Another variable as one ages is the number of potential stressors actually changes as you age. Older athletes typically have or are involved in career jobs, have a set number of bills, ie mortgage, car payments, school bills, due each month, marriage concerns, children and concerns revolving around the kids, etc. The more stressors, the greater the effects of these stressors on the ability to handle training as well as the ability to recover. The more stress, the greater effect on hormones, which potentially compounds the effects of age on hormone levels.
Enhancing Longevity and sustainability in training
- Sleep: First and foremost, you want to have more optimal hormone levels, recover faster, achieve optimal health, live longer, etc, you need to sleep uninterrupted for 7-8 hours.
- Focus on eating a Nutrient Dense Diet of non-processed foods. Perfect place to start is with a Paleo diet, and then use that as a template.
- Consumption of enough calories to sustain training levels along with consumption of enough individual macronutrients to sustain the type of training/exercise you are performing (This is an individualized thing based on type of training, fitness goals, etc)
- Adaptability! Listen to your body. If you are feeling tired, beat up, etc, take it easy. If you are feeling full of piss and vinegar, get after it. Be able to adapt your training program (individually or through a coach) from day to day based on how you are feeling. A potentially more accurate way to listen to your body with what is going on physiologically with you is through monitoring your Heart Rate Variability (HRV). You need a heart rate monitor which can easily hook up to an app on your smartphone, such as Joel Jamison’s BioForce HRV or iThlete. If your HRV score is Red, and you have a killer session planned, adjustment of your training program for that day is needed. Utilization of a personal coach, whether remotely or in person, is extremely useful in this regard.
- Supplement wisely. This also is highly individualized based on training, goals, diet, etc.
Judah Boulet, CSCS, C-ISSN is Owner and Head Coach at No Risk CrossFit/Northern RI Strength and Conditioning, as well as owner of Boulet Health and Performance. He holds a MS in Pharmacology and Toxicology and spends his days as a High School Science Teacher, evenings as a Strength and Conditioning Coach and moonlights as a college Nutrition Instructor.