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The Outdoor Athlete Book by Courtenay and Doug Schurman

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More Training Info > Over 50 Cardiovascular Training

Over 50 Cardiovascular Training
By Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS

“I can go forever but I also take forever.” “I can’t keep up with the 20-somethings any more.” “It always seems to take longer and longer to recover.” “Trying to work out at 70% of my theoretical MHR leaves me feeling like I’m barely moving. What am I doing wrong with the math? Am I doing harm exercising higher than that?”

Sound familiar? I hear comments like these all the time from clients over 50 who lament about how their bodies are not keeping pace with their minds past the half-century mark. Every one of these complaints can be erased by embarking on a properly designed cardiovascular training routine specific to your sport and particular weaknesses.

Simple Self-assessment

If you hear yourself making the same comments, answer the following questions: 1) Have I changed my cardiovascular routine in any way in the past 2 years? 2) Do I know what my average “go forever” (65-70% MHR) heart rate is? 3) Do I currently do any speed training (combination of intervals and strength)? 4) Am I satisfied enough with where I am physically to keep doing what I’m doing?

If you answered “no” to any one of the four, then read on! Second in a 3-part series, below, we discuss the importance of varied cardiovascular training for outdoor athletes over 50.


The biggest mistake we see people making (and we admit, we’re guilty of it as well) is repeating the same workout over and over; either putting the machine on the same level resistance, same elevation, same time, or running one flat course over and over without ever changing anything about it. To get out of an aerobic rut, first, change something about your training routine.

Your body adapts to whatever stimulus you give it within about 3-6 weeks. This could be as simple, initially, as walking or running your favorite route in the reverse direction so you see things in a new way; choosing a different program course on the aerobic equipment; exercising with a training partner or to favorite upbeat music instead of always going alone; or inserting a few fartlek (random speed bursts) sprints on an otherwise smooth course (see www.bodyresults.com/e2fartlekintervals.asp for ideas). The next step would be to actually plan workouts of different intensities, exercise options, and durations, so you have suitable variety built into your schedule.

Maximum Heart Rate

As we age, our Maximum Heart Rate (MHR) decreases. Rather than using the old formula percentages of 220-age (which tends to underestimate appropriate intensities for the active population), use 208 – .7*(age) to give you your theoretical MHR, and MHR – RHR (resting heart rate averaged over 3 days) = HRR (heart rate reserve). Multiply your HRR by .75 and add this number to your RHR to get your “go forever” upper approximation for sustained cardiovascular training.

For example, the 60-year-old with a RHR of 56 beats per minute would have an MHR of 166 beats per minute, because 208 – .7(60) = 166, and so your HRR (or MHR-RHR) is 110 beats per minute. Your aerobic training zone would then be .65 * 110 = 71.5 and .75 * 110 = 82.5. Adding each of these numbers to your RHR gives you 127.5 to 138.5 beats per minute as your target training zone for distance workouts. The old formula (220-age) *.65-.75 would have given you a range of 104-120, fully 25 beats lower. So if you feel your “ideal range” leaves you standing still during endurance workouts, use a more appropriate formula and allow yourself to work a little harder!

Strength and speed

If you feel like you are slowing down and can no longer keep pace with your younger mountaineering or hiking partners, and you are not doing any strength training, start today (see Part 1 in this series, Over 50 strength Training) If you are already doing some strength training but you are not seeing improvement in performance, then you need to. If you are no longer increasing your speed or getting stronger, it may be that you need to:

  • Change the repetition scheme you’re using (say, from sets of 12-15 to sets of 6-8 for strength)
  • Select more targeted exercises that will help develop strength where you need it
  • Change the frequency of your strength training; if you are completing full body exercises once a week, try bumping up to 2-3 weekly sessions; if you train more than three days a week, you may need more recovery time between sessions.

Cardiovascular Recommendations for Athletes over 50

Whether you are male or female, young or old, a goal is a goal; if you cannot hike for 4-5 hours a day with a pack while gaining 4,000 feet of elevation per day on Mount Rainier, Washington, you simply will not be able to reach the summit. The requirements for each individual remain the same, but how you go about achieving those requirements change as we age.

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that “able-bodied adults” do cardiovascular training 20 or more minutes, 3-5 times a week. Since outdoor athletes are embarking on more rigorous end goals than “weed and mow the yard” or “fly a kite with the grandkids” they require far more than the relatively sedentary “able population” and should allow more total build-up time to train than they needed when they were younger.

Strive for completing a few 45-60 minute endurance workouts, one shorter, higher intensity 30 minute aerobic workout (what we refer to in The Outdoor Athlete (www.bodyresults.com/store/outdoor-athlete.html) as a “Tempo” piece, or steady pace effort at about 80% MHR), perhaps one intervals workout focusing on increasing leg turnover rate (speed) and a weekly weighted backpack walk (for an hour or longer). Such a program constitutes a well-rounded cardiovascular program suitable for backpacking, scrambling, hiking, climbing, trekking and mountaineering year round.

Cumulative Effort Counts

Studies show that shorter bouts of cardiovascular training spread throughout the course of a day can be as effective as one long one of equal cumulative duration. If it is difficult to free up 2 hours for a pack workout but you can do 2 one-hour pack workouts (early morning and late afternoon), by all means do so rather than forgoing the endurance work altogether. Just be sure that as you approach any longer endurance goals that you have, you’re doing most of your endurance workouts in one piece. A few broken into segments will not hurt in the long run and may be just the key to fitting everything in before your adventure.


Remember that as we age, we need more recovery time between hard efforts. That refers to pack-loaded workouts as well as higher intensity cardiovascular training and strength training. If you were able to do daily aerobic workouts when you were younger, you may wonder about how decreased frequency will affect your results. Never underestimate the benefit of adequate recovery; by training smarter, not always harder and more, you may actually see performance increase.

Be aware that muscle soreness is not always a gauge of how much recovery time you need. If after a particularly challenging outing you feel more sore than usual, you may actually benefit from active recovery, low-intensity effort (<65% MHR) such as 20-30 minutes of walking, flat-land biking, swimming, or yoga, in order to increase blood flow, enhance flexibility, and decrease overall soreness. Recovery workouts ARE NOT geared toward increasing aerobic capacity, so keep them low effort, but DO let yourself move, and see what a difference it makes. For more on that topic and restoration techniques see www.bodyresults.com/e2activerecovery.asp as well as ww.bodyresults.com/e2restoration.asp.

Additional Information

This concludes part 2 of our 3-part series for Senior Athletes over 50 years old. Links to all three parts are below:


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