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More Training Info > Over 50 Strength Training

Over 50 Strength Training
By Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS

“I’m always the last one back to the car.” “My hips hurt whenever I carry a heavy pack.” “I can’t keep up with the 20-somethings.” “I can go forever but I also take forever.” “My knees tend to give out on steep terrain.” “My balance sucks.”

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 strength 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 training routine in any way in the past 2 years? 2) Do I currently do any resistance (i.e. strength) training? 3) Do I know what muscle groups I need to work on to improve my performance? 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! First in a new 3-part series, below, we discuss the importance of strength training for outdoor athletes over 50.

Strength and speed

If you feel like you are slowing down and can no longer keep pace with your younger mountaineering or hiking partners, the first thing to do is change your training routine. Your body adapts to whatever stimulus you give it within about 3-6 weeks. After that you really are simply maintaining.

If you are not doing any strength training, start. If you think that strength training is for younger people, or for those trying to impress someone, get over yourself! Strength training is crucial for increased sports performance, especially if you have never done any form of resistance training before.

Proper resistance training will help you develop strength, power, and speed in the uphill propulsion muscles (glutes; hamstrings; hips; calves; core and lower back muscles) to enable you to go uphill faster, more safely, and more easily. It will increase your confidence on the downhill portions (when most older athletes feel the front of the thighs, the quadriceps, and other muscles around the knees) and you ultimately will have a better shot at keeping up with younger partners and feeling less discomfort doing so.

Suitable Strength Programs

Where can you find a suitable strength training routine for the lower body?

  • Hiking Strength offers sport-specific exercises
  • The training programs page includes examples of programs
  • The Outdoor Athlete book offers complete sport-specific programs for 17 different sports and includes cardiovascular training information, flexibility and strength exercises, and sport-specific tips.

Hike testpiece

To gauge how your resistance training program is affecting your development of speed, strength and power, find a hike or route that you can do every other week or so and time yourself from car to car, including rest breaks and lunch. The time it takes on your first outing becomes your baseline measurement. Each time you hike the same trail, try to increase your speed (or carry more weight in the same amount of time). By having some sort of consistent benchmark hike, you can chart how your strength training program is affecting your speed and performance and adjust accordingly for optimal results.

Below are some conditioning tips specific to hiking which will help with speed development:

  1. Heavier pack weight – the key to getting results is to change something in your program. If you always go out with a light day pack, try increasing your pack weight every so often and doing a shorter hike. By adding weight, you tap into harder-to-access muscle fibers that do not get recruited as easily or as often. While doing so may result in a little soreness, and may slow you down the first time you do it, the next time you hike, your usual pack will feel that much lighter.
  2. Lighter pack weight – the converse of (1) above: if you always carry a fairly heavy pack, try going lighter for more elevation gain, greater distance, or shorter time. A longer hike will result in greater strength endurance. A change in terrain steepness will cause you to work the muscles differently (specifically glutes and quadriceps). A lighter pack weight will allow you to increase leg turnover rate and pick up your speed. The next time you hike you will feel like you are a tad faster.
  3. Leg turnover rate training – “Random speed play,” otherwise known as Fartlek intervals (see www.bodyresults.com/e2fartlekintervals.asp), is great for helping increase your leg turnover rate (i.e. how fast you can take steps). During your training hikes, attack steeper portions of the trail with long, powerful strides. Choose several short segments (<200 yards or meters) partway through the outing and push yourself to 90% of your maximal effort. The remaining segments of the hike at base pace will feel easier in comparison, and you will have decreased your total hike time. The more you can include random bursts of speed among your bouts of steady hiking, the more fit you become.

Strength recommendations for athletes over 50

Whether you are male or female, young or old, a goal is a goal; if you cannot carry a heavy pack (35-55 pounds) while gaining 10,000 feet of elevation on Mount Rainier, Washington, in 2-4 days, 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 resistance training 2-3 times a week for at least 20 to 30 minutes. Since outdoor athletes are embarking on more rigorous end goals than “pick up the grandkids” or “walk 18 holes of golf,” they require far more than the relatively sedentary “able population.”

Strive for completing a full body sport-specific strength workout (2-3 sets of 6-8 exercises for 8-15 repetitions for 30-45 minutes each) twice a week and a weekly weighted backpack walk (for an hour or longer). Such a program constitutes your minimum maintenance resistance training program for backpacking, scrambling, hiking, climbing, trekking and mountaineering.

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 three or more strength workouts per week when you were younger, you may wonder about how decreased frequency will affect your results.

Studies actually show that 2 days of strength training can be as effective as 3. Since outdoor athletes require a balance in programming that also takes into consideration sufficient coordination, balance and flexibility training, aerobic and anaerobic conditioning, skill development, and sport-specific training, removing one 45-minute training block can actually free up time for other fitness components that may allow for greater improvement. Furthermore, never underestimate the benefit of adequate recovery; by training smarter, not more, you may actually see performance increase.

Novice strength trainee

If you are over 50 and have never done any organized strength training before, find a reliable resource (online trainer, exercise video, personal coach, or knowledgeable friend) who will help you learn how to perform exercises with proper form. While you may feel as though it is faster, easier, or more comfortable to use strength machines on your own, such machines may actually end up fitting your body poorly, contributing to higher strain rates. Furthermore, by relying on the machines for support, you often do not have to work as hard, and all the stabilizing muscles that help you in the natural 3-D environment get short-changed.

With just a few minutes of instruction, you can learn some simple free weights exercises that will be far more beneficial for preparing you for your sport. Such basic free-weights leg exercises that are crucial for all outdoor athletes over 50 include the a) 1-leg Deadlift (www.bodyresults.com/e2gluteusmedius.asp); b) Reverse step up (www.bodyresults.com/e2kneetest.asp); and c) Step ups. For professional program development via our online WebTraining service, please see www.bodyresults.com/p1webt.asp if you live outside the greater Seattle area. For information on scheduling an in-person consultation, contact trainer at bodyresults.com

Additional Information

This concludes part 1 of our 3-part series for Senior Athletes over 50 years old. Links to all three parts are below:


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