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Special Populations: Training Considerations for Athletes Over 50
By Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS
If you are wondering what changes to make to your training program as you approach or climb above the age of 50, keep reading. You can continue to make improvements in your conditioning levels no matter what your age or experience level, though as we age it requires more planning, diligence, intelligent program manipulation, and in some cases added recovery time. Below, we share a few tips on making the most of what you’ve got by training smarter with proper program design and implementation once you pass the half-century mark.
Strength train into the second half-century
On our website and in our training, we do not delineate among age groups or between sexes; male or female, young or old, if you cannot carry a heavy pack (35-55 pounds) while gaining 10,000 feet of elevation on Mount Rainier, Washington, in several days, you will not reach the summit. The requirements remain the same, but how you go about achieving those requirements may change as we age and varies greatly from person to person based on training age (how long you’ve been training), exercise experience, skill level within your chosen sport, and overall health. It’s never too late to start a personalized training program.
“…with strength training you can increase your strength beyond any level you achieved before, through your 60s and sometimes beyond that (though you may need to include more recovery time if you are older than 50). It is never too late to start strength training. People can begin lifting weights for the first time in their 50s, 60s, and beyond. Through proper and consistent training, many of these people will be able to achieve greater strength levels than those they experienced in their 20s.”
Excerpted from The Outdoor Athlete, (Schurman and Schurman 2008) Chapter 4
An Age Advantage
Most people are aware of the problems we face as we age. However, what about the advantages? One advantage we all have as we age is increased experience, especially if you have been doing your sport for some time. While the experienced mountaineer in his 60’s may feel like he is slowing down somewhat with age, compared to the fit young newcomer with little experience, the older athlete knows well how to conserve energy, be more precise with movement, be more comfortable with skills required in his sport, and how to respond to different stresses on the body. The older mountaineer can frequently outperform inexperienced climbers who may suffer from the “hurry-and-wait” pace at high altitude, who waste lots of energy on sloppy foot placements in snow or on ice, or who carry far more weight on their backs because they don’t yet know what they can comfortably afford to leave behind.
Max Heart Rate Decrease
Maximum heart rate (MHR) decreases with age and no amount of training will ever change that simple fact. VO2Max, which many feel is predominantly hereditary, will change only modestly through training over the course of your life. However, what is fully trainable is how hard you can work at a high percentage of your MHR capacity. You can train your body to be far more efficient at higher percentages of max effort, and you can also learn to tolerate lactic acid buildup. By including higher intensity intervals training at least once every 1-2 weeks, you will train your body to be able to tolerate higher levels of work, which will keep your heart and lungs strong and give your metabolism a significant boost. Without such training, you can lose fast twitch muscle fibers (the ones primarily responsible for speed, power, and maximum strength) at the rate of 10% per decade. If you have never done interval training before, and you add such work to your program in your 50’s or 60’s, you may find that your speed returns to levels you had in your 30’s and 40’s simply because you’ve added a very effective way to develop increased speed. (For more information about such training for mountaineering see www.bodyresults.com/e2intervals.asp).
Older athletes need all the training components of younger athletes – aerobic and anaerobic conditioning, upper and lower body strength, sport-specific skill development, cross-training, flexibility training, recovery – but in different frequency, intensity, time and type. Since anaerobic training is so physically taxing on the body, older athletes may find they can maintain high levels of conditioning by switching to interval training once every 1-2 weeks, rather than 1-2 times per week. They may choose to insert an extra 1-2 days of recovery time following any repeat effort Back-to-Back training (see www.bodyresults.com/articles/back-to-back-pack-carrying.asp). Instead of doing a long run every other week, they might reduce the frequency to once every 3 weeks. One training component that does seem to be diminished in older people is flexibility, which makes it especially critical to include regular and consistent stretching to help maintain normal range of motion about all the joints and help ward off onset of pain in the lower back, hips, and thighs which can come about through loss of flexibility.
Pay close attention to how your body feels anytime you change something in your workouts, particularly as you increase the frequency, intensity, or duration of your training. Keep track of your resting heart rate several mornings in a row and make note of any variations greater than 5 beats compared to your norm, as that may indicate overtraining. Chart waking basal temperature at the same time, before you get out of bed; if body temperature changes any more than .5 degrees F, it may be a signal that your body is warding off something and you should take it easier that day. Both are tools that can help the older athlete determine whether his or her recovery time between challenging workouts of long duration or high intensity is sufficient.
Balance, Agility, Coordination
As we age, unilateral (single-limb) balancing exercises such as step ups, step downs, and 1-leg deadlifts (see www.bodyresults.com/e2balanceexercises.asp for more on how to do such exercises) and simple agility drills such as working through obstacle courses or stepping laterally on agility ladders become increasingly more challenging but also more important. Loss of balance and coordination can contribute to more frequent falls or spills, which, as we age, can result in pain, discomfort, fractures or injuries. By continuing multi-dimensional training beyond the age of 50, you enhance all three of these areas and train not only the body, but the mind as well. Be sure at least 1/3 of your exercises are unilateral balancing exercises, especially in early season and if you are relatively new to such training. When first starting out, be aware that you may need a wooden dowel, nearby wall or hand rail, or second foot assistance until your balance and coordination improve.
Finally, as you embark on any new training routine in your 50’s or 60’s, be sure to get help from a qualified trainer who can listen closely to your health history and personal goals, design a suitable exercise program that will include all the fitness components of a sound routine to get you where you wish to go, and teach you proper form for every strength and flexibility exercise. Remember that perfect form is crucial to safe and effective progress without strain or injury. For more information about how to train effectively in your 50’s and 60’s, please contact us at trainer at bodyresults.com.
You can find more training information for Athletes over 50 in our 3-part series. Links to all three parts are below: