Top 12 Training Principles for Masters Athletes

Mug-shot-223x30044 years of involvement in competitive sport and 21 years in sports science have taught me something – that best practice is taking what the science suggest may work and applying the science to see whether it does work. Below are what I consider the top twelve training principles for masters athletes.

There are numerous methods to improve endurance, speed, power, strength or flexibility.  However, the development of these capacities should always be based on guiding principles. The twelve principles below are based on both my own research, my extensive study in the area of sports science, and cold hard experience.

1. Specificity

That is, we should analyse the demands of our sport or event and specifically train those demands. A sprinter should do sprint and resistance training, an endurance athlete should do endurance training. The exercises we use in flexibility or strength training should simulate the body positions and joint movements used in the event or sport. I see too many aging athletes train for speed events in competition by endurance training methods. Train smart by training specifically.

2. Progressive Overload

Training needs to place demands on the body in training. The body will adapt if the training is regular and at a level above those normally done. Once the body has adapted, it is time to again overload. Progressive overload means gradually training harder, more often, or for longer in a session.  Aging athletes train with lower volumes and lower relative intensities than younger athletes, possibly due to lack of motivation or lack of time as a result of family or work commitments.  However, it might be suggested much of the decrease in aging athletes’ speed and endurance might be explained by decreased training intensity or volume relative to younger athletes.  This may be due the reasons outlined above or to the myth that the older person shouldn’t train hard for cardiovascular or injury risk reasons.  I am totally opposed to this attitude – an attitude I see all too often in both the general community and the medical profession.  I see no reason the aging athlete cannot train as hard as the youngsters – on the assumption that the aging athlete is healthy and has been pre-screened by a sports physician and / or sports physiotherapist.

3. Be prepared to adapt more slowly than you did as a kid

For the aging athlete, the rule of thumb should be “start low and build slowly”.  While little research has been completed on the adaptation of aging athletes to training, a number of studies on older non-athletes doing endurance or strength training have consistently shown that older people do adapt to the same degree that younger people do, but they take significantly longer to adapt. As a general rule, the older and less fit the athlete, the lower they should start and the more slowly they should progress.

4. Train intensely

The bottom line is that training intensely is the key to success in sport, regardless of the age of the athlete.  For we aging athletes where age-related declines in all our capacities are slowing us down, keeping the heart, nerves, muscles, lungs and other body systems working to the highest level is even more important in maintaining performance or at least slowing the age-related declines in speed, endurance and strength.

5. Use intensity sparingly

As a general rule, no more than three intense workouts should be done by the experienced and competitive aging athlete per week.  For recreational aging athletes two intense workouts are enough.  These workouts should be preceded by easy workouts and you should be fresh to make the most of the intense work.  Other days should be devoted to lower intensity work and technique development.

6. Always warm-up and cool-down

To prevent injuries, reduce the risk of a cardiac event and maximize training or racing performance, warm-up is essential.  Chapter 4 of The Masters Athlete discusses what science says about warm-up, including the best way to do it.

7. Do flexibility training

In the aging athlete, research has shown that flexibility decreases, particularly in the hip joint.  This finding has strong implications for the older sprint runner who needs hip flexibility to ensure stride length, a major contributor to speed.  Apart from performance enhancement, the main reason for including flexibility training in your workouts is to prevent injury.  While many aging athletes stretch before a workout, too few focus extended time on stretching routines outside of warm-ups.  To prevent injury, increase range of movement and thus force application, help recover from workouts, and for helping prevent or treat some debilitating diseases, stretch in front of the TV 2-3 times per week

8. Strength train all year round

The muscle mass and strength of aging athletes drops, regardless of high intensity training into old age. These decreases start to occur at age 50 but accelerate after the age of 65 years. Thus, the older we become, the more important strength training should become.  Apart from the performance benefits, strength training will go a long way to preventing injury, particularly when doing intense training.

9. Periodise your training

This principle involves working hard at times and easy at times.  We work hard at times to stress our body and we work easy at times to allow recovery from the stress.  Training the same way every day, week in week out is not the way to train effectively.

10. Recover hard and smart

Research on older non-athletes and anecdotal personal experience suggest that aging athletes need more rest between quality training sessions and therefore need to focus more aggressively on nutritional and physical recovery strategies.  We must allow our body to adapt to the training loads placed on it. Too little recovery leads to injury, overtraining and decreased performance or burnout.  Although no research has examined recovery from workouts in the older athlete, research from older non-athletes suggests masters athletes take longer to recover between intense training sessions than younger athletes.  Recovery can include eating and drinking immediately after training, hot and cold water contrasts, spas, massages, light swims, or recovery jogs.  Chapter 15 of The Masters Athlete examines these strategies in detail.

11. Be Consistent

Too many aging athletes get sick, injured, burnout or overtrain.  When these occur, they are generally due to pushing too hard, too often without recovering smart.  The downtime that results from these problems means lost fitness and the hard road back to that fitness level.  Consistent training, not hard training, is the smart way to fitness.  It means using the recovery methods discussed in The Masters Athlete (Chapter 15).

12. Listen To Your Body

As aging athletes we are experienced enough to know when it’s time to ease back on how hard or often we train.  If the body is “weary”, muscles are ”niggling”, or you feel tired, then listen to those warning signs and ease back, use the recovery strategies discussed in detail in Chapter 15 of The Masters Athlete, or rest completely.  If the body continues to complain, see a sports medicine-trained professional who understands your sport.

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