Working with older-adult athletes can be a rewarding and eye-opening experience.
Dressed in a long-sleeve T-shirt and blue sweat pants, tall, thin, silver-haired trackster Everett Hosack of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, clocked a world indoor record (27.29) in the 60-meter dash for men at the 2002 USA Track and Field Nationals; minutes later, he won the 8.8-pound shot-put event with a toss of 11 feet, 6.75 inches.
After the shot put, there was an eruption of spontaneous applause from the crowd, along with many congratulations from officials. Within a span of 8 days, Hosack had set indoor records in five events, including the 35-pound superweight throw. One detail of note regarding Hosack—he was 100 years old at the time. While it may seem surprising to some to hear of a 100-year-old track-and-field superstar, Hosack is now just one member of the growing ranks of masters athletes across the United States, and it is likely that the U.S. will produce many more competitors just like him (or even older) over the next several decades.
Participation in competition by masters athletes has risen steadily over the past few decades. In 1987, only 500 participants competed in the annual Huntsman World Senior Games, which is open to all athletes aged 50 and older and offers a variety of sports competitions, such as basketball, biking, swimming, volleyball and tennis. Contrast those numbers with the more than 9,000 masters athletes who competed in the 2007 competition. In 2005, 10,500 competitors participated in events held across the U.S. as part of the National Senior Olympic Games (NSGA). In 2007, the NSGA reached a milestone by hosting over 12,000 competitors, while also creating a new 80+ age division for basketball. The NSGA anticipates participation swelling to 15,000 for the 2011 competition.
These athletes represent a growing hodgepodge of individuals with varying abilities, interests and sporting experience who are part of the global aging boom. The U.S. Administration on Aging estimated that in 2006—the year the first Baby Boomers turned 60—almost 8,000 adults reached that age every day in the United States alone, and many other countries are experiencing similar senior explosions. Some of these masters athletes are former competitive athletes still eager to stay at the top of their game, while a growing number were never competitive in their younger years and have just “aged into it” or have picked up their sport late in life. An example of a “later-life” athlete is Helen Beauchamp, who didn’t enter her first track-and-field event until the spry age of 64, and then went on to earn five gold medals and set one national record at the 2007 National Senior Games at the age of 87. Although different sports have specific definitions of a masters athlete, in general the term is used to denote an athlete over the age of 50.
Baby Boomers’ growing interest in health, wellness and anti-aging—combined with their high amount of discretionary income—certainly helps create an environment that is conducive to producing large numbers of masters athletes. Senior Olympians are models of successful aging, as they exhibit high levels of functional capabilities and suffer from fewer chronic diseases than their nonathlete peers; moreover, they enjoy a high quality of life and report higher levels of physical and mental health on subjective surveys (Wright & Perricelli 2008). The most commonly reported conditions are low-back pain (25.3%), hypertension (22.9%) and knee osteoarthritis (15.3%), all at lower prevalence rates than their peers in the general population (Wright & Perricelli 2008). This is consistent with a large volume of data showing that physically active adults at all ages are at lower risk of—and have lower prevalence rates of—many chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers (Tanaka & Seals 2003). As the Boomers age and numerous organizations continue to extol the benefits of regular exercise, it is likely that the number of masters athletes will increase exponentially over the next two decades, thereby representing an unprecedented opportunity for fitness facilities and personal trainers.
Because of their exemplary physical and mental condition, masters athletes provide a great model for the study of successful, optimal aging. Changes observed in this group with advancing age are considered the results of primary (physiological) aging rather than secondary (lifestyle) aging (Tanaka & Seals 2003). It has been well established that negative lifestyle behaviors—such as smoking, poor diet, weight gain and sedentary living—contribute significantly to a loss of physical function by the age of 60–70 (Jones & Rose 2005). By avoiding these negative behaviors and adopting many positive behaviors, masters athletes maintain good physical performance capabilities into the seventh decade of life, suggesting that most adults should likewise be able to sustain their physiological reserves until that time (Tanaka & Seals 2003).
In the most recent review of the literature regarding age-associated changes in endurance-exercise performance, Tanaka & Seals (2008) state that “older athletes strive to maintain or even improve upon the performance they achieved at younger ages, but declines in athletic performance are inevitable with [aging].” Both running and swimming performance appear to decline in a curvilinear (greater declines with every passing year) fashion with advancing age, although the patterns are not identical and gender is an important factor. In general, swimming performance declines to a lesser degree and drops off later than running.
Specifically, running performance is well maintained until around the age of 35, with modest declines in performance until the age of 50–60 and a progressively steeper increase in running times thereafter (Tanaka & Seals 2003). Swimming performance, by contrast, does not appear to reach an exponential rate of decline until around the age of 70, a full 10 years later than running performance. In addition, the magnitude of decline is as much as 30% smaller in swimming than it is in running. The increased magnitude of age-related decline in running performance has been at least partially attributed to an increased incidence of orthopedic injuries. This is likely not the case for swimming, since fewer injuries are observed in swimmers. It is also possible that because swim training is based on intervals, swimmers may be able to maintain training intensity with age (Tanaka & Seals 2003).
Gender differences also exist. The rate of decline in running performance is faster in women, especially after the age of 60. Women’s performance has been shown to decline up to three times faster than men’s. Sex differences are also observed in swimming but seem to depend on distance, with men significantly outperforming women in shorter distances. However, the differences decline with increasing distance and disappear altogether in the longest distance events (Tanaka & Seals 2003). One of the possible reasons for this is that the smaller body size, smaller body density, greater body fat and shorter legs of women allow them to use less oxygen than men, thus providing an advantage during longer-duration events.
Strength and power performance are similarly affected. The typical aging adult will lose around 30% of muscle mass and maximal strength between the peak years of the 30s and the age of 70, after which the decline appears to increase in an accelerated fashion (Jones & Rose 2005). Strength training athletes seem to exhibit similar rates of decline, although they remain much stronger than their more sedentary peers (due to a higher beginning baseline). Even in Olympic weightlifters, maximal performance levels decrease rather linearly until around the age of 70, when the rates of decline accelerate significantly (Tanaka & Seals 2003). However, even nonagenarians (people in their 90s) retain the capacity for increasing muscular size, strength and power with adequate resistance training, so even athletes who have not participated in a regular weightlifting program before should be highly encouraged to do so.
Three primary determinants of maximal aerobic capacity have been identified as contributing to the age-related reductions in endurance performance: VO2max, lactate threshold and exercise economy. It has been well established that VO2max (maximal oxygen consumption/uptake) is the primary determinant of endurance-exercise performance in adults. An inverse relationship in this realm has been observed in trained distance runners (Tanaka & Seals 2008). Lactate threshold, defined as “the exercise intensity at which blood lactate levels increase significantly above baseline” (Tanaka & Seals 2003), also contributes to the age-related declines in endurance performance. However, the reduction in lactate threshold impacts endurance performance more in young adulthood to early middle age, while reductions in VO2max affect performance more beyond middle age. Although exercise economy, which is the oxygen cost to exercise at a given velocity, is an important determinant of endurance performance, it does not appear to be altered with advancing age and thus contributes little to age-associated declines.
There are numerous physiological factors that contribute to the decline in VO2max with advancing age. Oxygen consumption is determined by central and peripheral factors. The Fick equation—CO = O2 Uptake / ([Arterial O2] – [Venous O2])—states that VO2max = maximal cardiac output (CO) / maximal arteriovenous O2 difference (a-v O2). This equation is applicable at any level of intensity, from resting to maximal. CO, which is measured in liters per minute, is the quantity of blood pumped by the heart each minute. Maximal cardiac output is determined by multiplying maximal heart rate (expressed as beats per minute) (HRmax) by maximal stroke volume (the volume of blood ejected from the heart in a single beat) (SVmax). HRmax declines about 0.7 beats per year, SVmax declines by 10%–20% and peripheral oxygen extraction declines by 5%–10%, thus reducing VO2max in older masters athletes compared with younger athletes (McArdle, Katch & Katch 2001).
Another important consideration is training stimulus. For endurance athletes this means intensity (according to percentage of maximal HR), frequency and distance. For strength athletes it means intensity (according to percentage of one-repetition maximum), volume (sets and repetitions) and frequency. While athletes may intend to continue their training routine, it has been established that neither exercise training intensity nor volume can be maintained for long periods at older ages (Tanaka & Seals 2008). According to Tanaka and Seals (2008), numerous factors may be responsible. First, an increase in family or job responsibilities may reduce both the time and energy available for intense training. Second, there is an increased incidence of orthopedic injuries among masters athletes. Third, biobehavioral (the relationship between behaviors and biological processes) changes may be at work. The motivation to train may be reduced as athletes age, and the goals underlying the motivation may shift away from individual performance toward health benefits. In addition, the intrinsic drive to exercise may decline with age, which has been demonstrated in animal studies (Tanaka & Seals 2008). Regardless of the reasons or combination of factors, an inability to maintain the training stimulus contributes to the rate of decline in VO2max and endurance-exercise performance.
While the exact nutrition needs of masters athletes have not been studied extensively, it is well accepted that they differ somewhat from that of the general population (Rosenbloom & Dunaway 2007). The first major consideration is overall caloric intake, which must be sufficient to meet the energy requirements of their training and competition. Dietary carbohydrate should account for 45%–65% of total daily calories. For endurance exercise that lasts more than 1 hour, carbohydrate “feedings” of 30–60 grams (g) per hour can improve performance. For athletes training on a daily basis, an additional 1.5 g of carbohydrate per kilogram (kg) of body weight should be consumed immediately after exercise, followed by an additional carbohydrate “feeding” 2 hours later (Rosenbloom & Dunaway 2007).
Although protein recommendations for masters athletes have not been established, 1.5–1.7 g/kg daily is likely sufficient to meet amino acid demand (Rosenbloom & Dunaway 2007). The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein for older adults currently stands at 0.8 g/kg daily and has been criticized as being too low. Similarly, a recommendation for fat intake among masters athletes has not been established either. The current RDA of fat for older adults is 20%–35% of daily caloric intake. The recommended intakes of some micronutrients—such as calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B6—are higher for adults over 50 than for younger individuals, but it is unclear whether masters athletes require additional amounts.
Aging athletes have multiple nutritional considerations that are best addressed by a trained/registered sports dietitian. Caloric load, macronutrient breakdown, micronutrient content, supplement and medication use, the presence of medical conditions, age and gender are just some of the critical areas that need to be appropriately assessed. While it is certainly appropriate for trainers who have been educated regarding nutrition needs to provide basic dietary guidance, only a registered dietitian is allowed to formally assess an individual’s nutritional status and develop individualized dietary guidelines. Be mindful to stay within your scope of practice.
Using a combination of knowledge and experience, it is possible to make some recommendations for trainers who are working with masters athletes (or wish to do so). As with any clients, it is important to understand these athletes’ goals and priorities; making assumptions about their training motivations would be a mistake.
As mentioned above, older athletes may experience a shift in their rationale for training and achievement goals. Take for example, 55-year-old lawyer Tom Parker of Dallas. With the assistance of a coach, he bikes for hours in an exercise room above his garage and swims sprints in a nearby lake as preparation for triathlons. However, Parker admits that he worries about aging badly and therefore spends thousands of dollars every year on high-tech health tests and supplements in addition to his rigorous workout routine (Marek 2008). As this case illustrates, it is important to discuss the workout rationale with your client at the beginning of training and listen closely to what you are told so that you can adjust your program accordingly as the sessions progress.
Become an Educator. While masters athletes are typically well-educated concerning training routines, they are eager to learn new information, so you need to become an educator. Boomers in particular are seeking new and stimulating information that will keep them on the cutting edge of personal health and well-being. Actively engage them in conversations that will help you determine what areas are stimulating to them, and then research those areas and bring information with you to share during training or counseling sessions. Nutrition, supplements, training principles, fitness equipment, sports clothing, alternative therapies and medications are just some of the potential topics to explore. Once again, be sure to stay within your scope of practice when sharing what you discover.
Incorporate Interval Work. Start by incorporating 30-second to 2-minute high-intensity intervals into clients’ workouts once or twice a week. You can do this with any mode—for example, running, cycling, elliptical training or swimming. If a client is new to interval training, start with a 1:3 exercise to rest/recovery ratio. For example, have the client perform a high-intensity, near-maximal effort for 30 seconds followed by 90 seconds of low- intensity exercise. As your client adapts to the intervals, he or she will need less recovery time between efforts, and you can add in progressively longer intervals. The ratio can be gradually reduced to 1:2 and then 1:1. Also, begin with 3 sets of intervals and work up to 5 or more sets in a single workout, depending on length of workout time and work:rest ratio.
Add Resistance Training. Even die-hard endurance athletes will need to include resistance training as an integral part of their routine. The benefits for an aging athlete are almost endless, including offsetting the age-related declines that typically occur with advancing age, reducing the incidence of injury, enhancing performance and increasing daily functional abilities. However, many older athletes are still under the impression that resistance training will slow them down, bulk them up and impair their performance. You may need to convince them that just the opposite will happen. Muscle power (the ability to generate force quickly—calculated by multiplying force by velocity) is a key aspect of many competitive events. Power is of significant concern to an aging athlete because muscle power declines earlier and more precipitously than muscle strength.
Use pneumatic cable columns, resistance tubing, aquatics, medicine balls, body weight and other tools to increase clients’ power-generating capabilities. Jump squats, split jumps, line drills, ladder drills, overhead medicine ball throws, medicine ball shuffle passes and resisted running are all great choices.
Take a Whole-Body Approach. Not all strength training routines are created equal, so take a whole-body approach. Whole-body functional routines that integrate movement patterns and utilize multiple muscle groups simultaneously will be the most advantageous in enhancing performance and health and in achieving functional longevity. For example, instead of having clients perform lunges, dumbbell rows and back extensions individually, combine these three exercises into a single multidimensional movement, such as lunging rows with rotation on a cable. The combination movement will challenge the integration of all of the engaged muscles by causing them to work together in a coordinated fashion. This allows you to be much more efficient with your session time while also training athletes in a more functional manner.
Build in Adequate Recovery Time. Rest and recovery are critical to any athlete’s success, and particularly crucial for masters athletes; ensure adequate recovery time, as aging muscles and energy systems take longer to recover from training sessions. Athletic performance and susceptibility to illness and injury are also adversely affected without adequate recovery time. While some athletes will know and allow for this through personal experience, others will feel they need to maintain the training habits (including session frequency and time between sessions) of their more youthful days. You can help ensure solid rest and recovery for older athletes by increasing the time between vigorous training sessions; building in a few sequential days of rest every few weeks; “periodizing” routines into 6- to 12-week cycles followed by a week off from training; and advising them to get adequate quantity and quality of sleep on a consistent basis.
Take the Multidisciplinary Approach. When caring for masters athletes, trainers are not alone, nor should they be. As a matter of fact, only by working in concert with physical therapists, dietitians, physicians (primary care and specialists), chiropractors, naturopaths, massage therapists and athletic trainers, can personal trainers truly be effective. Proactively communicate with other members of an athlete’s healthcare team by requesting information and consultation on issues that fall under their expertise and by referring the athlete to them for appropriate diagnosis, treatment and/or follow-up when warranted.
Becoming more familiar with medical conditions and their treatment will raise your status in the eyes of the other members of the healthcare team. For example, beta-blockers (especially nonselective beta-blockers) are a class of antihypertensive medications that reduce the effects of training and impair exercise performance through the suppression of resting heart rate, maximal heart rate, lipolysis and glycogenolysis. If you understand this, you will be better able to communicate professionally with physicians in an effort to identify alternative medications or treatments that avoid these side effects.
Current levels of athletic participation by masters participants appear to be just the beginning of the need for trainers’ expertise. The Baby Boomers’ experience with exercise, their expected longevity and their interest in health will likely cause the ranks of older athletes to swell considerably, creating a great opportunity for trainers with the interest and ability to work with this population. However, as healthy and robust as these athletes are, the primary aging process creates many serious considerations that must be weighed in the development and implementation of an effective physical training routine. Trainers working with masters athletes should educate themselves fully regarding the effects of age on health and performance.