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CrossFit And Age – How to Coach Older Athletes

Dara Torres first retired in 1992, she was a U.S. swimmer, an Olympic medallist and world record holder. She was also 25 years old.

She thought she was too old to continue with her professional career.

Yet seven years later she came back for the 2000 Sidney Olympics. In an incredible feat of athleticism she won five Olympic medals, including her first three as an individual.

At that point, Torres was the oldest woman to have won an Olympic medal in swimming. She was 33 years old.

In 2006, in the midst of her second retirement, she gave birth to her first child. Sixteen months later, seeing that her times were still competitive, she made a second comeback. In the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Torres won three more medals, among them a silver in the freestyle 50m, where she hit an all-time personal best. She was 41 years old.

Like all master athletes, Torres had a double battle. The first one, which every athlete faces, was the battle against herself. How can I maximize my potential? How can I be the best version of myself? The second one was less obvious. She was going against the mainstream cultural belief that sees aging as a problem.

In the medicalized world we live in, getting older is a synonym of decaying, of sitting still, of not exerting too much.

Torres won both battles. She did what all great athletes do: defy what we think is humanly possible. Unwillingly, she also made a point loud and clear: master athletes are athletes in their own right.

This is the first lesson every coach training older athletes needs to understand. Training the master athlete implies focusing on the very same things that every athlete needs: an adequate nutritional plan, an individualized recovery plan that takes into account the current state of your athlete and where she is in the long term view, and finally an appropriate routine of training stimuli that will get her to her best performance. A master athlete is for all purposes an athlete.

Yet, like for any other segment, knowing the particularities and the trends pertaining that specific group will help you better satisfy these basic needs. Put your nerdy science glasses on and let’s dive into what we know about master athletes.

PERFORMANCE DECLINE OVER LIFE

This is the hardest pill to swallow for the master athlete and coach. It is hard to be in the business of perpetual improvements while accepting biological decline. Yet, understanding how this happens will help you target your efforts efficiently.

Strength and Power Capacity

As we age, muscle strength, power, and mass loss is inevitable. Moreover, this is not modulated by training. Meaning that after a peak-point this decline happens at a very similar rate for trained or untrained humans.

Two things matter for the CrossFitter. First, that the absolute value of strength and muscle mass ARE modulated by training. This means that even though strength and muscle mass will decline, if you keep training you will stay stronger than if you did not.

Second, the decline in powerlifting modalities is linear, while the decrease in Olympic Lifting modalities is curvilinear. In other words, your snatch and your clean and jerk will be hit harder faster and then plateau, while your power lifts will gradually decrease. (Tanaka 2010)

  • What does this mean for the coach? Prioritize strength building and muscle-mass building for the athlete that started lifting later in life. Your objective is to increase that absolute value as much as safely possible. On the other hand, work towards the maintenance of absolute value capacity in the athlete that started young and has already peaked. Your job is not to look for PRs but to keep them lifting strong and heavy.

Aerobic Capacity 

Our maximum heart rate decreases linearly over time at a pace of about 3-6% per decade. VO2 peak capacity seems to decrease curvilinearly with a more dramatic drop later in life. For the CrossFitter this means that the levels of intensity you can achieve will decrease linearly over time, while work capacity at a given intensity will drop more pronouncedly later in life. (Hawkins 2010)

  • What does this mean for the coach? Routinely create and perform effort tests. Educate your athlete on how to relate intensity levels with a given HR. This will inform them on how hard to push in each particular training session and workout, depending on the stimulus you want to hit. This information will keep them training hard while avoiding frustration and burnout.

Skills

Skilled performance can be maintained very well as we age. Our bodies are amazing adaptation machines and can make up for some loss of aerobic and anaerobic capacity with better neurological patterning.

In other words, we might lose some brawn but we gain some smarts. For the CrossFitter this means you will be able to keep performing handstands and muscle-ups as long as you keep having a deliberate and intentional practice of these skills.

  • What does this mean for the coach? Skill development is an area in which you can create a context of continuous growth for your athlete. Foster this by focusing on new skills that build on the ones your athlete has already mastered.

Recovery

When it comes to recovery there seems to be a universal agreement on the internet and among all Master athletes: it gets slower as we age. However, there is little research on the  topic.

We don’t know how much of this is perception, how much of this is due to cultural expectations and behaviors, how much is due to biological aging, and how much is due to training age.

Answering these questions would be fundamental to know how to better address the recovery needs of the master athlete.

We do have good data on the following: heart rate recovery seems to stay the same while muscular recovery seems to be slower (Hawkins 2010). In plain CrossFit language: you have to be paying attention to more than just perceived exertion, which is highly related to heart rate. You will feel fine to go at it again, but your muscles and joints might not.

  • What does this mean for the coach? Provide measures of muscular fatigue and recovery for your athlete. Track stiffness, range of motion, and muscle tone as markers readiness. When programming, modulate stamina and strength work with plenty of aerobic work.

HOW TO TRAIN

Here are the main aspects the coach and the master athlete should keep in mind when designing a complete and effective training plan.

Mindset

  1. Embrace aging! We have been aging since the day we were born. It’s what we do. Despite the normal decline that comes with age, the task of the athlete is always the same: go to the gym/track/pool/road/trail to kick ass and have fun. The fact you could have lifted heavier when you were younger is irrelevant today. Focus on the present. The question is how can you get the most out of your workout, right now?
  2. One of the greatest things of aging is that you are less of an idiot. I do not apologize to the 20-year-olds out there. Nor do I judge you. Older people probably have more resources and a better skill set too. Amplify that! Train your cognition! Keep working on your skills. You don’t need to prove anything to anybody anymore, which is the best context to create a deliberate and intentional training practice. ENJOY IT!
  3. If you love competing, compete! It is often the case that the master athlete will feel a little embarrassed of their drive to compete (Dionigi 2007). There is stigma and shame. It is never too late to have ambition and drive. Keep the goals realistic and foster that edge!

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CrossFit Training as We Age – Nutrition

  1. The big picture interventions are what is going to get you more bang for your buck. How consistent are your eating habits? Is your relationship with food healthy? Is your food building you up or stressing you out? The answer to these questions is your number one priority, your macronutrient breakdown is secondary to these.
  2. Keep up your protein intake. First, make sure you are eating enough fats and carbs. This will guarantee your protein is used for what we want: muscle tissue maintenance and immune function. As a general rule, the master athlete should aim to have a daily intake  of ∼1.5 to 1.6 g per kilogram of body weight (Morton, Murphy, et al., 2018). “When possible, whole-food sources of protein should be a target to practically acknowledge food matrix interactions, and other nutrient requirements, for optimizing the use of protein in the diet.” (Desbro et al., 2018). You read that right, whole-food protein sources will trump any powder you can buy. Keep that in mind.
  3. Be outcome oriented. As you age there are more valuables to consider. Your hormones cycle and your life demands change. Learning how to read and adjust your nutrition given the continuous state of flux of your body is an incredible asset. If needed, hire a coach. I am biased here, because I am one. However I do see the value to have experienced guidance in how to always be adjusting and responding to the messages your body sends.
  4. Supplement wisely. As the name says, supplementation is making up for a lack or deficiency in your nutrition. Don’t let FOMO and sci-fi marketing get the best of you. Before you go that route, fill the lack with real food. Then, if needed, supplement. There’s no real need to get very sophisticated here, the classic, albeit not so trendy anymore, fish oil, magnesium, and creatine can help. If you are taking medicine make sure your supplements go well with your medicine. Ask your doctor!

How to train with Master athletes – Fitness and recovery

  1. Be diligent. When you are young, you can get away with poor practices. You can disregard recovery and still train. That’s just negligence. We put fitness and recovery in the same category because you cannot understand one without the other. Put the same amount of care and effort you do to your squat cycle to your recovery and your body will adapt faster and better.
  2. Prioritize range of motion. While it is true that too much flexibility can hinder the CrossFit athlete, the sad reality is that the overwhelming majority of people don’t have enough flexibility. Most people cannot achieve “normal” range of motion in one or multiple joints – multiple being the standard. Proper range of motion means the connective tissue is working properly with less muscular compensation. This in turn means less aches and pains, in other words: ganinz. Even though connective tissue and range of motion also declines with aging, normal ranges of motion are easily preserved by prioritizing proper form and technique in your movements.
  3. Muscle-tone and soft tissue work. Use that lacrosse ball, the percussion gun or the bony elbow of your masseuse. Whatever is your preferred tool, make soft tissue work a routine in your life. Muscles that are screaming to the touch are not recovering well. Don’t normalize pain.
  4. Minimal effective dose. When deciding volume and loads keep this principle tattooed in your forehead. We are so focused on going the extra-mile, that we forget that the extra-mile is over training. Your job is to do the minimal you can that still achieves the goal, not the maximal.
  5. You are a CrossFitter, constantly varied functional movement performed at high intensities is still your guiding methodology. Keep in mind that intensity is relative to the workout and your present day capacity. Don’t confuse high intensity with maximum effort.
  6. Keep in mind the considerations we declared in the previous section.

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For the experienced athlete and coach everything that I wrote here will read just like proper training. It is! As we said a Master athlete is for all purposes an athlete. Stay focused on your training today, and thrive!


REFERENCES

  1. Desbrow, Ben, Nicholas A. Burd, Mark Tarnopolsky, Daniel R. Moore, and Kirsty J. Elliott-Sale (2019). “Nutrition for Special Populations: Young, Female, and Masters Athletes”, International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism 29, 2: 220-227, accessed Aug 11, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2018-0269
  2. Dionigi, Rylee & O’Flynn, Gabrielle. (2007). Performance Discourses and Old Age: What Does It Mean to Be an Older Athlete?. Sociology of Sport Journal. 24. 359-377. 10.1123/ssj.24.4.359.
  3. Hawkins Steven A.(2010). “The effects of aging and sustained exercise involvement on cardiovascular function in older persons”, The Masters Athlete. Routledge: 52-65.
  4. Schorer, Jörg & Baker, Joe. (2010). Maintenance of skilled performance with age: Lessons from the Masters. The Masters Athlete. Routledge: 66-78.
  5. Tanaka Hirofumi (2010). “Peak exercise performance, muscle strength, and power in master athletes tanaka”, The Masters Athlete. Routledge: 41-44.

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