COMMON MYTHS AND MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT THE AGING ATHLETE
26/07/2022 # Home
Myths and misconceptions about aging occur because of a sampling bias. Research into the effects of aging, especially prior to 2012, was often based on a sedentary or diseased population. Conclusions were made that do not necessarily apply to a healthy and fit population. The trainer has a responsibility to debunk the myths around aging and remove self-imposed obstacles to fitness. We explore some of the commonly held myths below:
Myth #1: Older Athletes Cannot Get Stronger or Improve Their Physical Capacity.
It is a common belief that with age you get weaker and lose capacity. It is implied that older athletes cannot get stronger or improve their capacity. In the CrossFit masters community, we have substantial empirical data that shows that you can not only maintain strength and fitness levels as you age but also get stronger and fitter as you age if training is maintained.
The research into masters athletes is limited, and there are few quality studies that target a trained masters cohort (Mckendry et al., 2018). Most research investigates a sedentary population and draws the incorrect conclusion that strength and muscle mass decline with age. Where masters athletes have been studied, the research is often confounded by a focus on endurance athletes who have not undertaken continued strength training. However, if the research controls for a sedentary or endurance population and investigates an athletic population that undertakes resistance training, the findings support the notion that strength and muscle mass do not decline with age but rather with inactivity (Wroblewski et al., 2011). More recent meta-analysis of the research indicates that masters athletes can continue to adapt to exercise stimuli in a similar manner to younger adults (Mckendry et al., 2018).
Beyond the research, and more usefully, the CrossFit Games provide us with compelling empirical data that is now longitudinal and presents a very different picture from the general research view. We can show improvements in strength and physical capacity in athletes who have competed in multiple age categories as we follow their competitive careers. In 2011, 41-year-old Matt Swift lifted 245 lb. (112 kg) in the thruster event at the Regionals. In 2015, 46-year-old Swift lifted 275 lb. (125 kg) in the thruster event at the Games. That is a 10 percent improvement despite his being five years older and up an age category. As a similar comparison, Amanda Allen lifted 150 lb. at age 40 (68 kg) in the thruster event at the 2011 Regionals. In 2015, at age 45, Allen lifted 165 lb. (75kg) in the thruster event at the Games. That is a 10 percent improvement as well. This is real data that shows categorically that strength and physical capacity can improve with training even as an athlete grows older. These are not isolated data points. Instead, they represent a trend among masters athletes competing in the CrossFit Open, Masters Qualifiers and Games events longitudinally. The empirical data is compelling.
When we look at data that takes into account athletes who train properly and continuously, not only can older athletes improve their capacity, they can improve it significantly.
Myth #2: Older Athletes Should Not Train at Intensity
Older adults are often told that low intensity training is most appropriate and to avoid strenuous activity. A common piece of advice is to take “everything in moderation.” The misconception that older adults should not train with intensity seems to be based on a misguided belief that intensity places the athlete at risk, more so than it would a younger athlete.
Intensity is important within our program because it is the independent variable most commonly associated with maximizing the rate of return on favorable adaptation.
Another way of saying this is that intensity is the pathway to results. That is true regardless of age. What makes intensity a safe prescription for an older adult is applying it relative to the individual. Relative intensity is defined as working to the boundary of physical and psychological tolerance and not beyond. Adhering to our charter of teaching correct mechanics first, achieving consistency second, and only then applying relative intensity mitigates the risk for an older athlete who is in good health.
Health conditions may alter and increase the risk profile, but the same conditions pose similar risk for a younger athlete in relation to intensity—i.e., it is the condition, not the age, that creates the increased risk. Responsible training requires the training program to be modified to take into account any known contraindications associated with medical conditions or disease states.
Strenuous exercise is associated with a transient elevation of the risk of sudden cardiac death where there is underlying coronary artery disease. Any client with a heart condition or symptoms of a heart condition should be referred to a suitably qualified medical professional before undertaking training, and the trainer should prescribe intensity in accordance with the specific guidance provided. The guidance of prescribing relative intensity is still the best guidance, even with a diseased client.
It should be noted that regular training also substantially reduces the risk of coronary artery disease (Chugh et al., 2015). Regular strenuous exercise is safer than irregular strenuous exercise. Where there is an irregular training pattern, it is sensible to reduce intensity until a regular training pattern is re-established. This is entirely consistent with our charter of mechanics, consistency, then intensity.
Injury rates in the masters population are correlated more with overuse than intensity (Langer, 2015), and injury rates in a trained masters population are actually low and do not increase with age (Ganse et al., 2012). Intensity plays an important role in actually reducing injury risk because of the associated reduction in volume. It is actually extremes of endurance exercise and prolonged (or chronic) training that adversely affect the health of older athletes (Eijsvogels et al., 2016). Provided it is appropriately prescribed, regular training with intensity is most appropriate for older athletes (Fournier, 2012); it supports better bone density and lean muscle mass (Gast et al. 2013) and may minimize a decline in anaerobic work capacity as we age (Reaburn and Dascombe, 2009).
Myth #3: Older Athletes Need a Segmented Program That Is Simpler and Has Reduced Skill Demand (I.e., Avoid Complex Gymnastics and Weightlifting)
Older adults are often told by medical practitioners that the most appropriate form of exercise is walking. Although this may be a good starting point for someone who has lived life on the couch, there is no evidence to support the myth that older adults need a simplified exercise program.
CrossFit is unique in its ability to train the neurological components of fitness: coordination, accuracy, agility and balance. This is achieved by incorporating complex motor patterns in the form of gymnastics and Olympic weightlifting. The benefits of neurological capacity cannot be overstated, and the requirement to train these components does not diminish with age. On the contrary, it becomes more essential. It is the case that older athletes, particularly late masters in the 55+ bracket, find neurological skills more challenging to learn, but that is also precisely the reason that they need to be included in the program. The teaching of complex skills may have to be adapted, but they can and should be learned. Everybody can learn gymnastics with appropriate scaling, and everybody can learn the Olympic lifts with appropriate loads. The CrossFit program does not need to be reduced or segmented for an older athlete. It just needs to be appropriately scaled. Any limitation in teaching a masters athlete complex movements lies in the skill of the trainer, not in the capacity of the client.
Myth #4: Older Athletes Can’t Train Hard Because They Have Diminished Ability to Recover
It is a common assumption among coaches and athletes alike that it is harder to recover as you get older and therefore older athletes need less work and more recovery time. By recovery, we mean the ability to return to a pre-exertion state within a training session, as well as the ability to overcome the effects of fatigue between training sessions. In simple terms, this means being ready to go again without performance being impaired.
The literature is inconclusive. Where there has been continuity of training, recovery only diminishes in much later life (70+ years) and is consistent with a decline in VO2 max. But in sedentary masters the diminished recovery is significant and occurs much earlier, which suggests that lifestyle factors are more of a contributor than age alone. Recovery Inhibiting lifestyle factors—factors such as limited training time, work demands, poor sleep, stress, inadequate nutrition, social commitments, alcohol, etc.—are probably more prominent in the masters population, particularly for the early masters. For most masters, it is likely that their physiology can handle much more than their chosen lifestyle allows.
The key point is that it is convenient for masters athletes to blame poor recovery on their age, but before accepting that, ensure that they are doing the things that athletes need to do in order to maximize recovery—e.g., sleeping, getting proper nutrition, de-stressing, practicing active recovery techniques, etc. The trainer needs to address the negative feedback loop that the recovery myth creates. The belief that age inhibits recovery leads to a lack of focus on recovery, which in turn leads to poor recovery. This negative feedback loop is illustrated in Figure 1.:
We accept that there are age-based biological changes that can inhibit recovery at a metabolic level (Doering et al., 2015), but we should not perceive them as a limiter. Masters athletes can work hard, but to do so and recover, they need to do everything right with regard to recovery strategies. Whereas a younger athlete can possibly tolerate a poor lifestyle and still recover, an older athlete cannot.
Acknowledging potentially diminished recovery should only be a factor in making smart decisions when programming and coaching—i.e., use less volume and perform higher quality work. From a coaching perspective, it is very important that you ensure that your athletes are doing everything they need to do to recover before you fall into the trap of blaming age for poor recovery or reduced performance.
Where an athlete is doing everything right but still failing to recover, it would indicate that training volume has not been appropriately scaled. In this situation, scaling should be adjusted and an extra rest day per week added until recovery improves. This has the effect of reducing overall volume. Once the athlete is thriving again, the training day can be added back in. Note that it is excessive volume, not intensity, that is underlying issue.