How to train masters/old athlete?

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The four key variables that interact are the athlete’s goals, age, fitness level, and injury state.


 These four variables form the foundation of the Masters Quadrant, which precisely characterizes specific masters athletes. By assessing the interaction of these four variables, we can define an archetype for the athlete. The archetype provides a simple and consistent way for the trainer to categorize the athlete. Each archetype has specific needs that require the trainer to adapt the training program and coaching style to maximize effectiveness. Goals and age provide us with important information regarding the optimal coaching interaction, whereas fitness level and injury state provide important information on how the program should be scaled. The combination of the four variables identifies 16 different archetypes that the trainer may encounter.


Assessing these four variables is consistent with what a good trainer will do with every athlete, regardless of age—i.e., they are not specific to masters athletes. However, making the assessment explicit and thinking in terms of archetypes is particularly useful for a younger trainer who may not know where to start when faced with a masters athlete.


Goal Orientation

We identify goal orientation by asking, “What is your reason for training?” Based on the answer, we can separate masters athletes into either a performance group or a wellness group. The performance group is interested in competition and motivated by better results. This group also includes anyone who is training for a specific event or sport. The wellness group is interested in regaining health and fitness or maintaining quality of life. Members of this group are motivated by what they can do in the real world and by their level of health. The two groups have very different goals and therefore require a different training approach. This distinction is more significant in the masters population than the general population. Where there is overlap—i.e., the individual states that both are equally important—one goal will still take precedence over the other and will be the primary driver of training behavior.



We use chronological age to separate masters athletes into either an early masters or late masters group. Fifty-five years of age is used as an arbitrary point to separate the two groups, and it works well in practice. Any athlete younger than 55 is categorized as an early masters athlete. The athletes in this group tend to still have active family and work responsibilities, and their lifestyle factors can be very similar to athletes younger than 40. It is not uncommon for early masters to consider themselves as un-aged, and as such, to still identify as a younger athlete—i.e., be in a state of denial, particularly for those in the 40-44 age bracket.


We categorize any athletes older than 55 as a late masters athlete. Athletes in this group tend to be at a stage of life that is distinct from the early masters group. They may be semi-retired or retired, have grown-up families, and the physiological and psychological effects of aging are more noticeable beyond 55 years. Late masters may also have substantially more time for training and access to greater resources. For competitive masters athletes, separating the groups at 55 years also aligns with typical scaling in the Open and Games, so this categorization also is helpful in terms of programming.


Fitness Level

We can divide the masters into fit and deconditioned groups based on their current level of conditioning. Rather than thinking in terms of CrossFit’s definition of fitness, we are more interested in simply determining whether athletes are deconditioned in order to help estimate the degree to which the program needs to be scaled and graduated. For someone presenting to the gym for the first time, the key questions are: (1) “Are they currently exercising?” (2) “Do they have an active lifestyle?” (3) “Have they remained active throughout their life?” and (4) “Do they play sports?” For an existing CrossFit athlete, the key questions also include: (5) “How long have they been training?” (6) “Are they returning from a break in training?” and (7) “Which workouts and movements can they perform as prescribed (Rx’d)?” The answers to these questions help the trainer make a judgment about the current level of conditioning. Having an active lifestyle, currently exercising and regularly playing sports indicates that they are fit. Being sedentary or new to exercise, returning from an extended break in training, or being unable to perform movements indicates that they are likely to be deconditioned.


The starting level of fitness makes a big difference in the degree to which the program needs to be modified. The effects of being deconditioned have an amplified effect for the masters athlete. This means that as a general principle, an older adult who is unfit will need the program to be scaled to a greater degree and will take longer to get fit than a younger adult with the same degree of conditioning. This is an important thing for the coach to understand, and it needs to be made explicit for younger coaches who do not have first-hand experience training older deconditioned adults. The unfit masters athlete has a greater risk of injury if the training is not effectively scaled and is more likely to give up on the program in the early stages, as it can very quickly feel overwhelming.

There is a related dimension to fitness, which is the training history of the athlete. For our purposes, we incorporate training history into our assessment because those who have an extensive athletic or sporting history progress quicker and have fewer problems beginning training. Compliance and progress are best and risk factors are lowest for a fit masters athlete with previous training history. It is worth noting, though, that a deconditioned athlete with previous sporting history or a lot of prior fitness can easily give up on the program because of frustration and unrealistic expectations (based on what they could do previously).


Injury State

The individual’s injury state is an important differentiator. We divide masters into uninjured and injured groups. We classify athletes as uninjured if they have no physical limitations. This is significant because uninjured athletes can be exposed to the full variety of the program without compromise or modification. We classify athletes as injured if they have a medical condition that requires them to limit one or more aspects of the program.


For an injured athlete, we need to understand the limitations and modify the program to accommodate the injury state. Injury changes the risk profile of a masters athlete (i.e., makes it higher risk) and therefore needs to be carefully managed. We need to ensure that training does not make the injury worse, and if possible, resolving the injury should be our highest priority.


An injured athlete may have an acute injury that will resolve in the short term, a chronic injury that will take time to resolve, or a disease or illness that may not resolve. Even though these three are very different, from a practical perspective, the trainer can treat them all the same provided there is a clear understanding of what the limitations are at any point in time. For the purpose of our assessment, it is the limitation that is significant, not the condition. The trainer should remain objective and optimistic at all times, irrespective of the nature of the injury state, and work relentlessly to restore full function.


An athlete who is diseased is a particular challenge for the trainer because the medical condition may not resolve, or worse, may get more limiting with time due to the progression of the disease. There may be significant psychological and emotional factors as a result of the disease, as well as side effects of medication and contraindications due to drug-related interactions with physical activity (Schetz et al., 2015). A contraindication is something that makes a treatment or activity inadvisable. For the diseased client, the trainer must walk a fine line between motivating the athlete to maintain as much physical capacity as possible and not setting unrealistic expectations.


Injury state is not specific to masters athletes and applies to all athletes. We highlight it as a specific variable to be considered to ensure that the trainer understands that when faced with an injured masters athlete, a much more conservative approach is required than when dealing with a younger athlete.


In general, masters athletes are already at a heightened risk of overuse injuries compared to younger athletes due to changes in tissue quality with age (Langer, 2015). Injured masters have an even greater risk of developing secondary overuse injuries. This is due to the fact that their limitations sometimes result in more frequent programming of movements they can do. The uninjured parts of the body can become overly stressed due to the increased volume, leading to potential secondary injuries. The trainer needs to take this into consideration when modifying the program for an injured athlete.

It should also be noted that masters athletes are at a heightened risk of re-injury. As Langer (2015) notes, “Fifty-two percent of the injured subjects … reported their current diagnosis as an exacerbation of a previous problem. This raises an interesting consideration: older adults, probably more so than younger adults, not only have to be cautious of new injuries but also of their previous injuries.”


CrossFit Masters Trainer’s Guide

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