Training And Motivating Older Athletes – Guest Post For FitOldDog By Eamon Foley


Chez Ollie by Tony Overman, The Olympian, via AP
“Art Turock, 62, left, of Kirkland, Wash., powers to the finish line July 28 in the men’s 50-meter dash at the Washington State Senior Games track and field competition in Tumwater, Wash.”

“At last you can improve significantly without floundering for hours. Cutting to the chase is really important.”

By Eamon Foley, triathlon coach, author of this guest post, and editor of The Holistic Triathlete

How do you get the most out of older athletes, given that as we age our recovery speeds diminish and conflicting priorities (career, family) mean we are less able to carry a heavy training load?

Do changes need to be made for older athletes? Definitely, but there is no magic formula for setting an older athlete’s training plan.

We do have to take into account relative recovery ability and injury risks but that does not mean arbitrarily reducing workloads as they get older. Rather than blindly reducing their workload relative to younger peers, focus on training smart and effectively, and getting the most out of each session. To pro-rate their training without due consideration for the athlete is ineffective (and patronizing) as many of them will be able and willing to endure a heavy workload.

So, how do you help the older athlete maximize their training?

Before you ever put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, talk to them – they know what works for them and what doesn’t. Leverage that experience – it is more valuable than anything you bring to the table. What is their injury history? What do they enjoy? Find out what makes them tick and apply it. Generally, this is where older athletes have an advantage over younger pups – experience. They know their bodies and how to get the best out of themselves.

From these conversations, a properly planned and structured periodized training plan should arise. It will help manage workloads, ensure you get the most out of each and every session and prevent injuries, while taking into account the athlete’s goals.

My approach is to treat them like every other athlete and adapt their program to their circumstances. Just as you would coach a teenager differently to a thirty-something athlete, or Olympic and Ironman distance athletes, customize the plan to not just age but also experience, injury history, goals, time available, etc.

You're never too old to compete!

“Swimmers John and Bradford Tatum, age 88 and 90, are among the athletes profiled in the documentary “Age of Champions.”

Consistency – like any athlete, training consistently is vital. If you are trying to be clever and maximize the return on each practice, ‘a week here, a week there’ approach will not yield results and may lead to injuries. Do three sessions per week consistently, rather than six sessions per week with a week off.

Injury Prevention – within the training program and each session, due consideration must be given to injuries and their prevention. Given our increased susceptibility to injury as we age, the focus should shift to training smarter and devoting more time to activities that help us recover and ward off injuries. Full and proper warm ups and cool downs, stretching, core strength and managing training levels are all tools to do this. Solicit feedback from the athlete – how are they feeling, what are their aches and pains, and adjust accordingly.

Some people may feel they are not working hard enough and want a few more minutes of a tough set, but those minutes devoted to cooling down after a tough session are vital over the course of a long season. Train smarter, not harder, and the long-term benefits will be visible.

Recovery Time Rest and recovery are particularly crucial for masters athletes given muscles and energy systems take longer to recover as we age. Including sufficient recovery time (including days off and spacing between sessions) it will generally pay off with reduced incidences of illness and injury, allowing for more consistent training over the course of a season.

Technique is key for older athletes, and one of the most straightforward ways to improve performance. The investment in time is exponentially outweighed by the rewards.

We lose a significant portion of our strength over time, and many older athletes will not have the power of younger competitors to override poor technique through brute force.

While some athletes will want to stick with what they have always done, many enjoy the more cerebral activity of drill-work. It may have been a long time since they have tried something new or their athletic careers may have hit a plateau. Helping them develop efficient technique provides tangible results and encourages further progress. It engages them mentally, gives them visible progress markers and is inherently good, light aerobic work. Almost without fail, the athletes enjoy seeing improvements in technique and efficiency.

Reinforcing correct technique will also help prevent injuries, e.g. a lighter running foot strike. One particular example where technique pays off in huge efficiency gains across all three sports is employing the core. For example, posture on the bike and the run, using the core for hip rotation in the pool.

Goals and motivation: Just like everyone else, older athletes need goals. Do they want to race or just keep fit? Are they in it to meet people or to win their age group? This will help the coach write the plan and the athlete choose between training or visiting the grandkids.  Whatever the approach, goals will help motivate and ensure the athlete enjoys their training.

All of the above topics apply to all (tri)athletes, but when coaching older athletes, the rewards from an extra focus on these areas are disproportionate. Managing workloads, improving technique and focusing on injury prevention will drive results faster than pounding out mile after mile while chasing volume.

Enjoy your training, older athletes,

Eamon Foley


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Disclaimer: As a veterinarian, I do not provide medical advice for human animals. If you undertake or modify an exercise program, consult your medical advisors before doing so. Undertaking activities pursued by the author does not mean that he endorses your undertaking such activities, which is clearly your decision and responsibility. Be careful and sensible, please.