Maintaining physical fitness becomes paramount to enjoying a vibrant and active lifestyle as we age. While aging is inevitable, it doesn’t mean everyone must become slower and weaker the older they get. Contrary to common misconceptions, age shouldn’t prevent athletes from pursuing their goals. There are ways for seniors to overcome obstacles and live healthy and active lifestyles.
Challenges Facing Senior Athletes
Continuing an athletic journey later in life brings about a new set of challenges. While the benefits of staying active are abundant, aging bodies may encounter hurdles that require thoughtful consideration and can often be a barrier to reaching these goals.
Aging is often associated with a natural decline in muscle mass and strength, a phenomenon known as sarcopenia. Even the most physically active older adults lose muscle over time. More specifically, the proportion of type-II muscle fibers decreases while type-I fiber proportions increase. Type–II fibers are responsible for fast-twitch movements that sit at the foundation of high-level athletics.
As a result of sarcopenia, senior athletes naturally struggle to maintain the same level of strength and power they had in their younger years. Seniors also experience a noteworthy decline in speed, which means powerlifters and runners alike aren’t immune to the effects. All of the movements that are essential for peak performance—push, pull, squat, lunge, hinge, rotation, gait, the list goes on—start to deteriorate.
Aging can also lead to joint stiffness and decreased flexibility, making it more difficult for senior athletes to move with the same range of motion. Seniors may be more susceptible to injuries due to changes in bone density, joint health, and muscle elasticity. The risk of fractures, sprains, and strains may be higher, necessitating a more cautious approach to training.
Osteoporosis, or weakened bones, affects approximately 20% of women aged 50 and older and almost 5% of men aged 50 and older. This condition can make individuals more prone to falls, increasing the risk of fractures.
Aging can also impact cardiovascular health, affecting endurance and the ability to sustain high-intensity exercise. Senior athletes may need to adjust their training routines to accommodate changes in cardiovascular fitness and avoid pushing their bodies beyond healthy limits.
HIRT Is the Key Ingredient
Based on the aforementioned challenges that older adults face, the key ingredient to optimizing performance as a senior athlete is clear—high-intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT can simultaneously mitigate the effects of sarcopenia, weakened bones, loss of agility, and declining aerobic capacity.High-intensity interval training (HIIT) can simultaneously mitigate the effects of sarcopenia, weakened bones, loss of agility, and declining aerobic capacity for older adults. Click To Tweet
The Harvard School of Public Health describes HIIT as an interval training method including several rounds of alternating high-intensity movements—also known as “supersets”—to increase the heart rate to at least 80% of one’s maximum heart rate, followed by periods of rest or lower-intensity movements. This low-intensity stage should be three to five times longer.
The positive effects of HIIT aren’t well studied in older adults, but a growing body of evidence is showing that HIIT can be the ideal training style for senior athletes—particularly those over 65 years old. A comprehensive analysis of 69 studies from the Journal of Sports Medicine found that HIIT may even be more effective for older adults than moderate or steady-state exercise.
The findings from this analysis included improved muscle strength and endurance within the 65+ age group, as well as a decrease in body fat percentages. The well-documented positive effects of HIIT on cardiovascular health also apply to older adults. HIIT is the perfect training style to delay the body’s aging process and allow senior athletes to compete at a high level.
Aside from the positive physical effects, HIIT has also been shown to improve cognitive functioning in older adults. This aspect of peak athletic performance often gets overlooked, but an athlete’s ability to assess risks, solve problems, and develop strategies is just as important as their physical characteristics.
HIIT is the most effective for senior athletes when combined with a strength training program—also known as high-intensity resistance training (HIRT). Athletes must continue to lift weights as they age to maintain bone density, joint flexibility, and the presence of both type-I and type-II muscle fibers. Seniors who lift weights also have a significantly lower risk of falling and injuring themselves than their sedentary counterparts.
HIRT also allows senior athletes to set more observable, measurable goals to ensure progressive overload. Progressive overload in weight training comes in many forms—improved exercise technique, higher maximum weight, greater number of repetitions, shorter rest periods between sets, and, of course, more muscle mass.
Moreover, senior athletes don’t respond as rapidly to training stimuli as younger athletes do. They need a training program that keeps them engaged and motivated when the progress isn’t as noticeable as it used to be. Organizing each workout into short intervals rather than long excursions allows for more consistent and detailed performance tracking.
Creating the Optimal HIRT Program
One of the great things about HIRT-style training is that participants can use a variety of equipment or none at all. Free weights, machines, resistance bands, and bodyweight exercises are all on the table. This level of flexibility makes it easier to create an individualized program that addresses every weakness.
The first step in creating any new training program is to evaluate the athlete’s long-term goals. If they are trying to gain strength and muscle, they should devote at least four to six months to the same program. If their goal is to lose weight, they should only require about two to four months. Gaining muscle is a longer process than burning body fat.One of the great things about HIRT-style training is that participants can use a variety of equipment or none at all. This level of flexibility makes it easier to create an individualized program. Click To Tweet
When choosing specific exercises, it mostly comes down to personal preference. However, senior athletes may benefit from using more machines and resistance bands over free weights to reduce the risk of injury. A key aspect of HIRT is maintaining a high-intensity level while developing sport-specific techniques.
Senior runners can incorporate strength training into their regimen to enhance muscular strength and stability in their cores, quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calf muscles.
Over time, HIRT focused on these critical muscle groups can improve the runner’s form, help them generate more power with each step, and lower the risk of common running injuries, such as patellofemoral syndrome (runner’s knee), Achilles tendonitis, and plantar fasciitis.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of creating an HIRT program is determining each exercise’s time interval. Remember—HIRT is a form of interval training. It doesn’t always go by the number of repetitions like traditional resistance training. With this provision in mind, senior athletes may benefit from starting with a simple interval structure.
The most common HIRT structure is a 4×4 “box” approach that has proven to elevate heart rates with great effectiveness. This structure starts with a 10-minute warm-up, followed by a one- to four-minute period of intense exercise to bring the heart rate to at least 85% maximal heart rate.
Next, the athlete switches to a lower-intensity movement for three minutes to bring the pulse down to 70% max heart rate. After a total of four to seven minutes of uninterrupted exercise, the athlete rests for five minutes and repeats the cycle again. Starting with a basic 4×4 structure, trainers of senior athletes can substitute different exercises based on the athlete’s unique goals.
Take, for example, an elite runner: their exercises will focus on developing lower-body strength and stability. This particular athlete’s 4×4 structure might include a light jog to warm up, then a squatting session and leg extensions to isolate the quads. After resting for five minutes, they repeat the process but substitute leg extensions for another isolation movement.
In any case, the program should target each major muscle group for about 10–20 working sets every week to achieve enough stimulation. That means the athlete will likely have to train each muscle group twice a week on a reasonable schedule.
Senior athletes should be able to track their progress for each movement by the numbers. The numerical improvements can widely vary, though. Younger athletes with some weightlifting experience often increase their bench press by 10–15 pounds within one month. For senior athletes, that number may be slightly lower.
Another viable performance-tracking strategy for senior athletes is to compare their HIRT numbers to the average weightlifter. The average squat weight is 287 pounds for a male lifter and 161 pounds for a female lifter. Staying above the median ensures that senior athletes are at least on par with younger people in that specific exercise.
If the athlete wants to build muscle, they should aim to add .5–2 pounds every month. Senior athletes may be closer to .5 pounds due to the effects of sarcopenia. Weight loss is more difficult to put a monthly number on, but it shouldn’t exceed more than 5% of total body weight every month. Sudden weight loss can be detrimental to older adults, so it needs to be gradual.
Whatever the sport, senior athletes can gradually optimize their performance through HIRT by setting these achievable short-term goals. It not only fights against the mental and physical aging process, but it also seamlessly adapts to any athletic pursuit. It might take more daily monitoring, but the extra effort is necessary for older athletes.
Injury Prevention Strategies
After incorporating HIRT, the next key ingredient to a senior athlete’s optimal training program is a heightened focus on injury prevention. It’s no secret that athletes past their physical prime are more prone to injuries. Some effective injury prevention strategies include dynamic warm-ups, balancing exercises, and static stretching movements that improve agility.After incorporating high-intensity resistance training, the next key ingredient to a senior athlete’s optimal training program is a heightened focus on injury prevention. Click To Tweet
It’s vital for coaches to include dynamic warm-ups in senior athletes’ training programs. Begin training sessions with standing and balancing exercises, such as single-leg stands and leg swings, along with walking stretches like walking lunges and hip circles. These exercises are perfect for filling in the 10-minute warm-up stage in the 4×4 HIRT structure mentioned earlier.
Activities promoting balance, such as yoga and Pilates, greatly improve stability. Stretching exercises, like neck rotations and ankle circles, enhance flexibility, making movements smoother. Both practices emphasize controlled movements and mindful breathing, promoting mental focus—an essential skill in competitive sports.
The core serves as the body’s central support system, and a strong lower back, pelvis, and abdominal muscles can further improve proprioception. A strong core stabilizes the spine and trunk during sports while maximizing leg balance and performance. Athletes can strengthen their core through targeted movements like planks, leg raises, and rotational movements.
The body’s ability to recover from intense physical activity decreases with age. Seniors may need more time between workouts to allow their bodies to recover fully, reducing the frequency or intensity of their training sessions. For most older adults, it takes around 72 hours to fully recover from a workout.
Extended rest is an option to ensure complete recovery, but it’s not always ideal. In fact, it could lead to detraining. Studies have shown that even highly trained athletes can experience an endurance decline of 4% to 25% after just three to four weeks of inactivity. With these numbers in mind, advanced recovery methods should be explored.
Safety should be a top priority for senior athletes outside of their competitive fields as well. They should devote at least two to three times a week to promote full recovery and improve flexibility. Athletes should use suitable equipment, such as appropriate exercise gear and supportive footwear, to minimize the risk of accidents.
It’s Never Too Late to Progress
Seniors can defy age-related stereotypes by embracing an athletic lifestyle that promotes physical well-being and longevity. It’s never too late to start. Seniors can prioritize their fitness to relish each moment and reap the benefits of a well-maintained and resilient body.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF