Training for Masters
Top masters athletes share their secrets to staying fit in your 40s and 50s.
Anne Stein, M.S.
Sports & Fitness Journalist/Author
“It takes some adjusting for a competitive athlete. It took me 50 years to get to that point,” admits Finneran. “But I’m in it for the long haul, not the weekend glory.”
Still Blazing Trails
At age 54, high school track coach Vinny Finneran can crank out a 5:30 mile and run a 19-minute 5K. At his fastest, the nationally ranked runner, who once posted a 2:33 marathon and competed at nearly every distance around the country and in Europe, blazed through a 4:16 mile.
But age has necessitated some changes, and he’s adjusted his training to ensure he’ll be able to run and compete for decades to come.
“I still win my age group and though my goal’s to place in the top three overall, I’m happy to make the top 10,” says Finneran. “I mostly do 5ks now because they don’t take a ton of training, I get as much satisfaction from them as a good marathon, and I’m much healthier for it. If I was doing more mileage I’d probably get injured more.”
The father of three typically runs 10-12 miles weekly; does Tae Kwon Do three times/ week; swims two times/week; weight lifts 3 times/week, and does core and flexibility work. He’s cross-trained for years but now it’s especially important to lessen wear and tear on his joints, which have endured four decades of running.
Erik Helland, 45, is the longtime head strength and conditioning coach for the Chicago Bulls and a former competitive weightlifter. He’s also adjusted his training to avoid injury while maintaining a high level of fitness. “I’ve added more cardio as I’ve gotten older,” says Helland, who’s more aware of heart health as he ages. “I enjoy lifting and being strong, but I don’t tolerate the volume of work I used to, so I’ll only lift three to four days a week instead of five or six.”
“Reaction speed, muscular strength, cardiovascular endurance and motor control all decline as you age,” explains Dr. Hirofumi Tanaka, Director of the Cardiovascular Aging Research Lab at University of Texas, Austin. At age 42, he plays soccer with college kids. “But you can slow the decline by exercising.”
The Gold Standard
Depending on the sport, some athletes decline more slowly than others. Swimmers decline less than runners, and sprint-distance swimmers decline less than longer-distance swimmers. “One reason is that swimming isn’t a weight-bearing exercise, so you can train hard with fewer injuries,” Tanaka says.One shining example is five-time Olympian Dara Torres, who at age 42 captured three silver medals in swimming at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But even Torres, a sprinter, has adjusted her training to accommodate age.
Leading up to the ’08 Olympics, she trained once a day instead of twice, five days a week instead of seven, and cut her workouts by several thousand meters. “I’m way more aware of the decisions I make with my body,” says Torres, who wrote a book post-Olympics called “Age is Just a Number.”
“If it’s broken down and tired, I rest. When I was young, I’d work right through that.” She’s meticulous about food, vitamins and sleep, often going to bed at the same time as her three-year-old daughter.
Eat, Sleep, and Be Merry
Finneran and Helland agree that sleep and nutrition are critical to performance as we age. “If you don’t eat or sleep well your capacity to work out and be fit is really diminished,” Helland says. “Don’t think you can overcome you body.”
Finneran and Helland offer the following tips for older athletes who want to remain fit and competitive:
- The volume of work you body can tolerate decreases with age, but the quality shouldn’t. Work smarter, not harder.
- Have a goal and plan your training around it (such as losing 20 pounds, or completing a half-marathon). Then break your training into one month blocks, week-long blocks, and daily blocks. Challenge your body with that training plan or you won’t get much out of it.
- Vary your workouts to avoid injury. Run stairs one day, go for a hard bike ride the next, do intervals on grass a third day. “Repetitive stress issues become a bigger issue as you get older,” says Helland.
- Core strength training and lifting helps posture and reduces injuries.
- Warm up and cool down.
- When you’re tired, it means something. Walk instead of run or go for an easy swim – or simply take a day off. You’ll get more out of resting than forcing your body to work.
- Massage, self-massage with a foam roller and stretching are increasingly important as you age.
“A lot of it is controlling your ego, which takes some adjusting for a competitive athlete. It took me 50 years to get to that point,” admits Finneran. “But I’m in it for the long haul, not the weekend glory.”