Jan 29, 2015
Golden Years

Today’s baby boomers are remaining active as they age, so the ranks of masters athletes are growing fast. Are you prepared to work with this special population?

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta, MA, is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla., and a longtime contributor to Training & Conditioning. His daily thoughts on training athletes can be viewed on his blog: functionalpathtraining.typepad.com.

I was 26 years old, training for the decathlon while in graduate school at Stanford University, when I got my first introduction to a masters athlete. Stanford Head Track and Field Coach Payton Jordan was 58 years old, and in some of our sprint workouts, he could beat me.

I was amazed at the time, and certainly humbled by his performance. I learned a lot watching how he trained, but it was what he didn’t do that taught me the most. His workouts were very focused, brief, and intense. He once told me that he couldn’t do as much as when he was younger, so he had to do it better.

Jordan was a member of a world record-setting 4×110-yard relay team in college and a two-time collegiate national champion, and now holds many track and field world sprinting records in the 60-plus, 70-plus, and 80-plus age groups. He was a great example of someone who knew how to adapt his training as he aged, but still be an amazing athlete. (He’s finally “retired,” but still active at age 91.)

Ever since that experience, I have been interested in training the masters athlete. Throughout my 39-year coaching career, I’ve observed a huge development in masters sports competition. I have enjoyed watching it grow from a collection of old geezers trying to relive past glories to a group of focused and dedicated athletes competing with vigor and class.

I’ve also jokingly said that I have been conducting an ongoing aging study on myself. Over the years I have carefully recorded my workouts, trying different training methods to learn which ones work and which do not. I’ve studied scientific research and examined all the do’s and don’ts of training as one gets older.

As usual, there is a gap between what the science says and what is happening in practice. Additionally, most of the research has focused on endurance athletes, and not very much attention has been paid to the power athlete or game sport athlete.

It’s no secret that America is aging, and its population is rediscovering (or discovering for the first time) the joy of athletic competition. Whether we are strength and conditioning coaches or athletic trainers, knowing how to work with older athletes will only help our careers. And for some of us, it may also advance our own athletic goals.


When talking about masters athletes, it’s the 55-and-over group that we think of first. But it is important to remember that masters competition begins as early as age 25 in some sports. For this article, I will define a masters athlete as anyone who is no longer competing at his or her prime.

And I define an athlete as anyone who engages in a systematic training program in pursuit of specific competitive goals. For this population, sometimes the goal is to train for athleticism, not head-to-head competition. Athleticism is the ability to execute athletic movements with precision and grace in the context of the sport or activity the athlete is preparing for.

I also tend to define an athlete as someone who has specific goals for improvement in their sport. Those goals can sometimes be very soft, and that’s okay. For example, a masters runner may have a goal of increasing his flexibility as he turns 60 instead of looking to improve his time.

In many cases, a masters athlete is a person who’s entering a whole new world, which can be a lot of fun but challenging to coach. Female masters athletes, especially those over 55 who did not have the opportunity to participate in competitive sports while growing up, may be complete novices. They may also need to put more emphasis on strength training if they have no strength base.

For the male boomers, there’s often a different kind of transition. Growing up, we were pigeonholed into football, baseball, basketball, track, and swimming. If you were not good at or interested in those sports, you had few participation alternatives. What’s exciting for the masters athlete today is that there are many more choices. But training for racewalking or judo will certainly be different than training for football.


While there are important differences in training older athletes versus young and developing athletes, there are still many similarities. Whether you’re 15 or 85, fundamental movement skills don’t change. That’s why the basic philosophies and principles you use with a young population should be your starting point when working with masters athletes. Here are the key elements to consider when creating a training plan.

Progression is very important, but is also the most often ignored. Too much too soon in a training plan can lead to stagnation or injury. For the masters athlete, a carefully designed progression that moves from simple to complex and easy to hard is the key to performance improvement and injury prevention. Also, remember you don’t have to start over each year. Part of progression is building upon what you did previously.

Accumulation is the effect of training over time, which links to progression. It means that as the athlete trains from week to week, month to month, and year to year, you need to design the next phase of training to take advantage of their progress. This is especially true for masters athletes who don’t interrupt their training with long breaks or periods of inactivity.

Think of training as climbing a staircase. To get to the next step, you must negotiate the one before it. Each succeeding step builds upon the previous one. Climbing the staircase may take longer with a novice masters athlete, which is why it’s important to not take a step back. Older athletes should be encouraged to continue training, even if they switch the activity or emphasis.

Variation is essential for maintaining a freshness and zest for training. But it should have a purpose. I will switch up an athlete’s regimen to help them progress or overcome a deficit and to avoid stagnation.

Variety can also work well with a masters athlete’s lifestyle. For example, I travel extensively at certain times during the year, so I build variation into my program with that in mind. When I’m at home I have a different program than when I am on the road.

Context is what you do and when you do it. It is training with a purpose and a focus. In today’s world of instant information and overnight experts, it’s easy to jump from fad to fad. But any new training method or idea must have a specific function to justify its inclusion in a program. Constantly searching for secrets will cause chaos.

Overload is applying a stress greater than that which the body has already adapted to in order to achieve further adaptation. We tend to think of overload in terms of volume. But for the masters athlete who has accumulated years of training, increasing volume can lead to injuries and burnout. Think quality, not quantity. Overload through intensity and density shows better results with this age group. As I have gotten older, more frequent but smaller 15- to 20-minute workout sessions around my work schedule have been better than fewer, longer sessions.

Recoverability is the athlete’s ability to recover from the stress of a workout. If the training is so difficult that the athlete is unable to quickly recover, then it is not effective training. Recoverability will vary greatly among masters athletes, so it is important to assess this for each individual. Recoverability must also account for general life stress.

Specificity means training for the sport. A marathoner who decides to join the over-40 soccer league is sometimes surprised at how difficult this can be. If an athlete wants to train for stop-and-start sports, he or she must devote time to explosive training and force reduction.

Movement skills are so important as we age, but are easily neglected. Make sure you’re working all three planes of movement. When a cyclist gets off the bike, he or she should do some frontal plane and rotational work in the cooldown and in strength training. A runner will need to work the transverse and frontal planes and do some backward movements. All those things will help balance out musculature, prevent injury, and increase body awareness.

Assessment should be as thorough with the masters athlete as with a younger athlete, and is essentially the same. Use an athletic profile that incorporates the three tiers of musculoskeletal assessment, athletic competencies, and performance indicators. Identify strengths and weaknesses as well as possible areas of concern. Do a thorough training and injury history.

With this age group, I also suggest a thorough competition history. Find out how long it has been since the athlete trained. Find out what they actually did when they last trained, not what they think they did. Are they training in a sport similar to what they competed in previously, or are they starting in an entirely new activity? These factors should all be considered as you develop a training program for them.


What are the key differences in training this group? Most obviously, the body of the masters athlete is just not as adaptable as that of a younger person, and this needs to be taken into account.

I like to think of it as trying to fool the body into delaying the aging process. Gravity is always there, and the aging process is simply a matter of gravity gaining a bigger advantage. Consequently, we must devote significant attention to training the so-called “anti-gravity” muscles of the core. Increasing core strength will ensure good posture and control of dynamic alignment, which will allow the athlete to “beat gravity” and adapt to new training demands.

Because it’s important to maintain fundamental movement skills in this age group, basic leg strength is also key. It may be a cliché to say an athlete’s legs are the first things to go, but it reached cliché status for a reason. Basic leg strength will build a strong foundation for movement.

Less obvious for training masters athletes is the need to pay careful attention to the 24-hour-athlete concept. For the masters athlete, workouts need to fit around normal daily life, and the activity must be something that decreases life stress. Training is generally not the central focus of a masters athlete’s day-to-day existence. He or she often has family, relationships, and work that all take priority. In some ways, masters athletes must be more focused and dedicated than elite athletes, because they have so many other things to balance.

The key is to have a detailed plan that’s more of a lifestyle plan than a training plan. The when of the workout is important–so it doesn’t interfere with other priorities. The who of the workout is important–for many, it must be with people they enjoy the company of. The how of the workout is important–they need to focus on training and then learn to let it go when they’re done. And the how long of the workout is important–recognize that more is not necessarily better, but a sharper focus on the task is best.

The masters athlete should also be encouraged to take advantage of life’s rhythms–to go with them and not fight them. I use a 10-point rating scale to assess the training demand of my workouts, and I have been experimenting with factoring life stress into this score, simply because you cannot separate the rest of your life from training. I have learned to schedule “recovery” days when work stress is highest. On those days I go for an easy swim, long walk, or slow bike ride. Not only do those sessions recharge the body, they also lower my overall stress level.

Another significant area is the loss of flexibility as we age. To address this, the masters athlete should schedule 10 to 15 minutes a day to stretch. This is best done post-workout to take advantage of the elevated body temperature. Some easy loosening and gentle stretching in the morning is also beneficial, as are stretches throughout the day.

Warmup and cooldown are much more important as athletes age. Younger athletes can get away with cutting corners on their warmups and cooldowns, but a masters athlete cannot. Neglecting this aspect of training will show up in the next workout.


As you read this article, you are aging. Of course, we have no control over the process. But in reality, there are variables we do control that allow us to manage it, and one of the simplest is exercise.

That leads me to my final point, which is to understand that many masters athletes have chosen their activity to improve their quality of life. They want to be healthy, look good, and have some fun in the process. And that is very different from the young basketball player whose dream is to make it to the NBA, or the soccer team dedicated to winning a league title.

When you coach a masters athlete, remember that the competition is often less important than everything else. Find out what your athlete’s motivation is and steer your plan toward it. For some, that may mean finding a different sport for each season that provides them with new challenges. For others, it may mean working toward a fitness goal that makes them feel great about their body. The variations are endless.

For me, at age 61, it is about the preparation. I’m not into competing any longer, but I still train like an athlete. Athletic fitness is a distinctly different feeling from just being physically fit–it entails a certain intensity, concentration, commitment, and dedication that I find meaningful. I like the personal challenge of measuring my progress against myself.

Coaching masters athletes is an up-and-coming field that can be very rewarding. It involves different challenges and new solutions. And it can help our aging population be more productive and truly get more out of life.

Sidebar: DO’S & DON’TS

Here are some tips to pass on to your masters athletes that I have learned from experience and observation:

Find a routine. Be consistent in the time of day and the place you train. If you can find a training partner or a group to train with, that often helps with sticking to a routine.

Get athletic amnesia. Forget what you did in college or your 20s, and be realistic in your expectations of what you’re trying to achieve now. It is futile to try repeating a workout you did at age 25, and most of the time it will result in injury. Know what you want. How competitive do you want to be? If you want to be a national class or international class masters athlete, you are going to have some uncomfortable workouts. If you are training to be athletically fit, then being uncomfortable is not necessary.

Compete against yourself. This is true at any age, but seems especially appropriate for older athletes. Measure your progress against yourself. I have a certain lifting workout I use as a benchmark to gauge my overall strength and ability to handle my bodyweight. The same is true for cycling–I have a particular route I test myself on four times a year to gauge progress.

Allow for recovery. As you age, it takes longer to recover from the stress of hard workouts. Build in more rest days.

Strength train regularly. More frequent strength training is the closest thing there is to the fountain of youth. Leg strength and core strength will have a significant positive impact on posture. For both male and female masters athletes, the endocrine hormonal benefit is tremendous. A well designed strength-training program can stimulate growth hormone and testosterone production, which will help maintain lean muscle mass. In addition, it can slow the loss of type II muscle fiber.

Stretch daily. We lose elasticity in our muscles and tendons as we age. Some researchers have identified the subsequent loss of flexibility as a factor in degenerative joint disease.

Respect old injuries. They will come back to haunt you. Just like training, injuries are cumulative. The small, nagging injuries that you didn’t have to worry about in your 20s will now cause you to miss days of training, and if ignored, weeks of training. Learn to read and listen to your body.


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