Published Spring 2016

A Retired Athlete’s Guide to Training


Vic Tringali, MS, CSCS


For many males, athletic identity is formed early in life and dwarfs other social roles during adolescence and throughout early adulthood. Greater physical abilities and athletic performance have been associated with a heightened sense of self-worth and confidence, and may even draw interest and admiration among one’s peers.

For example, winning a 50 yard dash or pitching a shut out is likely to earn a more desirable form of recognition than a blue ribbon at the “Spring Fling” spelling bee. But while some individuals are capable of performing at a high level long after high school and college, a decline in athletic performance appears to be inevitable as an athlete ages. 

The Science of Age-related decline

The physiological changes that tend to accompany aging are associated with decreases in maximum strength, power, and rate of force development and this is the case even with highly-trained athletes.  These decrements may be attributed to a loss of muscle fiber number and size, consequently compromising muscle performance, and reducing training capacity. 

Several research studies have demonstrated that muscle mass decreases with age beginning around the age of 40 and progresses at a rate of 0.5%–1%/year (Janssen et al. 2000). In addition to the loss of lean mass, is an accompanying increase in intramuscular fat and connective tissue (Parise & Yarasheski, 2000). 

As such, these age-related decrements in performance and body composition can maim an athlete’s ego, leaving him more susceptible to psychological and psychosocial distress such as lower self-esteem, anxiety and depression.

Thwarting Father Time

The good news is that regular resistance exercise is a viable solution to decelerate the decline in physical performance brought on by Father Time. In fact, resistance training has been linked to a reduction in morbidity, increase in longevity and can even have a positive effect on mental health.

Armed with this knowledge, many aging athletes continue training in an effort to attenuate declines in body composition and to preserve their physical abilities. Unfortunately, some of these individuals mistakenly continue training methodologies they benefitted from “back in the day” but these once beloved techniques are usually incongruous with the achievement of long-term health and well-being.

Choose Wisely

Exercise selection is an important variable that should be rooted in one’s goals and abilities. Although the squat, deadlift, and bench press may have been staple exercises to help improve general physical preparedness while competing, there is no longer a need for them as a recreational athlete.

Retired athletes may be better served by opting for safer more easily performed variations such as Box Squats, Rack Pulls from above the knees and loaded push-ups. These friendlier options may bring about less pain than the traditional versions while also offering long-term performance benefits.

It’s also prudent to include some aerobic training as it promotes greater systemic blood flow throughout the body. More importantly, engaging in regular aerobic exercise may reduce the risk of cardio vascular disease, particularly in middle-aged and older adults.  Older athletes or those who’ve suffered from orthopedic injuries may want to opt for low-impact modalities such as cycling, walking or swimming to relegate stress to joints and connective tissue. 

Establish Your Range

Full range of motion is commonly advocated for resistance training programs in order to ensure joint flexibility, strength development and muscle fiber recruitment. However what constitutes a full range of motion may vary among individuals and can be limited by any particular orthopedic inflexibility. Many older athletes experience decreased range of motion due to diminishing elasticity of tendons, ligaments, and joint capsules and in some instances, arthritic changes from old injuries.

Damage or “wear” to articular cartilage surfaces of joints-which may include osteophytes or “bone spurs” reduces space between joint surfaces causes limited mobility and produces friction, pain and inflammation. Thus, training in a pain-free range of motion is inherently safer, as it incites less pain while potentially reducing the risk of inflicting additional damage to adjoining connective tissue. 

Reduce Training Volume

Training volume is defined as the total work in a resistance training bout, and equates to reps x weight x sets. Because the recovery capacity of the older athlete is generally less than their younger counterpart, recovery from training becomes even more important. Periods of recovery may be longer and more pronounced than what they were in years past. And it has been suggested that training volume should be reduced by 5% per decade beyond 30 years of age. (Rippetoe & Kilgore, 2006) That said time to recovery can be highly variable between individuals and dependent on not only age but many factors -including adequate sleep and nutrition. 

Use Your Instincts

Many experienced athletes accumulate knowledge of their bodies particularly as it relates to understanding what they can and cannot do. This link between their body and their instinct is crucial to keeping them out of harm’s way. 

Prior to engaging in workout, it’s prudent to employ these instincts and gauge readiness based on quality of sleep, nutrition and emotional stress. Competing demands such as travel, work or family responsibilities can affect strength, energy, and recovery and will help in gauging when it’s time to accelerate ones training or ease up.

Regardless of whether an athlete “peaks” at twenty or at forty, he will inevitably reach a point of declining physical ability. However these simple modifications to a training program are capable of diminishing age-related decrements and provide long term health and performance benefits following a competitive athletic career.

Laura Olsen

Houston, TX