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How should my workout change as I get older?

As top athletes - or even middling weekend warriors - age, they need to train smarter to stay competitive

From Friday's Globe and Mail

Alex Hutchinson draws on the latest research to answer your fitness and workout questions in this biweekly column on the science of sport.

THE QUESTION

How should I adapt my workout routine as I get older?

THE ANSWER

One of the unofficial themes of last month's Olympics seemed to be that older people can be just as strong and go just as fast as their juniors. (Whether they're just as high is a separate question.)

Certainly, U.S. swimmer Dara Torres's triple-silver performance at 41 was remarkable, not to mention the marathon gold medal for 38-year-old Romanian Constantina Tomescu-Dita and 61-year-old Ian Millar's Canadian equestrian team silver.

But what lessons can the average 50-year-old exerciser draw from these one of a kind - some might call them freak of nature - models?

Probing that question by studying "masters" athletes - the definition varies from sport to sport, but it often refers to ages 40 and older - has become a hot research topic in recent years, in part because masters competition is the fastest growing segment of sport in North America.

"We're not trying to encourage everybody to become a masters athlete," says Patricia Weir, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Windsor in Ontario. "Most adults simply won't choose to undergo that level of training."

Instead, Dr. Weir and collaborators such as Brad Young of the University of Ottawa are trying to figure out what key factors allow some athletes to train and compete at a high level for many decades, to see whether there are insights that could help weekend warriors stay active as they age.

The most successful masters athletes maintain a consistent training schedule, high intrinsic motivation and generally manage to avoid injuries. The last one may seem like a matter of luck, but it's not necessarily that simple.

"Maybe they've got good genetics," Dr. Young says, "but maybe they're also smart."

There is ample evidence that masters athletes do adapt their training to the inevitable declines in physical performance that come with age. The rate of decline tends to accelerate with age - it becomes particularly sharp at about age 70, Dr. Weir says - and is steeper for women than men. Though there is conflicting research, it appears that endurance suffers more than speed, so 10-kilometre runs will slow more than one-kilometre runs.

As a result, champion masters athletes continue to train intensely, Dr. Young and others have found, but their training becomes more focused on the essentials. Distance runners, for example, spend proportionately more time on endurance training as they age, compensating for the steeper age-related decline.

Another possible adaptation involves what Dr. Young calls "deliberate acts of recovery," such as taking an extra day between hard workouts to help avoid injury.

The most important factor appears to be consistency and continuity of training. While champions train for their chosen sport year-round, many recreational masters athletes prefer "sampling" - they participate in different sports throughout the year, but are never totally inactive for long stretches.

This may be the best example of how a lesson from our long in the tooth Olympians can be translated for more general use: If you play hockey half of the year, find another activity for the other six months.

Alex Hutchinson is a former member of Canada's long-distance running team and has a PhD in physics.

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Masters training tips

Be consistent, from day to day, month to month and year to year. It gets much more difficult to return from a layoff as you get older.

Make sure to recover between hard workouts. It may take longer than it used to.

Continue to train vigorously and intensely, but allow total training time to decrease if that allows you to recover better.

Focus training on the most relevant activities that will improve your performance - long, slow runs for a marathoner, for example.

Schedule your training efficiently. For example, use your exercise routine to commute to work.

Alex Hutchinson

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