Golden warriors: Fitness guidelines for ageing athletes

Physical decline as we age is a fundamental, universal truth. Grumbling over it is of no use. Dealing with it is the way forward in order to be an effective professional sportsperson.

Age is no friend to the human body and especially professional athletes — veteran athletes like Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Vince Carter, Tom Brady and Tiger Woods are a few top examples. We have our own legends like M. S. Dhoni.   -  Sportzpics / BCCI

Age is just a number. A very common, cliched word used by many, isn’t it?

Well, it may be just a number. But as that number slinks in, humans tend to get weaker, less explosive and more prone to injury. Physiological functions begin to decline.

In most sports, the age sweet spot falls in the mid-20’s to early 30’s. Although there have been numerous examples of Olympians competing, and sometimes winning medals, even over the age of 50, it is noted that the vast majority of these come from sports requiring exceptional skill and less aerobic or anaerobic power, such as the shooting, sailing, equestrian, snooker, fencing, et cetera.

Sore backs, creaking knees, stiff shoulders and Soprano singing joints... Age is no friend to the human body and especially professional athletes — veteran athletes like Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Vince Carter, Tom Brady and Tiger Woods are a few top examples. We have our own legends like Leander Paes, Narain Karthikeyan, A. Sharath Kamal, M. S. Dhoni and, of course, the legendary Sachin Tendulkar. How did they stay at the top of their game? And what can you do to maintain a level playing field while young professionals join in the circuit?

Physical decline as we age is a fundamental, universal truth. Grumbling over it is of no use. Dealing with it is the way forward in order to be an effective professional. The central law is the same for all, be it a professional athlete or a normal person. How we manage the ageing process has changed over the years due to varied factors, from sports science to sports technology and knowledge on human performance and more. Using this knowledge pragmatically gives the professional cutting-edge performance when required.

A lack of fitness causes us to age faster. Functionality in training during the peak years prolongs the lifespan on the field of professional athletes. Elite performers continue to succeed well past the peak age for their sport not because they train more, but because they train more efficiently. They use periodisation —interweaving intense training with rest — to avoid fatigue and injury.

An ageing athlete must pay more attention to, well, everything, including things that could have been taken for granted only a few years earlier. The “no pain, no gain” mantra must be taken with a pinch of salt. The ageing athlete must know when to back off or rest or risk more serious injury.

Power and strength depend on the availability of “fast-twitch” muscle fibres. Research shows that quite a number of fast-twitch fibres are lost with age, and they’re lost at a much higher rate than the “slow-twitch” muscle fibres required for endurance sports.

Athletes in endurance sports or sports that demand a mix of endurance and power, like football or basketball, fare better than pure-power athletes like weightlifters.

Basic guidelines for the ageing athlete

Strength training

Strength training is important as building strong joints and muscles helps to prevent later-life injuries, promoting stability and balance. There is also a neurological benefit from this type of exercise. The progressive overload principle is the key to success. It is a huge misconception that older athletes should not perform strengthening exercises. This is false as long as the person is performing the exercises in a periodised regime. A variety of exercises can be designed using barbells, dumbbells, resistance bands, body weight and more. So, pummelling yourself for hours in the gym need not be the answer. Good high-intensity interval training benefits older athletes.


A loss of muscle flexibility is a normal part of ageing. Daily stretching can help counteract this. Certain activities can lead to muscle imbalances and tightness in various muscle groups. Athletes should try to identify and focus on stretching those areas that need to be engaged. Yoga is an excellent option and a proven method for elite athletes as it combines stretching, posture correction, breathing and concentration.

Adding more recovery protocols

Accept the fact the ageing athletes are unable to train as they did in their 20s by including proper recovery sessions, be it rest between workouts or active rest days or pure rest days. Various recovery techniques are addressed below. Good sleep is one of the best forms of recovery.

Change your mindset

Many athletes pride themselves or value their worth on what they can do. Instead, try shifting your mindset to be driven by internal fulfilment and health. Your workouts should be focused on personal growth and should also be fun. Your potential may decline as you age, but you can still feel that you have pushed yourself within that potential.

Avoid inactivity

One of the biggest threats to any athlete is inactivity. There are many detriments to the body from disuse, including muscle atrophy and cardiac changes. Regular exercise may help slow the physiologic changes associated with ageing. So, no matter your age or previous activity level, keep moving!

Proper diet regime

Consume proper food with the right types of nutrients, such as carbohydrates, protein, fat and electrolytes, before, during and after exercise. Supplements, particularly antioxidants, should be considered to help reduce oxidative stress and free-radical damage. Avoid excess sugar, which aggravates inflammation. Reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption can be helpful as well. “All in moderation” is the mantra for success.

Common mistakes older athletes make

1. Believing the body and mind are still 20. There is no doubt about it — older athletes’ minds are still young. However, our bodies are ageing. Speed and endurance decrease with age. Research shows us that our ability to recover from hard training decreases, and that is because of genetic or lifestyle reasons. These factors mean we need to start training more cautiously and slowly, and recover longer and smarter between training sessions.

2. Not aware or not following the principles of progressive overload training. This happened with too many older athletes, particularly those who have not trained for years, or train too hard or too long or too often to catch up on missed time. Tiredness, overtraining, burnout and injuries are usually the result.

3. Listening to one’s body is a key factor for sustenance. If not, there is a risk of injuries and decrement in performance. A simple niggle will grow into a serious injury. Know when you are tired, or when a joint or muscle niggle may mean trouble coming. These are the vital signs that you need to rest, recover harder, and change your training habits and diet regime.

4. Not training hard enough. Performance-focused master athletes need to train with good intensity. The byproducts of intensity are a lack of recovery, fatigue and an increased risk of injury. Develop a good base programme by strengthening the joint and muscles, then enter a zone of progressive overload training.

5. Improper recovery protocols. Recovery is as important as training. “Train hard but recover harder” is the mantra especially for older athletes. Research has shown that our muscles don’t bounce back like they used to when young, which means the body takes longer to recover between intense sessions, Precise recovery strategies — active recovery, compression garments, contrast baths/showers, right food, electrolyte fluids, aqua work, massage, spas and stretching — are top-class recovery strategies.

6. Step back during stressful times. The reality of family and work stress is a common factor. Thus, during times of psychological stress, pull back on the intensity, duration or frequency of training, which motivates you to come back strong to the base. Hold back and don’t stop fully.

7. Smart training is the key. Competing with youngsters or following the pack can have its own repercussions. Following their own validated schedules designed for them can be game-changers for their longevity. Many times, the mind is willing, but the body gives up. Smart training is essential to success.