Fitness Over 40: Training Tips for Hikers and Endurance Athletes
My birthday is in December. This means that every year, I get to feel ancient while trying to set hiking and climbing goals for the next year. Fortunately, there’s a wealth of research out there that suggests fitness over 40 isn’t just possible, it actually slows down the aging process.
Because I like to be proactive, I decided to celebrate this year’s birthday by reading Joe Friel’s awesome book, Fast After 50. (If you’re not familiar with Joe’s work, he’s the author of the Training Bible series of books for triathletes and cyclists.)
Joe does a great job of laying out the science around aging and sports performance. His big message: we don’t really know much about older athletes. But what we do know is encouraging. And as the first wave of highly competitive masters athletes enters their sixties and seventies, they’re probably going to smash through a lot of our preconceived notions about aging.
Here are some of my fav tips from Joe’s Fast After 50 book that I’m already applying to my own (43-year-old) training life.
1. Exercise consistently throughout the year
Research suggests that athletes who keep up their training year after year see fewer age-related declines in fitness. This is especially true for people who train at high intensities for both strength and cardio. Some trainers call this the “use-it-or-lose-it” principle.
The best way to take advantage of “use-it-or-lose-it” is to make a year-round training plan. Continue to do some strength training and endurance training during your off season. You can decrease the frequency and duration of these workouts, but do to include a couple of high-intensity sessions each week.
While consistency is good, the use-or-lose-it principle can also be overstated. Many athletes over 40 panic if they have to take an enforced break due to injury, illness, or life-circumstances. If this happens, remember that even elite masters athletes occasionally have to take time off!
Lifetime fitness is a year-to-year game, not week-to-week or even month-to-month. So take the time you need to heal mentally and physically before returning to training.
2. Use training periods to prioritize your training time
Training toward your goals is awesome. But if you exercised every day of your life like you were about to climb Mount Rainier or run an ultramarathon, you’d end up overtrained, burned out, sore, and in need of multiple joint replacements.
For this reason, it’s important to adjust your training load throughout the year. To make it work, pick up to 3 “main events” that are your biggest, most important goals. These could be races, mountain climbs, or distance hikes.
Then, for each main event, plan your training periods:
- Base phase – gradually builds your strength and endurance. Should include regular rest periods to consolidate gains. This is typically the longest, most important phase.
- Peak phase – prepare for your event with a few weeks of tough, sport-specific workouts.
- Taper phase – decrease your workout load to rest right before the event.
- Recovery phase – take a short training break after the event to recover physically and mentally.
- Maintenance phase – maintain your fitness until you’re ready to start building up your training load for the next main event.
If you do other races, hikes, and climbs throughout the year, make them part of your main event training.
3. Continue strength training at high intensity
Strength training after 40 has tons of health and performance benefits. As we age, our muscle mass and bone density gradually decrease. Consistent weight training slows down these processes and helps us maintain strength and function.
Strength training can also help you to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, especially when combined with cardio. This is good news for those of us who are dealing with the hormonal changes and metabolic slowdown that kick in during our 40s.
Many people decrease the difficulty of their strength workouts after 40. However, research suggests that athletes of all ages can benefit from high-intensity strength workouts (3–6 reps with heavy weight). Doing fewer reps with heavier weights is also better for maintaining bone density.
A couple additional tips on weight lifting after 40:
- Pay attention to proper form and movement. Lifting with poor form can lead to injury, muscle imbalances, dysfunctional movement, and poor posture. If you want to give your form a checkup, consider investing in a few sessions with a personal trainer.
- Exhale with each repetition. Never hold your breath as you lift. (It can raise your blood pressure.)
- Eat a high-protein snack within an hour after weight training. This will help your body to recover and build muscle.
For hiking-specific strength workouts, check out my post, What mountaineers need to know about strength training.
4. Continue HIIT and aerobic interval workouts
Perhaps the number one reason athletes’ speed endurance declines with age is that they give up high-intensity training and focus on distance workouts. This is a mistake, because you need both for optimal health and performance.
If you already have a good base of fitness (about 7 hours of training/week), try doing each of the following interval workouts at least once a week:
- VO2 Max workouts (HIIT) – These are short, high-intensity intervals where you work almost as hard as you can for 30 seconds to 3 minutes.
- Lactate threshold intervals – These are long intervals (5–20 minutes) performed at or just below your lactate threshold.
You can time your intervals or simply play with your speed (for example, running faster between telephone poles or during the chorus of a song). Let your body recover from the previous interval before starting the next one.
Interval workouts are fun, but they require more recovery time than distance workouts. Schedule an easy workout after your interval day. Or take a rest day if you need one.
5. Allow more recovery time after hard workouts
While most older athletes can safely train at high-intensity, they do need more recovery time after the same workout. This is especially true as you move into your 50s, 60s, and 70s.
One way to accomplish this is to lengthen your training “week.” If there’s a training plan that seems to work well for you, do each of the base training weeks in 8 or 9 days rather than 7. This allows you to take more rest days while getting the same training load.
You can also take more frequent rest periods during the base and peak training phases. For example, if you normally build for three weeks and rest for one, try building for 1–2 weeks, then rest for 4–7 days.
6. Use cross-training to reduce wear and tear
As we get older, training in multiple modalities can help to extend the life of our joints. Runners in particular benefit from mixing in low-impact activities during the off-season, maintenance, and early base periods.
Recent research suggests that cycling has good crossover benefits for runners (and by extension, hikers, backpackers, and mountaineers). This is particularly true for higher-intensity interval workouts. So don’t be afraid to hop on the mountain bike or take that spinning class at the gym!
7. Watch weight gain
As we head into our 40s and beyond, many of us struggle with weight gain (more specifically, body fat gain). This can be due to a number of factors, including hormonal changes (especially menopause), decreased metabolic rate, loss of lean body mass, and decreasing workout intensity.
If you find yourself gaining a few extra pounds, its important not to panic or get angry at yourself. While weighing less improves your efficiency, people of all sizes run marathons, climb mountains, and go hiking and backpacking. Just hang out at Camp Muir on Mt. Rainier and you’ll see what I mean!
Some factors affecting weight gain are out of your control. You can’t stop menopause, for example. But it’s important to take a look at what you can control:
- Take an honest look at your diet. Many athletes in their 20s and 30s function just fine on sugar and white flour. But as you move into your 40s, you may need to focus on eating more fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, lean meats, nuts, beans, and whole grains.
- Do at least one high-intensity interval workout each week. These workouts give you a metabolic boost that lasts for up to a day after you exercise.
- Lift weights 1–2 times a week. Lifting increases lean muscle mass, which in turn increases your metabolism.
- Get plenty of sleep. (More on this below.)
- If you suspect weight gain may be related to medication, talk to your doctor about alternatives. (Keep taking your medication, though.)
8. Get more sleep
Training works by stressing your body. If your body has adequate time to recover and rebuild after a period of stress, it becomes stronger (supercompensates).
Most supercompensation happens during sleep. At certain points in your sleep cycle, your body releases anabolic hormones that promote healing and recovery.
Hormone production decreases with aging, making a good night’s sleep even more crucial to health and performance. Unfortunately, many people find their sleep quality declines with age. Some tips to help:
- Time your bedtime so that you wake up naturally without the need for an alarm. This may take some trial and error to figure it out. But it will maximize the release of hormones like testerone, which is produced later in the sleep cycle.
- Blue light from light bulbs and electronic devices mimics natural sunlight and can disturb your Circadian rhythm. If you stay up late because you don’t feel tired, try wearing blue light-blocking glasses in the evening.
- Avoid exercise, alcohol, and large meals right before bedtime.
- Decrease caffeine intake, especially later in the day.
9. Have an injury team
One of the biggest limitations facing older athletes is that they are prone to injury. This is true of both acute injuries (muscle strains, bursitis) and chronic ones like arthritis.
If you are chasing a serious goal after 40 like a long-distance race or a mountain climb, don’t try to manage pain or injury yourself. Instead, consider putting together a team of professionals who can advise you. This might include:
- Personal trainer – to improve your form and movement patterns and teach stretching techniques and myofascial release.
- Sports medicine doctor or orthopedist – evaluate the cause of injuries and pain and prescribe treatments.
- Physical therapist – treat pain and injuries through exercise, heat, cold, electricity, and related techniques.
- Allied health professionals – might include your massage therapist, chiropractor, acupuncturist, and anyone else who helps you manage pain and promote recovery.
Many athletes skip this step because of the expense involved. But keep in mind that ignoring an injury can make it worse, more debilitating, and more expensive to treat. Plus every dollar you spend on a physical therapist might be one less you spend on a cardiologist or blood-pressure medication down the road!
10. Focus on your abilities over your limitations
Many athletes over 40 get down on themselves. For example, it can be hard to accept that you can’t run a marathon at 50 in the same time you did at 25.
Keeping a positive mindset can be especially tough if you’re dealing with a chronic disease or injury (arthritis, for example). In some cases, you may need to change sports or cut back your participation. This can cause deep feelings of loss if your sport was an important part of your life.
But remember that while you’re no longer at your physical peak, you can still be in great shape. And even though you’re not winning and setting records, you’re still getting many benefits out of training, including increased energy, a more attractive body, new friendships, and fun.
So there you have ’em. My best tips on fitness after 40.
To read more about the science behind aging and sports performance and get detailed training recommendations, definitely check out Fast After 50 by Joe Friel. His tips have definitely changed the way I train for hiking and mountaineering at 43.
Originally published Dec. 7, 2018.