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Recovery and aging athletes: A guide to train smart and stay strong


As one ages beyond 35-40, there are reductions in maximum heart rate, VO2 max and lean body mass that reduce training output and performance. These changes are all relative to an individual athlete.




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Labisch has a doctorate in physical therapy from Creighton University, is a part owner of the InStep Physical Therapy and Running Centers

The effects of aging on training and performance are fairly well-known.

Tom Labisch


The body’s ability to recover after training and racing also changes with age. Recovery is integral to the training process; it just seems to take a lot longer as we get older. Most people encounter a noticeable difference in training capacity and recovery about every decade.

A colleague of mine, and former bicycle racer, who is now 59 years old, put it something like this: “In my twenties I recall being able to do five or six hard workouts a week and race back-to-back days without any trouble.

Royalty-Free Images: Happy Senior Cyclist Sitting On Grass And Resting

In my thirties this changed to three or four hard workouts a week and it was more difficult to race back-to-back days. In my forties, two or three hard workouts a week were more than enough, and racing back-to-back days was a bit of a challenge. In my fifties, one or two hard workouts a week were enough and recovering from a race took me about a week. Now, approaching 60…don’t even ask.”

While it may seem obvious that recovery time increases with age, the physiological causes are not fully understood.

According to Fell & Williams, in a 2008 article in The Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, one of the most plausible explanations is that aging muscles are more susceptible to exercise-induced muscle damage and have slower adaptation and repair.

The process of training involves some type of muscle overload, then an adaption which ultimately produces greater muscle fitness. In order to achieve fitness gains, one has to train, create muscle break-down, recover, then train again. While the physiological processes in younger and older muscles parallel each other with regard to training, subtle changes in the processes within the older muscles lead to increases in recovery time.

Longer recovery times in both aging animals and humans have been recorded following muscle damaging exercises.

For example, if a young and an old rodent are forced to run on a wheel at an extremely high intensity to the point that it creates muscle damage in its quadriceps, the older rodent muscle will show more signs of damage on biopsy. Further, when forced to run again at this high intensity, the older rodent cannot perform at this high of a level as quickly as its younger counterpart. Likewise, when young (19-32 years old) and older (64-69 years old) humans performed vertical jumps to fatigue, testing for muscle recovery one hour following the jumping indicated a reduced functional recovery in the older group.

This process is associated with numerous physiological and metabolic factors that contribute to greater damage in the aging muscle and a decrease in muscle repair and recovery, ultimately leading to a slower adaptation response to training and increased recovery time. From a training standpoint, progressive increases in recovery time can lead to delays in further training and ultimately limit fitness gains.

Most people’s training tends to decrease as they age. While some of you reading this may be getting older and slower, others may not. There is generally a peak time for performance, typically between 25 and 35 years old.

Many people, however, begin their athletic endeavors later in life; say after 30, 40 or later. Paul Gionfrido, a local runner who is now 86 has run over 100 marathons. Paul ran his first marathon when he turned 65. If these late bloomers did not train regularly earlier in their life, they will likely become more fit later in life than they had ever been. They may actually notice shorter recovery times as they gain fitness.


The Senior Olympics has become one of the centers for senior competitions that happens every two years.  The competition changes locations each time but no matter where it is held the games continue to grow in popularity.  Putting on her swim cap before her race in Tuscon...© Rick  Rickman

A number of individual variables plague the literature on aging, fitness and recovery.

Fell and Williams, in their review, identify various factors that confound the conclusions of aging and recovery studies. For example, many studies are performed on sedentary individuals, or “recreationally active.” Further, studies often employ exercises that may not translate to the motion of running or cycling, athletic training or racing.

Obviously, recovery, based on age, fitness and physiology is very individualized and one needs to experiment to find out what ultimately works best for them when balancing training and recovery.

Here are two general concepts I would recommend athletes consider in regard to recovery.

First, listen to your body.

If you feel worn out, tired and cannot put out the work load that you expect while training you probably need more recovery time. Tracking your daily resting pulse rate when you wake up in the morning can be a good indicator of recovery. Most exercise specialists feel that if your resting pulse rate is two beats higher than normal, you have not fully recovered. However, you do not have to be fully recovered to train again; this should just be an indicator that you should probably train more easily for a while. The harder you train the more aggressively you need to recover.

This leads into the second concept: Follow a training plan.

A proper training plan can be very beneficial to guide volumes and intensity. Training volume and intensity should be related to a more global perspective of the entire training program with periodization taking place week-to-week and month-to-month.

Generally speaking, the body tends to respond in three-week blocks. If you follow a general plan of a heavy week of training, followed by a moderate week, then an easy week, this can aid both recovery and performance. A general rule of thumb would be to have the easy week be about 50% of the heavy week’s volume and/or intensity.

A proper training program should also guide progressions of volume and intensity so you do not do too much too soon, but still make an appropriate progression over the duration of your training program. This can help accomplish peaks and tapers in training that can be very beneficial in preparing for whatever event you might be training for.


The Senior Olympics has become one of the centers for senior competitions that happens every two years.  The competition changes locations each time but no matter where it is held the games continue to grow in popularity.  Madam Intensity prepares to return a backhand...© Rick  Rickman

How can you enhance recovery from training? Anecdotally, I can recommend a number of factors that have aided recovery for my training and might help enhance your recovery, as well.

• Get adequate rest and sleep.

• Make sure you pay attention to nutrition and hydration. Water loss during exercise should be replaced along with electrolytes during and/or after exercise. Two cups of water weighs one pound. Weighing yourself before and after exercise can help guide hydration replacement. Following workouts with some protein, like a recovery drink or chocolate milk, can be helpful and can apply to the hydration weight loss as well.

• Cool down after workouts and follow by stretching activity. Have the last 10-20 minutes of the workout be at a very easy work load, and afterward spend 15-20 minutes doing gentle flexibility exercises for both the muscles used during the activity and the ones not used. The latter may be most important. Muscles that function in a shortened range during exercise need to be stretched afterward to maintain normal motion. For example, when cycling the hip flexors are in a shortened position and should be taken through a full range afterward.

Senior Workout - Cool Down — Stock Photo #6511384

• Utilize cold therapy. Following intense workouts, or heavy muscle loading exercises, a cold bath can help aide in muscle recovery. The water should be, ideally, 50 degrees, but any temp below 65 degrees F will help. Soaking the exerted muscles in the water for 10-15 minutes (if you can handle this!) may help reduce the potential muscle damage.

• Utilize massage. Using a foam roller for massage two to three times a week can help maintain muscle balance and aide in muscle recovery.

Sports Massage Training

• Utilize compression. Using compression sleeves after activity can help reduce fluids pooling into the legs. This is especially helpful if you have to be sitting at work after your workouts. The position of the legs while sitting allows gravity to pull the fluids to the lower legs, ankles and feet. The muscle contractions from walking normally help pump this out. If you are sitting, this does not happen and the fluids can pool here. When fluid volume and pressure increases in the leg muscles it takes longer to have this to recover to a normal state. Compression socks or sleeves can help reduce or prevent this.

• Finally, as athletes age they realize that not only does it take longer to recover from a workout but also from an injury. As a physical therapist I treat many athletes and non-athletes alike for all types of injuries. The healing potential in younger cells is much greater. However, active people heal much more effectively than inactive or unhealthy people. I have seen 60-year- old athletes heal as fast as teenagers. So, for those who are getting older and staying active, keep it up! Training throughout the life span is very beneficial. If you don’t use it you’ll lose it…even faster.

Senior Athlete Stock Photos - Image: 3850013