A Best Practices Guide for the Masters Athlete

IBJJF World Masters 3 Absolute Runner Up Jay Marist.  photo credit: Jay Marist

IBJJF World Masters 3 Absolute Runner Up Jay Marist.  photo credit: Jay Marist

Competition and logging long hours in the gym do not stop when you turn 30. There’s no better proof of that than the mats at your jiu jitsu school, CrossFit box, or obstacle races like Spartan. It’s why the over 30 crowd is increasingly well represented in the physical pursuits of many individual athletes.

The Masters athlete may be the fastest growing category of athlete and fitness enthusiast. Those reading this familiar with the term already know what I am referring to, but for the uninitiated:

The Masters divisions in many sports refers to the athlete who is generally over the age of 30, and wishes to compete at either an amateur or pro level of sport. Many sports like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, CrossFit or Powerlifting will further break this up into “Masters 1, Masters 2,” etc, based on further age brackets over 30.

Because of the increased popularity of sports and competitions in Brazilian jiu jitsu and CrossFit, and the age range running a wide spectrum, this phenomenon is really no surprise at all: people of all ages want to be healthy and compete to test their abilities. 

What concerns me though, is that all too often, we take the published advice of what’s advocated for professional athletes in their early-20’s and apply to the athlete over 30. Worse yet, is the master’s athlete trying to keep up with a 23-year old prospect banging out two-a-days at the gym.  The world is (sadly) not created equal for all, and in order to live out maximum glory on the mats or the floor of the box, we need to acknowledge where we are at in life, figure out where we can over-perform, where we currently underperform, and maximize our health.  

By no means am I recommending you use your age as an excuse. We need to get that out of the way right now: you are not to ever use your age as an excuse (or anything as an excuse really, who wants to hear excuses?). You simply need to acknowledge the reality of the hand you’re currently dealt and play the heck out of that hand. Crude analogies aside, let’s explore what I mean.

 

CONSIDER YOUR TRAINING AGE

One of the first assessments I make with all new clients, especially athletes, is their “training age.” By training age, I mean the amount of years they’ve been actively exerting their body physically in the gym and/or in sport. Depending on their “age,” the training recommendations for these individuals changes.

The younger your training age, the less overall work I need to do per session with you, as you stand to benefit a lot from less stimuli as it’s all new to you.  We strive for the least effective minimum dosage of training stimulus, in other words. Why?

 

  1. I want you to be fresh to practice and enjoy your sport. Your strength and conditioning should enhance that; it shouldn’t get in the way.
  2. Newcomers to strength and conditioning at any age also need to train a bit longer in basic movements before they possess the necessary technique to really push themselves maximally. Thus, newcomers often can train more frequently as they aren’t able to really hit or exert maximal effort yet. Newcomers train more often, but usually in the domain of technique, all while benefiting from adaptation because the threshold is so low.  

 

PHYSICALLY DEMANDING SPORTS HAVE A LONG ADAPTATION PERIOD TO increase 'WORK CAPACITY'

Are you trying to be a two-a-day champ at the jiu jitsu academy in your first three months? I would advise you don’t do that until your body becomes very familiar with the demands of the sport, how to recover from it, and until your body very realistically “hardens”. 

Your work capacity is something that needs to be built. This means that if you are a newcomer to the rigors of training that could be considered "all out" (or maximal): many master's age athletes need to give their bodies a minimum of 6 months just to adjust to a sustainable 2-3x per week sports training schedule.  You read that correctly: if you’re new, your max effort classes should be at 2-3 times per week if you’re a master’s athlete. 

The exception to this is if you’re used to 2-a-days from high school, college, and a well rounded fitness regimen. Other examples include athletes who don't work full time, can take the day to recover, relax, and practice other good recovery rituals.  If this describes you, then you will probably adjust just fine to doing hard physical activity every day, and eventually twice per day a few times per week pretty quickly. Your capacity is there, but you’ll want to work on your recovery.

For some who compete at the highest levels of the masters divisions, and are recent carry-overs from the Adult (under 30) divisions, then it’s more or less business as usual into your mid 30’s.  But what if you started jiu jitsu at 39, or older? What if your CrossFit regimen was the first real hard training in your life and didn’t really start until 44? You have to treat your body much, much differently, starting with the advice above.

 

RECOVERY IS A SKILL

Recovery is as much of a skill as strength and your sport. The body adapts physiologically to stress. Give the body time to recover, and it adapts to be that much more ready to take the rigor of what you previously asked of it. 

It’s a simple concept that goes astray too often, and I don’t necessarily blame the misunderstanding and straying. It’s poorly understood what it means to be truly recovered.  

From a strength and conditioning perspective for the masters athlete: keep in mind that two maximal workouts per 7 day period is sufficient for most to see progress, and consequently, enough to fatigue you at the deepest neurological level. This is especially true of the amateur athlete who has to work full time, has a few nights per week of compromised sleep, commitments with family, etc.  

This doesn’t mean you can’t train jiu jitsu, or hit the gym more than 2 days per week, it simply means you need to periodize, or scale, your training on a weekly basis: 2 hard days of rolling and 2 skill & technique based days, for instance. 

What’s a simple way to know if you’re recovered? You should use your ability to move through the ranges of what’s planned that day as your first indicator. Is soreness keeping you from achieving a perfect hinge? If so, then you may need to re-arrange your workout days. After a few minutes of warm-up, is that guard pass feeling really shaky? Consider resting or reorganizing your sport training that day. 

 

RECOVERY IS AS IMPORTANT AS TRAINING

It just needs to be prioritized. Reduce stress, sleep better, and eat well 85%-90% of the time, and you will largely take care of the recovery spread. It also is immensely important that you make time for yourself. Schedule 30 minutes as frequently in a week as you can to simply be alone. If this includes your own meditation, breathing or mindfulness practice, you'll be bringing yourself to an even better place in your recovery efforts.  I've written much on this topic and will continue to, so keep an eye out for that.  Consider also adding "me time" and meditation time through things like Morning and Evening Rituals.

 

Periodization of your training and strength/conditioning program is a must.

Periodization refers to the planning and mapping involved in creating an effective workout program. Programming for athletes, especially master’s athletes, is much different than creating workouts for the average gym goer. If you practice your sport and pair that with the same routine you’ve been using for years in the gym, then you need a drastic change. Without doing so, you may be affecting your durability and performance.

You need to carefully and progressively increase your workload without overdoing it for too long and too often. Hitting it 100% every day is simply not going to cut it.

Program design is one area of fitness and strength training that is simply too personal and complex to ever write a one size fits all solution to. As such, the best solution is to seek out a skilled strength coach or trainer who understands periodization and programming for athletes. Together, you can work on a program and work together over a period of time to maximize results. The art and science of programming is where great coaches shine, as they’ve spent years and degree-worthy amounts of study on learning how to maximize performance. This is exactly the crux of my Online Training program, as this is exactly what we do with that service: periodized training programs. Check it out the services page to see if it’d be right for you.

 

Movement quality and Motor Control is equally important as training

 

For ease of discussion, I’ll break this into two camps:

If you have a long history of being involved with the sport you find yourself pursuing in your Master’s life, then you’d be wise to spend at least half your time on your strength and conditioning, body maintenance, and wellness habits.  Why? You already have a great many hours logged, reps performed, and the brain-body patterning that are required to be great at what you do. Your time is better spent making sure you’re still able to do it indefinitely. The athlete I’m describing here is often highest risk for overtraining on the mats, or kicking it in high gear too often.

If you’re very new to the sport you find yourself in (ie: under 4 years in), and already over the age of 35, then your time needs to be spent doing that sport, perfecting your movement and technique, and on your recovery habits. Don’t get confused though, you absolutely must keep up some schedule of strength and conditioning, but it should be on something that keeps you feeling fresh, loose and prepared to get back sports. Don't embark on a new program to increase your 1RM the same month you start jiu jitsu. Give it a few months to all come together and build up to it.

Moreover, strive for movement and technical fluidity and control over the ability to quickly get through something, or literally "surviving" class and/or a workout.

 

IF YOU DROP THAT WEIGHT FOR COMPETITION, YOU MAY NEVER GET IT BACK

At the risk of sounding sensationalist, I do think it’s important to point out that weight management becomes an issue for men and women as they get older. I’m not referring to eating too much or too little, but rather, bone density issues for menopausal women and the lean muscle maintenance of men over 40 that can be a real issue. 

The athlete over 40 who wishes to cut extreme amounts of weight does so inevitably at the expense of lean tissue. Estimates by reputable sources like the NSCA report that anything over 1% of total body mass loss per week is going to be more than just fat loss: it's also muscle and water. That can be consequential for a man over 40, or the woman who has a lot of lean muscle from years of training.  

The exception to this of course, is if you’re overweight or obese and you have fat to lose. If you have difficulty gaining muscle, or find yourself experiencing muscle loss, then a drastic weight cut is not your friend. Add to the fact that most people do this process rather crudely, without professional help. Be advised, drastic weight loss can affect an individual’s body at hormonal levels that can start to wreak havoc longer term if mismanaged or done too aggressively and frequently.

I’ll often hear from people who have a longer history in their sport say something to the effect of “I don’t understand, I used to be able to cut to this weight just fine.” The unsexy truth is that it’s different to manipulate your weight when you’re at a certain age, and we are always changing physically. Things change, and your practices need to also.

 

CONCLUSION

This all could apply to any athlete at any age, but it becomes especially important when you're on the other side of 30. Much of what I discussed above is geared at the grappler/martial artist, and the masters athlete who competes at weight class sports. Much of this also can be applied to the competitive CrossFit athlete too, because they are often interested in multiple physical pursuits outside the box, and finding time for it all is a task. Regardless, the point still stands that you must acknowledge that the life of an athlete has a progression, as all things do in life, and to not acknowledge that comes at your own detriment. For some, these truths may be hard to swallow, but they are recommendations meant to keep you pursuing the sports for as long as you desire, and never being forced off the mats.  Long story short: take your time, and train smart to train hard.