Why The Masters Athlete Is Taking Over The Fitness Industry

By Christina Nowak

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Stronger, Leaner, Healtier, FOREVER

Introducing Functional Strength Training: 
The Monthly Membership Training Solution For People Who Want To Look, Feel And Function Their Very Best, Forever.

Join FST NOw

The prowess and success of the Masters Athlete is absolutely on the rise. With a growing number of the baby boomer’s reaching older ages in the next decade, it is clear that the future of the fitness industry and its overall success in enhancing peoples lives for the better is largely dependent on the proper management of the Masters Athlete.

Too many times people become self-liters solely dependent on their age. This week on JRx, we have a strength coach, phyiotherapist and Masters specialist, Christina Nowak, putting the negative connotations of aging to bed once and for all, setting new standards of what’s physically possible.

Here’s What You Need To Know…

1. Using age as an excuse for being inactive is unacceptable this day and age. Masters Athletes are achieving the unthinkable physically, and have more opportunities than ever to not only stay active, but to continue to compete in sport.

2. Though the term “Masters Athlete” is defined differently in each sport, one thing is clear; the health and fitness industries need to be ready to handle these clients with proper information and methods specific to this demographic.

3. Aging can have an effect on both strength and endurance, but having strategic goals for Masters Athletes will provide the proper training stimulus that can absolutely be different than the average population.

3. Masters Athletes are some of the best clients in the world to work with, and they will continue to need specialized care from fitness and health professionals moving forward.

Introduction to Not Being Too Old!

“I’m too old for this” is an excuse I hear in the gym and in my practice on a daily basis. Before we even start, one thing needs to be set crystal clear; using age as an excuse to be unhealthy, unfit and in a physical demise is just not acceptable. I have spent my entire career proving this myth to be untrue, and coaching a population of aging individuals to unthinkable levels of function and health.

As the general population ages, I see countless examples in the media and in my facility of persons in their 70s, 80s and sometimes even in their 90s continuing to strive and participate in athletic feats from marathons to CrossFit. Yes, I said CrossFit. More and more, people are doing extraordinary physical feats, and continuing to do so for the longevity of their lives.

Quality > Quantity of Life

masters crossfit

Global life expectancy is again on the rise. People are living longer than ever before due to the revolutionary advances in both medical technology and systemized diagnostics. Living longer is all well and good, but the primary concern I see is that the years one spends disability-free is not headed in that same linear progression(1). The continuum of care and focus on longevity not only needs to be placed on the length of ones life, but also the quality years lived doing the things both physically and mentally that add value to one’s life.

In the US census, as of 2010, 25.7% of the US population was over the age of 55 and that percentage is expected to increase (2). The increase in number of chronic conditions that can coincide with this, however, means that we are living longer with aches, pains and ailments that hinder quality of life and our ability to do the things we want to be doing. Being independent and self-sufficient in activities of life along with general fitness cannot be overlooked.

Permanent disability and dysfunction isn’t inevitable.  These physical declines are not a guaranteed part of life. Living with pain, disability and frustration doesn’t need to be the case as you age! The rise of the Masters athlete is the prime example of living life to its fullest at “Freedom 55” and beyond.

People across the world are pushing their physical limits, enjoying the fruits of exercise and training, and not letting age define their abilities.  Time to set the record straight; here’s why Masters Athletes are flourishing more than ever before.

What Is a “Masters” Athlete?

masters crossfit

Even the term “Masters” has a bit of a negative stereotype associated with it. A Masters Athlete is a person who competes and trains for organized sport specifically catering to Masters age groups (3), but has been generally associated with low-level activities and unchallenging environments due to age.  The age at which you change over to a Master’s athlete is quite subjective.The World Masters Games, which is a large multi-sport event held every four years internationally has entry after 30 years of age. The CrossFit world starts Masters athletes at 40. Although it is dependent on your specific sport, 40 seems to be a common age point. And honestly, in what other area of life is 40 considered advanced age?

These age brackets and various denominations of sport provide opportunities that have produced the rise of the Masters Athlete. Over the last two decades, there have been more Masters Athletes that have been signing up and competing in organized sports. A study by Joki and colleagues back in 2004 looked at entrance into the New York City Marathon. Runners in their 40s, 50s and 60s were the highest growing age group for entrance into the race (4). This is showing that persons are not only running but are on a training regime to be able to run a race of that length. 26.2 km is no insignificant feat! Where running starts, many other forms of sport follows. We are starting to see some exciting trends, and the demands from the fitness and health industries to be educated and versed on this demographic of athlete has become an absolute requisite.

Training The Masters Athlete

Many times, the very thought of our body changing as we age makes us scared to death. When change is anticipated and accounted for, it’s just another opportunity to adapt and get better in many facets of life. Along with age itself, the landscape of the physiological adaption to aging in the research is also changing the preconceived ideas about what is considered “normal” aging.

Changes to all of the systems in our body occur with age as a result of wear and tear, just a fact of life and physiology at its finest. But interestingly enough, as we age, we also often see an increase in the time we spend sitting or being sedentary (5). Sitting for too long mimics many of the signs classically associated with aging. Sitting may not quite be the new smoking as many have popularly coined it, but there is some definite merit to its association with physical decline.

It is now a commonly held belief that many of the changes we see with age can also be related to or accelerated by turning into a lethargic and sedentary person. Think of it as a silver lining to aging. Given what we know, what are the considerations we need to take as athletes ourselves or coaches of a Masters level athlete?

Currently, more research has been compiled on the endurance athlete than the resistance trained athlete. This is to be expected though, as the most popular form of physical exercise in the world is running. But what is coming to light is positive and should encourage us to stay active in a recreational or competitive way throughout our life. In the endurance arena, when Masters Athletes are compared to their younger peers they do extremely well – with the proper expectations. Masters Athletes are able to maintain the same amount of training volume as younger peers (1,6-8). The difference comes in terms of recovery and baseline values.

In sports, we look at our aerobic system (oxygen dependent) and our anaerobic (oxygen independent) system. After the age of 30, the aerobic system decreases about 6-12% per decade (1). The anaerobic system is similar in that we see a decrease of about 6-8% of it’s capacity each decade (1). This translates into our performance and ultimately our expectations.

Does that mean that training does not have a positive effect on our performance? Absolutely not! It simply means that our ability to adapt and improve is different as we get older. Here are some of the major things that you need to take into account for those working with the 40+ year-old athlete.

Endurance For The Masters Athlete

masters athlete ironman

In terms of training volume, many endurance athletes maintain high levels of volume, with one study even showing as much as 900 mins/week (1). However as we get older, our VO2max, a measure of our aerobic system, decreases (9). This is thought to be due to a decrease in our max heart rate, and possibly due to a decreased ability for the body to take oxygen from the blood to use in our tissues. With endurance training, you can maintain these markers for longer.

From a programming and training perspective, there are a few key areas where this data becomes extremely important leading to these recommendations for Masters Athletes competing in endurance sports and training:

  • Age does not necessarily mean they need to run less, though this is not a hard rule.
  • Keeping up your training allows you to keep your heart healthier for longer durations.
  • The cardiorespiratory system can be trained but there is a ceiling and PR times should be age category specific.

Strength Training For The Masters Athlete

charles staley

Unfortunately, our overall body strength will decrease as we age. The amount of research done in resistance trained athletes is very sparse and many of the markers to see changes in this system are done with endurance trained athletes. That being said, we do know that our overall strength decreases with age. This is often tested through a max voluntary contraction (MVC) to test for strength, which has been shown to decrease with age.

Less maximal voluntary contraction abilities also translates into a decrease in power, which involved a high-end neuromuscular component to performance, but is a little beyond the scope of this article. According to the research, both strength and power decrease with age, but the goal is not to become just another statistic, but an outlier on the bell curve of physicality!

As with endurance training, strength training can mitigate the loss seen in this system. The decreases in this system however seem to be more predictable than the endurance system.  So although maintaining is possible, some decrement will occur. Muscular strength is a large proponent of successful aging, for the athlete or the general population, and therefore strength training should be included in any masters training regimen.

Sports like CrossFit are making a big ripple in the masters strength athlete. Masters age athletes even into their 70s are showing more and more improvements in strength with more intelligently designed programming that is custom fit to their age demographic and physical niche.  This trend shows the need t0 encourage trainers to embark on these types of programs and become well versed in the complexities and modifications necessary to effectively train and manage this growing population.

From a programming and training perspective, here’s what to focus in on for strength training of the Masters Athlete:

  • For the well trained resistance athlete, maintaining numbers as you age IS forward progress.
  • Strength training should be included for every Masters Athlete, period.
  • This system can be trained but there is a ceiling and PR times should be age category specific.

The Recovery Abilities For The Masters Athlete

ice bath

Masters Athletes can recover just as well between repeated bouts of exercise as their younger peers, given matched relative intensities from a physiological perspective. The difference comes in the psychological component. Masters athletes did not feel as if they had recovered to the same extent as their peers between exercise bouts and between exercise sessions (6,7). Also, as we age, our ability to withstand heat and cold stress goes down (9). This will translate into an athlete’s ability to tolerate training in extreme cold, hot and/or humid conditions.

From a programming and training perspective, here’s how to use the research to improve recovery and regeneration for the Masters Athlete:

  • Using rate of perceived exertion (RPE) may be more beneficial. This scale is a 1-10 scale that is based off how the person feels that day. This scale allows the athlete to modify the intensity of their workout to match what they think their body can handle.
  • Prescribe longer rest periods.
  • In extreme conditions, either hot or cold, longer rest and shorter workouts will be more beneficial. If it is a competition day, a conversation with your athlete about not pushing their capacity into these dangerous zones is going to be very important.

Focusing on The Future of Training

As a therapist specializing in the management of the Masters Athlete, I encourage athletes and coaches to do an extensive medical intake process. We live our lives and that means that a lot of my athletes have aches and pains that the coach will need to take into account.

Arthritis, low back pain and meniscus tears are not reasons to avoid exercise, they’re reasons to modify exercise in a way that will not re-irritate old or existing injuries. Linking with a health care professional if necessary can be a great way to build trust with your athletes and ensure they’re getting the most improvement on your training program.

Also listen to your athletes, they know their bodies better than you do. If something hurts and modifications in exercise don’t relieve it, take a break from it that day and go from there. This is an amazing group of individuals to work with – as more research comes out we will be able to work to optimize their performance and see PR setting times in all sports!

About The Author

Christina Nowak

Christina Nowak MScPT, CSCS, PhD (c) is a physiotherapist, strength coach and PhD student currently focusing her doctorate level studies on exercise and training for the aging population.  She is currently a treating therapist at Element CrossFit & Element Therapy where she uses largely exercise-based rehabilitation for musculoskeletal injuries. She is a believer in the strength of exercise for rehabilitation, especially in an older demographic including the Masters Athlete . Her passion and specialty in the aging population prompted the launch of her website STAVEoff.ca that provides world class information related to exercise prescription for the Masters age group.


  1. Nicole D, Gent N, Norton K. Aging has greater impact on anaerobic versus aerobic power in trained masters athletes. J Sports Sci. 2013. 31(1): 97-103.
  2. US Census 2012. https://www.census.gov/population/age/data/2012.html
  3. Borges N, Raeburn P, Driller M, Argus C. Age-related changes in performance and recovery       kinetics in masters athletes. JAPA. 2015.

[epub Ahead of print].

  • Jokl, P, Sethi PM, Cooper AJ. Master’s performance in the New York City marathon. Br J Sports Med. 2004. 38: 408-12.
  • Harvey JA, Chastin SFM, Skelton DA. How sedentary are older people? a systematic review of the amount of sedentary behavior. J Aging and Phys Act. 2015. 23: 471-87.
  • Borges N, Raeburn P, Driller M, Argus C. Age-related changes in performance and recovery kinetics in masters athletes. JAPA. 2015. [epub Ahead of print].
  • Tayrose GA, Beutal BG, Cardone DA, Sherman OH. The masters athlete: a review of current exercise and treatment recommendations. Sports Health. 2015. 7(3): 270-6.
  • Louis, J., Hausswirth, C., Bieuzen, F., & Brisswalter, J. Muscle strength and metabolism in master athletes. International Journal of Sports Medicine. 2009. 30(10): 754-9.
  • ACSM. Exercise and physical activity for older adults: Position stand. Med Sci Sports Exer. 2009. 1510-30.
  • **Thanks to BreakingMuscle.com, Charles Staley, CrossFit and Ironman for the images used in this article

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    1. Chris Ritter March 23, 2016 at 12:07 pm - Reply

      Great topic. Most of our current clients are masters athletes – specifically swimmers and triathletes. They keep getting faster even as they age. Some swimmers have even gone faster at 50 then in high school. Strength training plays a big role in those results and it is very different than training high school or college. Recovery is key!

    2. Terry Peters March 6, 2017 at 12:50 am - Reply

      Great article. As someone who has continued to exercise into my sixties I completely endorse the notion that we don’t have to give up strenuous training and competition as we get older. I have competed as a Masters athlete 4 times at the World CrossFit Games (that’s me in the photo under the headline ‘What is a Masters Athlete’ in your article) and have no intention of stopping. As older athletes we need to train smart with good coaching, listen to our bodies and have the support of good quality healthcare professionals. Articles like this will help everyone in fitness related businesses recognize the value and impact this demographic will have.

    3. Alan Sienkiewicz June 4, 2017 at 6:13 am - Reply

      This is very encouraging! At 63 I was concerned that I needed to ratchet it down. I’m a Personal Trainer also and can encourage my potential clients with this

    4. Bill Henderson February 21, 2019 at 9:59 pm - Reply

      At 67, 165 lbs at 67 inches, six days a week at the gym, three days weights (move 130,000 lbs in two hours) and three aerobic two spin class and one double down on the elliptical for 550 calories at 170 watts ….. In the summer on the road bike, trying to get back to 20 mph average over 10 mile time trials …. last three years two total knee replacements, last summer got back to 18 mph …. but the fitness plateau is a table that is supported by four legs …. 1. Break a sweat at the gym 6 days a week, 2. Correct and timed amino acids pre and post workout, 3. Nutrition, what you eat and when you eat it and lastly, 4. Check your hormones (Integrative Medicine) we balance 9 different hormones to ensure health …. my formula, oh yea, with weights less weight more reps, 6 sets of 15, 90 reps, exercise the joint space, ligaments, tendons, and of course muscle …. that is my take, others tell me that it is working.

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