Aging Athletes Need More Rest and Recovery

aging athletes need more rest and recovery

One of the most important, yet overlooked aspects of any exercise or training program is the recovery phase, or time spent resting. In fact, most coaches and trainers would argue it’s just as or more important than the exercise itself. During this phase, physiologically your body is seizing the opportunity to repair itself to become stronger in preparation for the next exercise stress placed upon it. It is during rest that the body becomes stronger. Not surprisingly, as you get older, the more your body relies on rest and recovery time.

The effects of aging on training and performance are fairly well known. As you age beyond 35-40, there are reductions in maximum heart rate, VO2 max and lean body mass that reduce training output and performance. Recovery seems to take longer. Experts agree that most people encounter a noticeable difference in training capacity and recovery about every decade.

While it may seem obvious that recovery time increases with age, the physiological causes are not yet fully understood. According to 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 breakdown, recover, and 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.

In one study, young and old rodents were forced to run on a wheel at an extremely high intensity to the point of muscle damage in their quadriceps. The older rodents’ muscle showed more signs of damage on biopsy. Further, when forced to run again at this high intensity, the older rodents could not perform at this high of a level as quickly as their younger counterparts. Likewise, in another study when younger (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.

Recovering from injury also takes longer for older athletes. Activities that top the list for injuries among baby boomers include bike riding (66,000 treated a year), basketball (48,230), unspecified forms of exercise and running (32,370) and skiing (28,150).

The recovery rate closely relates to how fast the body can grow new cells to repair itself. Studies show that injured athletes 45 and older recover between 15 to 18 percent more slowly than a similarly injured 30-year-old.

However, take heart. Aging doesn’t have to mean losing your competitive edge. Being active after 50 takes extra diligence to warm up, hydrate, focus on form, strengthen core muscles and stretch afterward. Older athletes need to allow themselves more time to recover between their most demanding training sessions. The extra time may be given to outright rest, active recovery, or a combination of both.

Free-radical damage, also known as oxidative stress, is now known to be one of the primary components of aging. Unfortunately, athletes are even more prone to free-radical damage than non-athletes. For this reason, they need to be especially vigilant in consuming antioxidants, those vitamins and vitamin-like compounds that protect against and repair such damage.

Vitamins C and E are especially helpful to athletes, as controlled studies have shown they can dramatically reduce post-workout muscle soreness in the short term, in addition to minimizing long-term oxidative stress.