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Technique and Training

The Decade of Transition

Strength training in your 50s helps to set the tone for your 60s, 70s, and beyond

Chris Ritter | April 20, 2016

Regardless of your fitness level, as you age you’re fighting a battle against muscle atrophy and a decrease in power. For many, these changes can seem to occur suddenly. Sports physiologist Amy Knab, an assistant professor of exercise and sport science at Queens University of Charlotte, breaks down the process:

The age-related loss of muscle mass is known as sarcopenia. This rate of decline becomes steeper after the age of 45, which is why people tend to start noticing the very real side effects during their 50s. Research indicates that a decline in certain hormones and changes in cell signaling contribute to sarcopenia but physical inactivity, specifically a lack of resistance training, exacerbates this decline. The good news is that research also overwhelmingly shows us that exercise training, in particular resistance training, can significantly attenuate the changes in body composition even in individuals in their 90s. The best thing you can do for yourself is to maintain a healthy exercise routine throughout the lifespan.

In 11 years of training athletes, I’ve observed this first-hand. And changes in muscle tone and strength aren’t the only things happening to athletes in their 50s. Bruce Kone, 58, of Rice Aquatic Masters, explains his experience:

My 50s have been a great period for rebalancing priorities, more freedom, and fun. My three children left the nest, I had achieved all the ladder-climbing stuff I had wanted in my profession, and it gave me time to refocus on my health, my marriage, my family, and relationships. It also gave me time to undo all the lessons I had learned when I swam competitively through college, to delve more into technique, training, and diet. … I’ve [hit] a 50 fly time at age 57 that I had done in high school and [had] reaction times off the blocks on par with half the Olympic men’s finalists in the 100 fly. Strength training pays huge dividends, as does really studying and practicing the elements of the race. I learned the hard way that, in order to prevent injury, warm-up and movement prep before resistance training is much more important as one ages, and injury avoidance is a must, because recovery from them takes even longer. The most fun I get is the idea of racing against younger versions of myself to see if I can keep getting faster as I get older.

Regardless of other transitions occurring in your life in your 50s, the changes in your body offer an opportunity for you to be intentional about strength-training—a healthy way to stay younger than your actual age. If you’re serious about your fitness and longevity, your 50s are the decade to really focus in on it and set the stage for subsequent decades. This is even truer if you haven’t paid much attention to your health until your 50s.

As you age you can still achieve significant performance gains, but recovery times will steadily increase as you age. This will become a much steeper slope in your 60s and beyond, with much more time and effort needed for recovery. This is why if you’re in your 50s it’s time to put in the work of getting strong and fit now. Recovery will be a little easier, your body will adapt a little quicker. Don’t wait until it’s much harder to turn around the trajectory of how your body feels and performs.

The natural loss of muscle mass and strength can only be countered by resistance training with external loads. Even low intensity exercises done consistently with strength training can make a huge difference at this age and beyond.

This is not to say that if you’re younger than 50 to not worry about it, or if you’re in your 60s or older that it’s too late. There’s always the time you have right now, today, to start a change. Take advantage of the opportunity to become a better you, moving well and being strong and fit as you age.

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About the Author—Chris Ritter

Chris Ritter is the founder of RITTER Sports Performance online training programs and the author of the e-book, SURGE STRENGTH, which details how to strength train specifically for swimming performance. Ritter, a swimmer himself, has a degree in kinesiology and exercise science and he specializes in training athletes of diverse abilities, ranging from beginners to Olympians. Follow him on Twitter @RITTERSP or like his Facebook page for updates and training tips.

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