Function vs. Performance for the 40+ Athlete

How do we put all health and fitness needs together for a middle-aged athlete who wants to be able to cope with most of what life throws at him?

Everyone pretty much wants the same thing from training – to look good naked and have this elusive “anywhere” fitness. The famed “being prepared for the unknown and unknowable.” And the older we get, the more things we want to be prepared for: playing with kids, hiking, a bike ride with a partner, playing tennis or paintball…

But like all fitness myths, it’s about time we shattered this one just like we busted those of spot reduction and the food pyramid. Fitness is task specific. If you wish to have good bike fitness, then you need to ride often. If you want good fitness for weightlifting, i.e. the ability to perform many reps at high percentages of your 1RM, then you need to condition the body for that, too.

The Focus on Performance

One of the things people always miss is that having it all comes at a cost. That cost is the loss of higher-level abilities in other competing qualities of fitness.

I know the athletes at the CrossFit Games have just demonstrated that you can be incredibly strong and fit at the same time, but the question remains: how much stronger could they be if they got rid of all the conditioning work needed for CrossFit competition?

The same could be said of an Ironman or ultra-running athlete who wanted to have it all and not just endurance capacity. How much better all-around could they be if they dropped some of the endurance work and lifted weights a few times per week?

The Benefits of Being Older

As we grow older we’re supposed to become wiser. Part of that has to do with a shift in thinking. I wrote last week about how I’ve changed our focus in training at my gym. It’s always a bit scary as a trainer to come in and make wholesale changes to what you’re doing with people, as it wouldn’t be unusual for many to walk out the door at that point. However, the changes have been well taken and I’ve had multiple comments about how much better everyone is feeling.

And that’s one of the things about being older – training is about health and wellbeing rather than just performance. It’s about being able to get down to the floor to play with kids or grandkids just as much as it is about being happy with how you look in a pair of jeans.

mature athletes, aging clients, training older clients, baby boomers, boomers

Weeding Out the Unnecessary

This is one of the many times that the term “functional fitness” doesn’t really cut it. If fitness is task specific, and what we’re after is being “fit for life,” then we need a training plan that reflects that. The problem is that when you look at all the many things you could train for the list seems almost endless.

Take strength as an example. There’s maximal strength – sure, we all know that – but what about explosive strength, speed strength, starting strength, relative strength, strength endurance, and absolute strength? Even looking at flexibility, there’s dynamic flexibility, and passive, and active flexibility.

If you were to try to program every facet of fitness into your training you’d either end up with workouts that last three hours each or you’d end up in the asylum. So you need to weed out the unnecessary and choose the fitness qualities that have the most carryover to everything else, as well as be realistic about what will have the greatest impact on your life.

I’m going to upset nearly everyone when I say this next bit…

You don’t need to do hard interval work. Oh, I know it’s all the rage and this study says that it’s better than long, slow distance training, and this other study says it’s better for fat loss, and blah, blah, blah. The reason you don’t need it is that not much of life is actually done at high speed for a few minutes at a time, and the bits that are – such as moving furniture or running up a train platform – can be prepared for just as well using different methods that don’t have such an enormous recovery cost.

High Intensity Work Is Like Binge Drinking

The thing about intensity is that a little bit goes along way. Take the notorious Tabata study. In it’s original, and barely ever correctly followed form, the main work set is a single four-minute block of intervals performed five times per week with one steady-state effort on the weekend. That’s a total of twenty minutes of hard interval work for the entire week. There are no results known for what happens when you do sixty minutes of hard intervals five days per week. (Although I can tell you what happens – burnout and/or injury.)

mature athletes, aging clients, training older clients, baby boomers, boomers

You can go back through any well-respected strength or endurance training tome and see 70% mentioned time and time again. That doesn’t mean you never train harder than 70%, it means that your average intensity is 70%. In other words, you can do a set at 60%, 70%, and then 80% and still have an average intensity of 70%.

The same holds true for endurance or cardiovascular training. An average intensity of 70% doesn’t mean you never run fast. What it means is that for every minute you spend above 70%, you spend an equal amount of time below it.

What you’ll find from this sensible approach is that you can train far more often than you can if you go all out every session. If fitness and health are to be a big part of your life as you age, then you need work at them daily. As Dan Gable said, “If it’s important, do it daily.” The modern trend of highly intense, thirty-minute sessions done infrequently during the week are the exercise equivalent of binge drinking. And we all know how healthy that is, right?

A Sample Training Week

So we know we need strength. We know we need some fitness work, both easy and short and hard. And we know we need flexibility and mobility work. How do we put all that together for a middle-aged, everyday athlete who wants to be able to physically cope with most of what life would throw at him?

Here’s a sample training week:

  • Monday: 20 minutes mobility, strength (lower body, 5 sets of 3 as 60%, 65%, 70%, 75%, 80%), 10 minutes of intervals done as 60 seconds work/60 seconds rest (total of 5 minutes work).
  • Tuesday: Metcon, 20 minutes mobility warm up, 21 minutes of intervals done as 90 seconds work/90 seconds rest (total of 7 minutes work), 20 minutes flexibility.
  • Wednesday: 60 minutes easy aerobic, either walk or jog.
  • Thursday: 20 minutes mobility, (upper body, 5 sets of 3 as for Monday), 10 minutes of intervals done as 30 seconds work/30 seconds rest (total 5 minutes work).
  • Friday: 60 minutes easy aerobic, either walk or jog.
  • Saturday: 60 minutes flexibility or yoga.
  • Sunday:Game day or rest.

I’d urge everyone to try more moderate and easy sessions during the week before trying to add more hard ones. And the older you are and the less active you’ve been your whole life, I’d urge more time spent on range of motion than on strength or conditioning work.

After a certain age not being able to touch your toes is really going to catch up with you, like when you need to hire someone to help you get dressed or wash yourself. I can honestly say that I don’t believe there is a ceiling on how much flexibility and mobility work you can or should do. The more you move, the better you will be longer term.

I think shifting from a performance mindset to a function mindset is an important change for people to make. And it is one that will have the greatest payoff to your long-term health and fitness.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.