The Best Habits for Athletes Over 40

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Life is less forgiving after 40. It’s a myth you can’t gain fitness, lose weight, change careers, or change yourself past a certain age; but I do think those changes get harder. Your body doesn’t absorb and shrug off abuse as well as it did years ago. There’s more at stake when changing relationships and careers compared to when you were starting out. And more effort and focus are required to gain fitness and/or lose weight. Great habits enable greater success, so here are 5 of the best habits for athletes over 40.

Eat More Plants, Fewer Animals

There are a number of reasons why it makes sense to shift your diet to consume more plants and fewer animals. Eating more plants will increase your fiber intake, which may reduce the risks of developing colon cancers, normalize bowel movements, and lower some cardiovascular disease risks. This shift also tends to lead to a diet with greater nutrient density and lower caloric density.

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Vegetarian and vegan athletes can be just as successful as athletes who eat animal products. There is no truth to the assertion vegetarian and vegan athletes can’t get enough protein or iron to successfully train, compete, and recover. At the same time, athletes who enjoy meat, eggs, and dairy products shouldn’t feel compelled to give them up entirely. I’m talking a shift to more and less, not necessarily all and none.

Eat More Protein, Fewer Refined Carbs

Along with the shift to eating more plants and fewer animals, athletes over 40 should moderately increase protein intake and make a conscious effort to reduce intake of concentrated carbohydrate sources. You don’t have to go low carb or swear off bread and pasta, but it is important to acknowledge that highly concentrated sources of carbohydrate energy make it easy to consume way more calories than you need or intend to eat. Concentrated carbohydrate sources are great for pre-, during-, and post-workout sports nutrition purposes, but cutting back on them in the rest of your diet helps reduce overall caloric intake.

When you combine the advice to consume more plants and fewer animals with the advice to consume fewer concentrated carbohydrate sources, you naturally end up with the recommendation to eat more fruits and vegetables. Some people advocate rounding out your energy intake almost entirely with fat, but for athletes over 40 I recommend sticking to 1.5-1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day, and potentially even up to 2 g/kg/day. This still leaves plenty of room in an athlete’s diet for fats and oils, but also helps ensure you’re getting enough protein to support your muscle mass, immune health, and recovery needs.

Add/Increase strength training

Metabolism follows muscle mass, so maintaining muscle mass becomes increasingly important as we get older. Strength training also helps maintain bone density, which is particularly important for athletes with a long history in non-weight bearing sports like cycling and swimming, or people who were sedentary in early adulthood and have become more active in recent years. Joint health is a third reason to add or increase strength training – in case you need another. There’s an old saying: “motion is lotion” regarding joint health. Incorporating a variety of strength training movements helps keep your joints moving in a wide range of motion and applies stress at novel angles, which helps maintain the strength of connective tissues (tendons and ligaments).

Exercise More Consistently, Less Specifically

As coaches we focus a lot on improving an athlete’s performance in a very specific activity. If you want to win an event, your training needs to be very specific to the demands of that event. On a grander scale, however, it is important for athletes over 40 to prioritize consistent activity over sport specificity. What this means is that even sport-specific athletes benefit from diversifying their ability to participate in a wider range of activities. If you’re a runner you can still be a runner, but consider adding strength training and cycling and even bouldering or stick-and-ball sports to your lifestyle. If you’re a cyclist, it’s even more important to diversify so you can participate in more weight-bearing activities. The point is to increase your options so you can exercise consistently no matter what activity or equipment is available. Make sure you can always do something; don’t worry as much about exactly what that something is.

Reduce Stress, Increase Joy

Stress is a drain on your energy and your ability to perform at your best. Our culture glorifies the ability to handle more and more stress, but a more mature view may be to reduce or eliminate unnecessary stresses so you can focus on the stresses that matter and move you toward your goals. Prioritize sleep, not just by potentially going to bed earlier, but also by optimizing your sleep environment. Identify nagging stressors, like clutter or busywork, and get rid of them. If you can afford it, outsource tasks that are time consuming and add tasks to your to-do list but return little value, like house cleaning and lawn maintenance. On the other hand, if those tasks are stress relievers for you (I worked with an athlete who loved folding laundry), then keep doing them. The point is, stop doing everything just because you can do everything. Be more discerning about the stresses you take on.

Whether you’re in your 40s or your 70s, your greatest days and greatest achievements may still lay ahead. I think that’s an essential belief that keeps people going. We need to support that belief by what we do now so we will be capable and ready to seize upon opportunities in the future!

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

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Comments 36

  1. Pingback: Cycling Training Challenge: Can You Get Better At These Things? - CTS

  2. Chris, you have outdone yourself on this one. I’m not sure I remember 40 or maybe even 60 or 70 possibly even 80 but I pray with the continued help of one of your coach’s, Jane, I will make it to the finish line in, and be deserving.

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  5. keep the advice coming. At 58 cycling has saved my life and I continue to pedal forward. I do another strength workout that keeps my core supple. I do enjoy your dietary advice although you never mention anything about those of us who prefer a kosher diet.

  6. Hi, I would really like some info on the amount of protein applicable for women. Our bodies are not the same as men, so when I read an article I try to figure out how to adjust the info.
    –An additional elephant in the room is menopause. How have the over 60 women athletes delt with that?
    –AND the last issue is arthritis (hope there’s a spell check here), Are those athletes who responded affected by arthritis or degenerative disk disease? Or, are these the fortunate few who do not have those issues?

    1. I have had arthritis and degenerative disc disease related to a scoliatic spine with two fusion surgeries. I cycle, swim and walk every day, in addition to core work three times a week with emphasis on body-weight exercises. I agree with the author in emphasizing that diversity is fundamental, rather than specialization in any one type of exercise. The potential for overuse injuries increases for those with degenerative conditions or osteoporosis.

  7. Chris, As one of the other commentators mentioned, nothing new, (because I suspect everyone knows this in their mind), but it is the written down version that we read that somehow inspires us to action. I have found that a session or two of overall fitness training around specific training for the target is best. Having said that, as I just reach the magical six zero, my first daughter was born three days ago and in the run-up to this momentous and life-changing event, I must confess training has taken a bit of a back seat. Must try harder to get back into the saddle, as it were…. (no sexual pun intended!)

  8. Great job of succinctly discussing the topic. I will be 70 in 6 months. Ride 8k a year, 3k of which is doing intervals on my smart trainer. Careful VO2max and LT intervals are important but can be deadly for knees.

  9. Great article. As more and more of us push into our 60’s, coaches need to tailor their workouts accordingly. Recovery is tougher. Wouldn’t we all love to get 10 hours of sleep!

  10. Thank you! Now, I’ll be more open to my wife wanting me to trail run and hike when all I want to do is ride my mountain bike. Less stress and frustration over not being able to ride as much as I’d like, too.

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  12. You’ve inspired me! Just turning 48 today, and my go-to’s this last decade have been running and swimming. Today, as a result of reading your article which confirms everything I’ve learned in the evidence-based academic/scientific research world, I’m putting together a resistance-training routine to begin actively building up my muscle base. Women begin to lose about 1lb if muscle mass each year after age 20 if they are not mindful about maintaining or increasing their muscle mass this can exacerbate the slowing down of their metabolisms over time to a SIGNIFICANT degree.

    See, I KNEW all of that, and yet it is your article today which has encouraged me to get into ACTION based on what I knew I “should” be doing!!

    Thank you!

  13. It is amazing how much work/life stress affects rides and workouts. The comment about consistency is key. Integrating strength training is something I need to do and will be as I just lunched training this past week for 2018.

  14. Great suggestions. For sure tryin to follow. Agree on diet and strength training. Hard to avoid stress but I am getting better at managing it because as we age we realize it is just part of life and don’t internalize as much. As my doctor said for those over 50 – use it or lose it!

    1. Since my 40’s “use it or lose it” has been my motto and especially true toward weight training and non cycling activities.

  15. I’d appreciate a reference to a 1800 kcal/day vegetarian diet supplying the recommended 140 g/day of high quality protein that does not consist entirely of tofu.

    1. I’d sure like to hear how I can get this much protein on a vegan diet too!

      I weigh 63.5KG. That means I’m supposed to take in 1.7 g * 63.5KG per day = 108 grams of protein per day (mid-range). I eat mostly vegan, and that’s a ton of protein to take in from whole foods if you are vegan.

      Split into four meals per day, that’s 27 grams per meal. I’d sure like to hear more about what vegan whole foods I can eat that have that much protein in one meal without ridiculous serving sizes…I haven’t found any. I’ve been supplementing with vegan protein powder but that’s certainly not a whole food.

      1. I’ve arrived at the recommendations in this article by trial and error over many years. Right on. I’ve been eating a normal natural foods diet for 40+ years, basically a Med diet, but no mammals or dinosaurs and not even much fish. I assume that the vegetarian diet mentioned above means lacto-ovo and perhaps pisco “vegetarian.” I use whey isolate to increase protein intake, 30-60g/day.

        Vegans have a much harder time, but yes, non-whole food sources are what you do. The alternative is to increase daily burn to about 5000 calories, which will supply enough whole food vegan protein if you’re careful. At my age, that isn’t an option.

        At 74, I’ve also become osteoporotic. The doc prescribed milk, so now I drink that, though I formerly did not, my error.

  16. Agree. At 65 I returned to trail running, did a 23km race last month, now building to a 50km in February. Need to keep muscle strength to maintain joints. I’m very prone to knee pain but have found doing lots of vertical races a great way to preserve pain-free knees. Just need to remind myself I’m not 18 anymore.

  17. I’ve been a road and track cyclist for 30+ years, with the last 20 years competing each season. Resistance training is an important year-round weekly routine for me. And about 7 years ago I started taking tennis lessons once a week. I don’t need to worry about the “engine” while I play tennis, only my technique. Most important, though, is tennis gets me moving outside of the linear plane of motion experienced in cycling. I think that’s essential now that I’m a 50+ year old athlete. And for that same reason, as a cycling coach myself, I encourage all my masters athletes to incorporate at least one day a week of some type of cross-training.

  18. 81 here and do cycling and walking the dog, occasional SCUBA trip. Recovery takes longer, these days, especially from any sort of cold. It’s hard to string three ride days in a row. Oatmeal raisin cookies are my downfall!

  19. Strength work is essential. Can make a huge difference. I see cyclists and triathletes every day who don’t do it and they are just not that healthy. I would also add the advice of the oldest guy to finish kona: “go anaerobic every day”. Even if just for a little while.

  20. Perfect timing for this article! I’m a “just turned” 66 yr old, and a cyclist. Currently training for a metric century—my mind tricks me into thinking I’m 30 something, but my body tells me otherwise! Looks like I will have to be more serious about injecting some strength training between rides! Thanks!

  21. Absolutely agree with this.After a ceartin age it is much harder to shrug off an injury.It takes a lot more time to heal. Exercising smarter and eating right helps. After 40 or 50 or 60. Staying active is the key.A friend use to say “If you rest , you rust”.

  22. I’m soon to b 66, I ride 3 to 4 k a year and teach a spinning class 2 to 3 days a week. I’ve been doing Squats , deadlifts, and basically a power routine one day a week, and I’m a believer in lifting weights to maintain mass and strength. But my biggest problem is overtraining.. Sleeping is hard to get ?? I’ve tried different diets , currently I’m trying a Keto diet . I’m looking lean and feeling good!

  23. A truly great article. I am 79 years of age and ride approx. 100 miles a week when weather permits and if not I spin inside. I started riding when I was 54 years old and can say it completely changed my life. I would also add to cut down on sweets. I watch my diet very closely but have a tendency to eat to many sweets which is a real downer when cycling. Please keep up the great articles.

  24. 5 very important points. At 69 I have lived through numerous well meaning, brilliant researchers who continue to minimize the importance of a significant portion of your diet being made up of complex carbohydrates. Personally, I would put 8-10 hours sleep/day and recovery days further up your list, especially for your ironman athletes. Thanks again for sharing your passion and expertise!

  25. I couldn’t agree more. I’m 67 and have been actively cycling with a club for the past 15 years. Over the past two years I started to take things more seriously and as you suggested I started with the dietary changes and began to slim down down. Then I added a weight and core exercise program once a week to increase strength. As this began to pay off I started to apply specific training programs and ride with a purpose. I’m not ready for the Tour yet but the strides I’ve made are very noticeable, especially among the guys I ride with in the club. Great article and greater advice. Ride on!

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