fitness gains after 50

Substantial Fitness Gains You Can Make After 50 (and 60!)


By Jim Rutberg,
CTS Pro Coach, co-author of “Ride Inside“,
The Time-Crunched Cyclist”, and
Training Essentials for Ultrarunning
Reviewed by Adam Pulford

I have an important message to all Generation X and Baby Boomer athletes out there: It’s never too late to make meaningful and measurable gains in fitness and performance! Yes, there are some aspects of physical capacity that decline gradually with age. But people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s still have room for improvement before reaching those maximum capacities. Here are some components of fitness and performance you can improve – not just maintain or stave off the decline – through focused training, purposeful recovery, and great nutrition.

Build Muscle Mass

Building and maintaining muscle mass becomes more difficult as people age, but athletes at any age can increase muscle mass. Sarcopenia, a progressive loss of muscle mass and strength, is multifactorial (see figure from Ali et al., 2014). Essentially, it occurs when factors contributing to protein degradation outpace factors encouraging protein synthesis.


Source: Ali et al., 2014

Although there is no fountain of youth, you can affect many of these factors to tip the balance in favor of muscle protein synthesis. Here are a few things you can do:

Lift heavy weights:

Strength training is one of the best ways to combat sarcopenia, as long as you support it with adequate nutrition and rest. A individualized and periodized year-round program will incorporate various weight and rep ranges, but “what movements” and “how heavy” are a common question. Incorporate the following types of movements: push, pull, hinge, squat, and carry. As for weight, to gain strength aim for a weight you can move for 8-10 repetitions with a “2 rep reserve”. This means stopping when you could complete two more reps with good technique.

Increase protein intake:

Current protein intake recommendations for aging endurance athletes (50+) coalesce around 1.8 (+/- 0.2) grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day. You can read more on this from my colleagues Jason Koop here and Renee Eastman here. Remember to consume protein throughout the day, about 30-40 grams at a time, including before bedtime.

Get better sleep:

High quality sleep increases blood levels of hormones that support anabolism, including testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor-1. Aim for 7-8 hours per night, and just as important, take steps to sleep consistently (same duration and wake up time) and to improve sleep quality (i.e., dark, quiet, and cool room).

Continue endurance training:

Aerobic exercise has a positive influence on several factors in Figure 1, including mobility, developing/retaining neuromuscular pathways, and increasing the number, size, and function of mitochondria.

Increase VO2 max

On a population basis, maximum aerobic capacity gradually decreases by about 10% per decade starting in your 30s. As an athlete, you have a few things working in your favor. Consistent training throughout adulthood can slow this decline. This is because VO2 max is trainable. Although there are genetic influences that limit how high your absolute VO2 max can go, you can increase your aerobic ceiling by about 20% through training. And it’s not likely you have already maxxed out the trainability of your maximum aerobic capacity. You can also increase VO2 max through weight loss. Your lung capacity won’t increase, but the function of VO2 max is to supply oxygen to tissues as rapidly as possible. Having to support less tissue with oxygen increases the oxygen you can rush to working muscles.

To improve VO2 max, older athletes respond to the same training stimuli as younger athletes: repeated 3- to 6-minute high-intensity intervals (RPE 9-10/10, 106-120% of Functional Threshold Power). The difference is in the recovery between hard interval sessions. Athletes over 50 and over 60 may need to separate hard interval days by 2-3 days rather than just one day.

Increase Fractional Utilization of VO2 max

Increasing your sustainable percentage of VO2 max is a great way for older athletes to improve performance. If you envision your aerobic capacity as a warehouse, VO2 max intervals help raise the ceiling and increase the cubic footage. Lactate threshold and FTP workouts fill a bigger percentage of the available space in the warehouse. For moderately trained endurance athletes, the normal range for fractional utilization is an FTP at 75-85% of VO2 max.

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Increasing FTP with 10- to 30-minute steady intervals is a great way to improve fractional utilization – even if VO2 max doesn’t increase at all. FTP is very responsive to training. Depending on your starting point, FTP can increase 15-50% or more. Strength training may also be effective for increasing fractional utilization. We commonly see aging athletes with low functional utilizations (below 75%), but it’s important to look at both the FTP and VO2 max parts of the equation. The best-case scenario comes from improving VO2 max to make more room in the warehouse, then increasing FTP and strength to pack it to 85+% full!

Extend Time to Exhaustion (TTE)

Older athletes often lament that they’ve lost their top speed or maximum power for sharp accelerations. Some of that has to do with atrophy of Type II (fast) muscle fibers and decreased motor unit activation (both of which can be positively affected by the aforementioned strength training). But even if your peak power outputs are slipping, you can improve your time to exhaustion, or how long you can sustain certain power outputs. It’s the transition from a Ferrari petrol engine to a Cummins turbo diesel. A ton of long-haul power but a little less zip.

Technically, the term TTE refers to time to exhaustion at FTP. However, conceptually, you can increase the amount of time you can sustain any level of intensity by adjusting the relationship between interval duration and intensity. Extensive interval training utilizes longer durations at lower intensities to increase maximum capacity. Intensive interval training focuses on shorter durations and higher intensities to increase maximum output. For example, the normal power range for VO2 max intervals is 106-120% of FTP. In the table below, extensive intervals are 5 minutes at the lower end of the range and intensive intervals are shorter (2 minutes) at the upper end of the range.

Interval Duration % of FTP
Intensive VO2 max intervals 2 min 121%
Extensive VO2 max intervals 5 min 106%
Intensive FTP intervals 6-10 min 105%
Extensive FTP intervals 10-30 min 91%
Intensive Tempo intervals 15-45 min 90%
Extensive Tempo intervals 45 min – up to 2 hours 76%


These are not the only substantial fitness gains athletes can make after 50 and past 60 years old, but they are a great start. More important than what they can do for your athletic performance, these fitness gains also support longevity. Strength training plays a role in maintaining bone density, balance, and even cognitive function. And maintaining a higher VO2 max, fractional utilization of VO2 max, and TTE are all components of sustained cardiovascular and metabolic health.


Ali S, Garcia JM. Sarcopenia, cachexia and aging: diagnosis, mechanisms and therapeutic options – a mini-review. Gerontology. 2014;60(4):294-305. doi: 10.1159/000356760. Epub 2014 Apr 8. PMID: 24731978; PMCID: PMC4112511.

Arent SM, Cintineo HP, McFadden BA, Chandler AJ, Arent MA. Nutrient Timing: A Garage Door of Opportunity? Nutrients. 2020; 12(7):1948.

Doering TM, Jenkins DG, Reaburn PR, Borges NR, Hohmann E, and Phillips SM. Lower Integrated Muscle Protein Synthesis in Masters Compared with Younger Athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc 48: 1613-1618, 2016.

Moore, D.R. Protein Requirements for Master Athletes: Just Older Versions of Their Younger Selves. Sports Med (2021).

Wooding DJ, Packer JE, Kato H, West DWD, Courtney-Martin G, Pencharz PB, Moore DR. Increased Protein Requirements in Female Athletes after Variable-Intensity Exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2017 Nov;49(11):2297-2304. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001366. PMID: 28692631.

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Comments 7

  1. Pingback: Carefully Curated Triathlon News for October 26, 2023 - TriathlonWire

  2. No Room for Error
    All the stuff you could get away with when you were younger no longer applies:
    1) Weight – too much stress on heart, bones and muscles — so diet matters more than ever
    2) Flexibility – too little stretching, Yoga, Pilates, etc. and the little injuries become big ones
    3) Strength – just the bike won’t cut it, weight and strength training off the bike become critical
    4) Rest – sleep and recovery become “musts”
    But, if you take good care of those, then things like FTP, VO2 Max and even endurance can remain far higher than any of us thought possible even a decade ago. Unfortnately, for me that means as much focused “training time” off the bike as on.

  3. As a 76 yo cyclist, I appreciate your article and analysis. I bike indoors or outdoors nearly everyday at a high level, trying to work more on heart rate and cadence than high power wattage. I try to average 140 bpm or higher for 50% of my ride.

    I’ve found the 2 issues to deal with as you get older is maintaining muscle mass and avoiding injury or illness. It takes so long to recover from injuries or illnesses and your muscle mass drops rapidly. Instead of heavy weight I work with medium weights and do more reps. I won’t build bulk but instead I try to maintain a stronger and flexible muscle level.

    Being semi retired doesn’t have to mean old and out of shape but it takes constant work to maintain a decent level of fitness as you get older and it takes work to recover from injuries or illness but what’s the alternative? As long as I can make the pedals go around it’s good.

    1. Post

      Bob, I appreciate your point about injury avoidance. There appears to be a sweet spot for older athletes when it comes to strength training. Heavy enough to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, but not so heavy that injury risks increase from poor technique or ramping up resistance more quickly than a person is ready for. On the other end of the spectrum, low resistance movements that are good for range of motion and joint mobility may not stimulate muscle protein synthesis enough – although they are important for ROM and mobility on their own. – Jim Rutberg, CTS

  4. Nice and well done article, Jim. My question is about protein. One often sees grams/lb but I submit grams per pound of lean body weight may be more appropriate. Why add extra calories to fat mass? I get more protein for muscle mass increase recommendations.

    1. Post

      Terry, I see your point, however recommendations from the ACSM and other organizations are designed to guide everyday behaviors. Few people know to categorize bodyweight by lean body mass, fat-free mass, and fat mass. Even fewer know or have the ability to determine these masses by themselves. So, recommendations are constructed to be most applicable for a wide range of people, utilizing the measurements people have readily available: the scale and nutrition labels/databases. – Jim Rutberg, CTS

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