Masters athletes are a special breed. It’s one thing to train and compete when you feel 10 feet tall and bulletproof (and live in your parents’ basement). It’s another thing to balance training, family, and professional obligations on top of a cranky body. You have to stay adaptable and open-minded about what will continue to carry you forward as a competitor. That’s why I put together these guidelines.
1. Ask how to get the same job done at a lower cost
We can think of your competitive performance as the peak of a mountain. There is very limited room at the top. However, there are also many ways up that mountain. The further away you are from competition, the more options you have for effective training.
The truth is that you don’t have to practice your specific competitive movements year-round. I wouldn’t recommend this for an injury-free athlete in their 20s, let alone for a masters athlete with real mileage on their joints. Don’t try to mimic the parameters of competitive performance. Instead, ask the question of what transfers to performance but minimizes wear and tear.
When you’re months away from competition, you have lots of options:
A powerlifter might switch up stances, rotate speciality bars, and even limit range of motion—if necessary for low-back or hip health. I would mention cardio but I don’t want any angry letters.
A weightlifter might use loaded jumps and quasi-overhead movements like a landmine press.
A runner might focus on tempo runs, technical drills, and strength training.
A CrossFit competitor might develop strength and aerobic fitness without any glycolytic (anaerobic lactic) work.
As competition draws closer, you will have to reintegrate everything. However, unless you’re a novice, you’ve already had plenty of practice and reintegration will happen relatively quickly. Having well-developed foundational physical attributes (strength, aerobic fitness, etc), an absolute minimum of injuries and pain, and a renewed enthusiasm for your sport can be incredibly powerful. The real trick here is figuring out the optimal timing and frequency of your reintegration approach.
2. The most successful masters athletes are the ones who train the longest
Even if you’re a sprinter, this stuff is a marathon. The longer you can engage in quality training AND minimize the likelihood of injuries, the longer you’ll be a competitive force. Just imagine how different the podium would look if there were no such thing as a talented athlete retiring due to injury or pain. The more quality training you can accumulate, the better you’ll perform. This brings us to our next principle:
3. Build momentum in training
The odds are that hard work is encoded right into your DNA. Your ability to grind is what has taken you this far. This is a beautiful thing. Just remember that your next training session is even more important than this one. The real challenge is how to build momentum in training. In other words, you have to ask how you can ensure that you bring something better to your next training session. Maybe it’s more weight on the bar, maybe it’s better technical execution and, maybe it’s your ability to maintain a very specific level of effort or awareness.
The best way to build training momentum is to embrace the value of both internal and external standards. You already know what external standards are. They’re things like game-day performance or weight on the bar. Internal standards, however, are tougher to measure. They’re largely about how you feel. You know what it’s like to ignore internal standards and adjust your effort to hit certain training numbers. That also means you know what it’s like to leave a session with more fatigue than planned. Often, the price you pay for this is losing momentum in your next training session—a frustrating experience. One alternative is to adjust your training numbers to match your effort. This simple switch will produce training sessions that are far more aligned with your physiological readiness. Today may not be ground-breaking but you’ll have set up your next training session like a champion.
Two important notes:
The closer you get to competition, the more rigidly you’ll have to adhere to external standards
I’m not describing a strategic overreach here, where you might accumulate fatigue before a planned tapering period. Instead, I’m talking about the day-to-day experience of training in your offseason—whatever that offseason may look like.
4. Find a therapy team that gets it
Have you ever gone to see a health professional to get help with sport-related pain or injury? That’s good. Has anyone ever told you to simply stop training? I thought they might have. Did you listen to them? Ha ha ha! Just kidding.
You need someone who understands that you’re an athlete. They need to know how to adjust—not eliminate—your training plan. They also need the expertise to get you feeling and performing better. It doesn’t matter if it’s a chiro, a physio, or somebody who wants to realign your chakras. It DOES matter if they have the skills, the understanding, and the collaborative mindset to make performance happen on your terms. Massive bonus points for someone ready, willing, and able to maintain open communication and cooperation with your coaches.
5. Recovery is more important than ever
I’ll keep this brief because you probably already know this stuff. Sleep, stress management, and nutrition are going to be the limiting factors of what you can throw at your body (and mind). However, it’s worth adding one more point here: often, the best thing you can do is ask what can be taken out of your life with no loss to happiness or performance. Thanks to Marie Kondo, more people than ever are asking what clutter they can eliminate from their homes. You can adapt this same principle to the way you spend your time and mental energy. If it’s not useful and it doesn’t spark joy, jettison that sucker.
6. Don’t compare your younger self to your current self.
“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”
You’re not that person any more. You’re older, wiser, and better in all kinds of different ways. But your hips or shoulders probably don’t move the same way. Keep your mind open to who you are now and how your body responds to training. Comparing your current performance to your past performance is no different than comparing yourself to someone else. That road only leads to misery. Instead, look for places to elevate your current performance, inch by inch. There are a million small opportunities that are ripe for the plucking. You just have to shift your gaze from the past to the path in front of you.
7. Make up for (relatively) early specialization
You may have come up through an organized athletic development program. You’ll know if you did. The odds are, however, that you found something you loved as an adult and got into it—hard! This is amazing news. That’s because there are going to be a number of general physical skills that will bring up your systemic strength and performance. Even better, these qualities should be easy to improve. There are tons of opportunities here. Check out this quick list:
Brachiation (AKA hanging off of stuff)
Cadence or rhythmic work
Active mobility (the value here often comes from specific awareness and coordination over itself)
Basic aerobic fitness
If there’s something that has been left out, bringing your skill level up from poor to competent (no huge expertise required) should help you feel rapid overall improvement.
8. Don’t forget that this is fun
This stuff isn’t going to make you rich and it isn’t going to make you famous. It’s here to help you live the life you’re truly capable of. It’s an expression of some of your most unique abilities. Be present, be grounded, and appreciate the profound gift it is to be able to continue to compete as a masters athlete.