Realistic Expectations: Training and Competing as a Masters Athlete

Let me guess: you’re as old as dirt but you feel young and strong and you’re more driven to compete than ever. You work your butt off as you watch all the younger lifters in your gym and on the ‘gram making progress and smashing out PR’s every few weeks or months…and you just don’t seem to make progress as fast as they do. I see you, and I’m one of you. Is there any way to balance that competitive drive with the inevitable rudeness of living in a body that’s past its prime? 

Storytime: as I was wandering back through the thousands of lifting videos in my phone from the past few years, from the beginning of my olympic lifting career up until now (which included a podium finish at World Masters’ Championships in 2019, and one 3-national-record performance in early 2022), I was struck by one rather rude thought: I am a pretty slow learner. 

I first came to Olympic Weightlifting from powerlifting, and before that, obstacle racing, martial arts, and triathlon. About two years after I started olympic lifting, my thirteen-year-old daughter started olympic lifting as well. I watched as she fell in love with weightlifting, improving her skills and strength with every workout and laying down new personal records regularly. At the end of her first year of lifting, she and I competed against each other in an open community meet  (yep, same weight class and everything) where I beat her total by 3kg. I brought home the silver medal and she brought home the bronze. As we posed for pictures on the podium, it occurred to me that this was the last time I’d put up a bigger total than her. Since then she has systematically destroyed all of my PR’s and added more than 30kg to her total, and I…haven’t. I keep reminding myself that that is the cold, brittle difference between training in your teens and training in your forties. Le sigh. 

So what are us old people (and by old people I mean, over 30ish) to do when we have fire in our bellies and aspirations of athletic greatness? Well, the first smart thing to do is, find a coach who has some experience with masters athletes. Once you have found that person, do what they tell you to do, even if that means not working as hard as you think you can. Your own brain is not your friend; it will LIE to you and whisper that you are capable of more, that you can still train at the same intensity as the 20-somethings in your gym. No – YOU are your own worst enemy. You have no objectivity where your own progress is concerned. Winging your training or following a program that is designed for a younger athlete is a recipe for ending up broken and sad, wondering why the sport that you love didn’t love you back. Putting your trust in a good coach is the best way to get your brain working for you and not against you; it frees up your mental space to focus on executing each workout to the best of your ability. 

If you have a good coach who is programming appropriately for you (and you are executing the program as prescribed), you will be set up to age like a total badass, bearing in mind of course, that staying healthy is always goal number one. Any workout that you finish uninjured is a win. To that end, you need to pay special attention to warming up thoroughly, training purposefully with the same attention to detail given to the lifts at 60% as the ones at 90%, and DOING YOUR ACCESSORY WORK. I know, it’s relatively boring and unsatisfying, but your longevity in your sport depends on you staying healthy, and this is what will keep you on that platform over the long term. Your body needs this stuff. Also, resistance training is the fountain of youth – the science on that is solid. Stay on the accessory work train and you’ll maintain your mobility, muscle mass, and bone density long after your peers have decided that it’s time to slow down and play lawn darts. 

The single biggest physiological difference between a masters athlete and a younger athlete is power production – as we age, we simply aren’t as fast or as elastic as we used to be. This is not to say we can’t train for power and improve those skills that are dependent on it – we just need to be realistic. Training for strength will generally give you more bang for your buck and get more weight on that barbell in less time.

What’s even more important than training at the appropriate intensity level is managing recovery. Masters need to take rest and nutrition way more seriously than our junior counterparts. Hands up, how many of you have rolled your eyes at the young bucks who drink and party late into the evening, sleep for three hours, then swing by McD’s on the way to the gym for a greasy breakfast (best thing for a hangover) before smashing out PR’s on Big Saturday? Yeah, we can’t do that anymore…but be honest, it doesn’t sound that fun anyway. We need to do everything in our control to manage stress, get quality rest, and fuel our bodies well. These rickety meat sacks we live in need to be treated with as much love and respect as we can muster to offset the beatings we subject them to in the gym. 

The thing that’s awesome about being a masters athlete is that no one cares about us. No, really, it’s a good thing! When younger athletes excel, they end up under huge amounts of pressure to perform. We, on the other hand, don’t have any of that; none of us are vying for positions on national teams or collecting ROBI points. We’re in this for ourselves – which is not to say we don’t put pressure on ourselves to perform well, but nobody’s life depends on whether or not we hit a PR at our next meet. And that’s a freeing thought.

There are more and more masters athletes out there competing – masters world championships in 2019 attracted over a thousand athletes from all over the world. More athletes means more opportunities to compete, more friends to make, and more suffer buddies to commiserate with. 

Competing as a masters athlete is about being patient. It’s staying healthy so you can stay in the game. It’s about training smarter, not harder. Following the program and timing your heavy lifts so that they’re there when they count. It’s about prolonged consistent effort, knowing and working within your limits, and most of all, it’s about being the best possible version of yourself.

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