Performance Tips for the Masters Athlete

A woman in a cowboy hat holding a medal.

By Coach Maria Simone

Coach Maria after finishing the Leadville 100 in 2022

I often joke that a “masters athlete” is a nice way of saying an old athlete. It’s so much nicer to be a master than an old geezer.  More precisely, a masters athlete is typically considered to be a 40+ year old athlete (age depends on the governing body for the sport). 

Jokes aside, I consider it a privilege to be “old,” and I feel lucky to continue to push my body the way I do. It is a blessing! 

But, the aging body does require some care. As we age, sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass) and decreased VO2max (among other issues) necessitate changes in training, recovery and nutrition to maximize our potential. While we cannot prevent the aging process, we CAN slow it down through key training and nutritional interventions.

In this article, I’ll cover key tips from the research for taking care of our masters bodies.

Physiology of Aging

Let’s start with some of the basics of what happens as we age. Age-related changes are gradual from the 30s through the age of 50 or 60. After this point and through each successive decade, the changes can become more obvious and quick. 

Sarcopenia, the loss of muscle mass, typically begins around 35 years of age. Whomp. Whomp. Generally, sarcopenia decreases our ability to apply power or force, and can further impact our resting metabolic rate, balance, biomechanical efficiency, and bone density.  

We also experience a decrease in VO2max, which in turn impacts aerobic capacity, maximum heart rate, lactate threshold, and an overall ability to transport and use oxygen for working muscles, which is a function of exercise economy (how efficiently the body moves and uses oxygen, and hence can impact neuromuscular efficiency). It is important to note that the main determinants of our athletic performance – at any age – is a combination of these factors: VO2max, lactate threshold and exercise economy. 

How can we optimize training to support our performance? I thought you’d never ask! 

Optimizing Training As We Age

Bad news: We can’t stop the aging process. But, you already knew this, right? 

Good news: We can slow down the aging process with some adjustments to our training. Many athletes may opt to decrease their training intensity and frequency as they age. However, the research finds we should be doing the opposite. 

Age-related declines in muscle mass, neuromuscular efficiency, and aerobic capacity are significantly less pronounced in athletes who regularly include intensity and strength training in their regimen. The upshot? Including strength training and measured higher intensity workouts (with proper and adequate recovery) slows age-related performance declines. Of course, keeping in a healthy dose of endurance training also matters – but we may not need to go for the big volume as in previous years. 

As with all elements of our training, intensity and strength should be periodized within your overall race calendar to allow for: 

  1. Ample recovery. 

This is key and non-negotiable for the master athlete. To reduce injury risk, we need to ensure that recovery becomes the focus of our training-not the afterthought. Said differently: plan the recovery first, then put in the intensity and strength. Recovery may include rest intervals within a single workout, easier or aerobic days between harder sessions, and full rest days (which do not also include yard work, house cleaning, or other physical work). 

  1. Training Cycle within your overall ATP (annual training plan) 

The amount and type of strength and intensity work should vary throughout the year depending upon the specific objectives of the meso cycle. What this means for you individually will depend upon your event, your goals, your athletic history, and your available training time. 

  1. Meeting the specific demands of your goal event. 

As you get closer to your goal event, strength and intensity will adapt to match the demands of race day. For example, long course athletes will balance the demands of volume with intensity, as we need to be mindful to avoid turning both of those dials up too much at the same time. In this case, distance athlete may use a post/pre-season or general preparation period to incorporate more intensity work. As race days draws closer, the training may still incorporate some intensity, but it would be shorter and less frequent. The converse periodization may work better for shorter course athletes. 

John and I had the opportunity to meet Lou Hollander when we raced Kona in 2014 (at this time, Hollander was the oldest finisher of Ironman at the age of 82). He told us that his secret was to go anaerobic almost every day – even if it was only for 30 seconds. While you don’t have to go anaerobic every day, the idea here is to work that top-end to keep it engaged on a regular basis. 

Said differently: use it, or lose it. 

Your training should provide a balance of:

  • Frequency 

Be mindful of how much recovery your body needs between intensity and strength sessions. Communicate this clearly to your coach so s/he can adapt the sessions to your recovery rate. This is not the same for all of us. 

  • Modes of intensity

How will you incorporate intensity into your training? For example, track repeats may be traditional ways to achieve intensity, but hill repeats may be friendlier to the body – with the added bonus of a strength/force component. 

  • Volume

How much volume depends upon your goal event as well as your athletic history. For example, athletes with a long history in aerobic endurance can trade some of the long days for shorter, harder days. Conversely, if you are new to endurance sport, the training will need to strike a balance to ensure you have the long-course endurance to meet the demands of race day. 

It is important to balance the overall training stress to avoid overloading the body, which risks injury and burnout. The aging athlete’s best defense against the impacts of age is consistency of training – regardless of the details of training. 

  • Recovery

Plan for 2 to 3 days of easier and aerobic days after more intense sessions. This will absolutely vary by athlete, but as we age, it gets riskier to stack 2 hard days in a row. One approach that I have found useful to balance this is to use 10-14 day training “weeks” (or micro cycles), rather than the traditional 7 day cycle. I find this approach especially useful for long course athletes (and time-crunched athletes). 

  • Mobility

Our flexibility and mobility worsens as we age. A regular routine of mobility work is key to our overall health and physical resiliency. Yoga is an excellent way to incorporate mobility (and sometimes strength) into your routine. 

What “counts” as regular? We advise 3-4 days per week of some sort of mobility work. This doesn’t have to be a full yoga class, but 10-15 minutes of mobility work can do the trick. If you aren’t sure what to incorporate, ask your coach!

Relatedly, incorporate self myofascial release (such as foam rolling) and deep tissue massage. SMR can be done 3-4 time per week, and a deep tissue massage is a great idea every 2-3 weeks (when circumstances allow). 

  • Strength Training

Ideally, masters athletes engage in strength training 2-3 times per week in order to counteract the impacts of sarcopenia, and to retain the neuromuscular force of muscle fibers (especially fast twitch). The frequency and duration of these sessions will depend upon where you are in your training program. 

Strength workouts should incorporate some measure of picking things up and putting them down (especially to support bone density), but the nature of those weights and movements will vary by athlete. 


In addition to training, there are some nutrition considerations we can consider. 

Vitamins & Minerals

Ideally we get our vitamins and minerals through food, rather than supplements, by eating a nutrient-dense diet, with vegetables and fruit as the centerpiece. These give us the biggest bang for our nutrient buck. 

But, in some cases, we may need to supplement.  The use of supplements should follow blood work analysis. It is a good idea to get a wellness physical to see if you are low in any areas.

In some cases we can get what we need from food, but in other cases supplements may be necessary. Get a blood panel and discuss this with your doctor. 

For bone density decreases, many athletes find they need more calcium and vitamin D. 

  • Vitamin D Food sources: salmon, tuna (and other fatty fish), egg yolks
  • Calcium Food Sources: dairy products, green and leafy vegetables (e.g., kale, collard greens, broccoli, cabbage), tofu, fortified flour products
  • For a list of calcium rich foods, click here

Other vitamins that we may need more of as we age include Vitamins B6, B12, E, and Zinc. Recent research has found that many of us need B12 supplementation due to changes in factory farming of food. If you do take a B12 supplement, it should be the methylcobalamin variant. Master athletes need to be mindful of Omega 3 fats, as these can support our inflammatory response. Dr. Bob Seebohar recommends 1.6 grams per day for men, and 1.1 grams per day for women. This totals are for 40+ athletes (not younger). 

Macro Nutrients

Overall, our need for calories is decreased due to a decrease in lean mass. However, the amount of this decrease is dependent upon our training volume. 

Generally speaking, the Institute for Medicine recommends that we maintain:

  • 45-65% of our calories from carbohydrates
  • 10-35% of our intake from protein
  • 20-35% of our intake from fat

The specific details of your daily eating depends upon training volume, as well as timing of the nutrients. Nutrition Periodization suggests a balance of our macronutrients based on our training calendar. When we are actively training, we need more carbohydrates than compared to when we are not training as much or on rest days. So, for high volume days and training periods, you may be on the higher end of the percentages listed above for carbohydrates. For muscle synthesis, you may also need to be on the higher end of protein intake, especially on strength-focused days. A general rule has been that we need .8 to 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight. 

Post workout recovery refueling for males should have a 3 to 1 carbohydrate to protein ratio, while females need a 2 to 1 carbohydrate to protein ratio (according to some more recent research from Dr. Stacy Sims). 

Carbohydrate sources should be whole grain, high fiber options. The only exception to this is a few days before a race, when you may want to limit fiber starting about 3 days out from a race to avoid GI distress. Always combine protein with carbohydrate to reduce insulin spikes. Select nutrient-rich fat sources, such as olive oil and avocados.

Hydration & fluid

Studies have found that older athletes are at an increased risk for dehydration because their thirst perception decreases and there is a delay in the sweat response. As such, hydrating to thirst can be a dangerous approach for master athletes – especially those that also do long course.  In addition to thirst perception, master athletes are more susceptible to changes in electrolyte balance (which can contribute to cramping), and decreased kidney conservation of water. 

Taken together, this can lead to concerns for not only dehydration, but also hypernatremia, which is an increased plasma sodium concentration caused by excessive water loss. This is the opposite of hyponatremia, which is a decrease in sodium concentration due to excessive water intake. 

We recommend that you start with a sweat loss assessment in varying conditions to determine how much you sweat per hour. From here, you can approximate your fluid needs for cycling and running, and work to stem that loss. For very heavy sweaters, it may not be possible (or desirable) to replace all of the fluid loss, but if you lose 48 ounces per hour, and only take in 20 ounces per hour, over the course of a 2 to 17 hour day, this can become dangerous. 

Understanding your fluid loss can also help you identify how much sodium you need to take in. You might also consider an at-home kit to estimate your sodium loss. However, be forewarned, there are issues with accuracy in these tests. Our general recommendation is to start at the lower end of the range, experiment in training, and adjust from there. 

For example, females need an average of 300-1000mg of sodium per hour, while male athletes are typically between 500-1500 mg per hour. Beyond just the hourly counts, it’s also important to consider how much sodium per ounces of fluid consumed. Some estimates say we need about 180-225 mg of sodium and 60-75 mg of potassium per 8 ounces of fluid. This ratio of electrolytes per ounces consumed is important to consider for combatting both hyper- and hyponatremia. 

It is a privilege to grow old. 

Each trip around the sun is filled with joys, challenges, triumphs, and tough times. Each of these moments allows us to grow, learn, and truly live

While our aging bodies may not be the same as they used to be, as masters athletes we can continue to push our physical limits to learn about life. 

Age is just a number. It is not a full stop limiter to physical ability. It is an integral part of who we are as athletes, as people. Age (and other characteristics such as sex) add to who we are as athletes. Too often, we might see them as detracting from what we’ve constructed as the norm: a fast, young male. Well, that’s just one type of athlete. There are so many more than that.

People are awesome and they can do awesome things if they open their minds to the possibility that it can be done. As long as we don’t put arbitrary limits on what we can do because of age, sex, or whatever other limiter we might pick, then we can be awesome too.

Performance Tips for the Masters Athlete
Scroll to top

Accessibility Toolbar