Why Strength Training Becomes More Important as We Age

Why Strength Training Becomes More Important as We Age

Don’t be afraid to have your athlete lift heavy to achieve strength, maximize time in the weight room, and improve their performance.

It’s no secret movement becomes tougher as we age. From getting out of bed in the morning to running, all these activities feel a little less comfortable and require a little more effort. For our athletes, training is no different. As our athletes age, we need to adjust training accordingly so as to help them achieve maximum potential in sport. This should include a special focus on strength training. Not only will strength training improve your athlete’s strength, but it will also improve their run economy, reduce risk of injury, and improve performance.

We will start by diving into some of the physiological changes that occur during the natural aging process. After the age of 40, the circulation capacities of the tissue reduce by 40-60%. With this, the cells of our body can’t repair as quickly due to reduced blood supply. This decreases the body’s ability to adapt to high stress and aggregates more damage to the body with lengthened recovery time.

Building Run Strength

For the sake of this article, we will focus on a running athlete. There are several ways to enhance a runner’s strength and one of the most beneficial is practicing running fast. Speedwork teaches the athlete to recruit more muscle fibers. However, these kinds of workouts are taxing on the athlete; even more so as they age.

Another way to increase strength in the runner is to run hills. This form-focused workout will build strength in the athlete but will cause extensive post-session fatigue & muscle repair from the body.

The third, and arguably, most beneficial way to increase our athlete’s strength is weight training. With strength training, the athlete produces force well above what they produce while running. With strength training, less physiological damage occurs, thus allowing the athlete to recover more quickly, while they gain positive biological adaptations. 

If You’re Going to Lift, Lift Heavy

The repeated movement of running, cycling, swimming, or any other repetitive sport is not enough of a stimulus to build strength. Once your athlete is able to demonstrate correct movement skills with the proper balance and stability, you can advance into strength training. With this, we want our athletes to lift heavy weights with low repetitions. Contrary, most athletes go to the gym and perform low-weight/high-repetition exercises. In order to improve the energy cost of locomotion, maximal power, and maximal strength we need to recruit more muscle mass. This is why lifting heavy is scientifically much more beneficial, than low-weight/high-repetition weight training.

When focusing on improving strength, it’s especially important to prescribe the appropriate amount of sets and repetitions. I suggest 3 – 4 sets of 5 – 8 repetitions. The exercise should feel taxing by the end of each set. The speed at which you move is less important, as long as you focus on moving the weight in a controlled motion.

Some excellent strength-focused exercises include: 

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Front squats
  • Push press
  • Hip thrusts 
  • Pull-ups
  • Inverted rows

How to Incorporate Strength

Use these general guidelines to establish volume and incorporate strength into your already-busy training regime: First, make sure your athlete has sufficient time to strength train without sacrificing their primary sport training. During the beginning of the season, when the athlete is performing less volume, have them focus on their strength program. 

Second, make sure that your athlete is using proper form and stability in their primary sport before prescribing strength training. Start with heavy lifting 2 – 3 times per week. As the athlete increases their sport-specific volume, you can maintain those strength gains, while reducing to just lifting 1-2 times per week.

Remember, with any athlete over the age of 40, strength training is a must. Run fast, run hills, and more importantly, prioritize strength training in the athlete’s program. Don’t be afraid to have your athlete lift heavy to achieve strength, maximize time in the weight room, and improve their performance.

Caitlin Glenn Sapp

Dr. Caitlin Glenn Sapp is the founder of Crew Racing and Rehab, a performance coaching and physical therapy company. She holds her Doctorate of Physical Therapy as well as a Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science. She also holds certifications as a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach and American College of Sports Medicine Personal Trainer. Dr. Sapp is a seven-time Ironman finisher, which includes the Ironman World Championships, and is a multiple-time USA Triathlon All-American. She takes great interest in educating the industry, from athletes to coaches, on how to stay injury-free while performing at a high level. For more, visit Crewracing.org or email Caitlin at caitlin@crewracing.org.