Use It or Lose It. Advice for Masters Athletes

by CJ Hitz April 12, 2022 6 min read

Man running in the colder mountain air.

Since taking up running 14 years ago, I’ve been considered a masters (those over 40) runner for nearly 9 of those years. I was a little late to the game by taking up the sport at almost 35. When I turned 40, it was like being reborn. Not only was I entering a new age group, I was entering a whole new world of awards and respect.

Some races offer a separate category of “age-graded” results which makes it fun to see how older athletes stack up against those in their younger years. One of my favorite masters results is when 98-year-old George Etzweiler won the 2018 Mount Washington Road Race age-graded category and the prize money that comes with it. As of this writing, George is 101 years young and still running!

The oldest trail race in America known as the Dipsea Race uses a combination of age and gender in its age-graded formula. The older you are, the greater head start you receive. My friend and fellow Colorado Springs resident, Mark Tatum, won the 2021 Dipsea at age 61. Second and third-place finishers were also in their 60s.

These are just a couple of examples that keep me motivated as I inch closer to that 50 mark. Motivation is a key ingredient for any successful masters athlete and it’s something I found I was lacking during the second half of 2021.

Maybe it was a nagging calf strain that kept me taking one step forward and two steps back. Perhaps I had tapped out my adrenal glands. My nutrition certainly could have been better. Regardless, it felt like I was losing motivation like air out of a balloon.

After crossing the finish line and winning the Flapjack 5k in Pensacola, Florida on June 5th, the overwhelming emotion was relief that it was over. Sure, it was an added bonus to beat the young bucks but I was ready for a break. 

So over the next 5 months, I indeed took a break. There were long stretches of no running and very little movement. Lots of sitting and reading with the occasional walk or jog sprinkled in.

And then my wife and I contracted Covid (Delta) at the end of October and I did nothing but sleep or recline for 10 days. A long walk consisted of going to the kitchen for more chicken broth.

And then something snapped inside. Though I was at one of my lowest fitness levels since taking up running in 2008, I felt a spark of motivation kindling deep down inside. I was tired of all the sitting and was ready to begin running again. Those first few days were a huff and puff fest. Isn’t it amazing how fast we lose fitness but it takes forever to regain it?

After knocking off a couple fifty-mile weeks, everything was great until it wasn’t. First, the inside of my right knee began barking at me, and then my right calf (soleus) decided to chime in. All that sitting and decreased mileage between June and November took a greater toll than I realized. I thought I could just start where I left off. Easy to do when you’re 18 but not 48 as I learned the hard way.

Injuries are always a bummer for any endurance athlete since we work so hard to build that hard-earned endurance. But after sulking for a couple days, I began to see these injuries as blessings in disguise since I would be able to begin working on my weaknesses. I was also grateful they occurred in early December and not during the summertime when more races happen.

I’m happy to say that as of this writing (March 2022), my injuries have healed and I’m putting more fitness in the bank with each passing week. I want to share a few tips that I’ve learned along the way that may also help you on your journey as a masters athlete.

Tip #1 – Consistency is Key

I’m a firm believer that the older we get, the more consistent we need to be in our training. Our bodies have an incredible ability to adapt and respond to regular daily movement.

Looking back on my 5-month break, I backed off too much and my body adapted to the lack of movement. There are certainly periods when we need to allow our bodies to recover after intense racing seasons but we should still remain active. 

Backing off on volume while still inserting short bursts of intensity helps remind our bodies that we’re still athletes, not couch potatoes. 

With every year (month for that matter) that passes, the phrase, “Use it or lose it”, looms larger in the background.

Tip #2 – Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

Since taking up running 14 years ago, I had dealt with things like calf and hamstring strains along with little niggles here and there. But until this past December, I had never dealt with any serious knee issue. 

After trying to diagnose and treat myself through Google and YouTube for a few weeks, my knee wasn’t getting much better. I decided to swallow my pride and visit a Physical Therapist who had lots of experience working with runners and triathletes. 

During that initial evaluation, Kevin was able to spot weaknesses that we would address over the following 10 weeks. It was so refreshing to have another set of eyes who could spot things that I couldn’t see. I consider our sessions together to be an investment into my running longevity.

Tip #3 – Limit the Sitting

Our Chiropractor likes to say, “Motion is lotion!” I’ve also heard him reference sitting as the new smoking. A few things can happen during long periods of sitting in the same position,

  • Our metabolism can slow down – Decreased muscle can lead to slower clearance of fat from the body and decrease the effects of insulin.
  • It can lead to chronic pain - Sitting for too long, especially at a desk, can cause excess pressure on certain parts of the body, like the lower back.
  • You’ll have less energy. Sitting too much means moving less. Movement, like going for a brisk 20-minute walk, can up our energy levels quickly.
  • Our mental health suffers. In fact, studies have indicated that sitting indoors and communicating with others strictly online can reduce social skills and affect psychological well-being.

As someone who enjoys sitting while reading a good book, I’m trying to get into the habit of setting a timer that goes off every 30 minutes or so. This reminds me to stand up and get some blood flow by moving.

Tip #4 – Don’t Neglect Strength Work

Age-related muscle loss is known as sarcopenia. After age 30, we begin to lose as much as 3-5% of muscle mass with each passing decade. I don’t know about you but I’d like to do what I can to slow down this trend. 

In order to do that, I’m realizing the value of incorporating weekly strength training to help complement my running. This doesn’t mean I’m pumping iron like a bodybuilder. I’m learning that simple bodyweight exercises can be quite effective at working my core and eliciting muscular burn and fatigue. 

Endurance athletes can’t go wrong when we work our hips, glutes, and core. When these areas are weak (like mine were), we begin to rely on hamstrings and calves to take on more load than they should. Do a simple search on YouTube and a wealth of effective bodyweight exercises will come up.

You’ll be amazed to see how fast your body will adapt to just one or two strength/core sessions of 30 minutes each week.

Tip #5 – Recover Well

The older I get, the more important recovery from intense sessions becomes. My foam roller and massage gun are a couple of my best buddies these days. They help keep hot spots from turning into strains. 

I’ve also learned (sometimes the hard way) how many hard sessions my body can handle each week. Where a younger athlete might be able to squeeze in 3-4 hard efforts per week, my body seems to do well with 2 of these efforts. Each is followed by 2-3 days of easy effort. 

I know other masters athletes who stick to one hard effort per week which allows them to fully recover and remain injury-free. Each individual needs to dial in that sweet spot depending on experience.

Another practice I’ve been implementing consistently is taking a scoop of PerfectAmino powder prior to bedtime. Sleep is easily our most effective recovery tool. During deep sleep, our bodies can utilize these precious amino acids for repair in conjunction with the natural growth hormone released. An added bonus I’ve noticed is my body maintaining the muscle I don’t want to lose any time soon.

I’m convinced that these 5 tips can help add life to your masters years. Each of us can be intentional about slowing down our athletic decline.

Time to get back at it…after all, I have a Flapjack 5k title to defend!

=== UPDATE ===

CJ successfully defended his Flapjack 5k title on April 9, 2022 (2 months shy of turning 49), though he did have to fend off a pesky 17 year old to do so.

Congratulations CJ!

CJ successfully defended his Flapjack 5k title on April 9, 2022 (2 months shy of turning 49), though he did have to fend off a pesky 17 year old to do so :-)

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