Approaching Crossfit Training after 40 Years Old

Yesterday, one of the 40 something guys at Crossfit Newton asked me about how I, as a 44 year old, approach Crossfit training and trying to stay competitive.  I thought it was a great question and I have thought about it for a while.  Below is my general approach.  If you are 40 or older, consider commenting about your approach (if you know another 40 or older Crossfit athlete, send them a link and ask them to consider commenting).   I don’t know enough “older” Crossfitters, but I would love the opportunity to share ideas and approaches and learn from people in similar situations.  It would be refreshing to train together once in a while too.

1.  Training Frequency.  I don’t have a set plan for how many days on/off I train.  Instead, I try to listen to my body and when I am feeling too sore or tired or wiped out from work/kids, I take a day off.  I never train more than 3 days in a row and often find myself doing a Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday schedule.  If the weekend plans permit, I may do a light 5th day on Saturday or Sunday depending on whether I trained on Friday or not.  Since I have been focused on Strength training lately, I do not find it beneficial to work back-to-back heavy days.  I think it defeats the purpose.  I am not a big fan of trying to get two workouts in on a day.   Maybe I am too old for it, but in any event I didn’t see much benefit from the few times I have tried.  

2.  Recovery.  My main source for recovery is sleep.  When I was younger, I used to take pride in the fact that I could function on 3 or 4 hours sleep for extended periods of time.  Now, that is not a possibility.   I try to focus on 6 to 8 hours sleep in order to train at a level that is optimal for me.  When this begins to slide, I actually see and feel physical changes in my body composition.  I feel softer and weaker and my moods tend to get negative.  The result is poor performance in the gym.  It is amazing how quickly all of it changes once I get a good night’s sleep.

For me, muscle soreness is not the biggest thing that I have to recover from.   At this point, heavy training plays havoc on my joints and tendons, particularly my shoulders.  I refuse to limit the scope of exercises I do, so I snatch, overhead squat, do muscle ups, just about everything that torture the shoulders.  I am always trying to battle with chronic pain of some sort (not injury).  Sleep helps.  Taking time off helps.  I also take Fish Oil (one to two tablespoons a day) and see a chiropractor and/or get deep tissue massage once a week.   I am very competitive by nature, but I am learning so much more about knowing how and when to push and not push myself.  Mobility work alone and not just before or after a workout should be much more of a focus for me, but it gets pushed to the side all too often.

3.  General Training Philosophy.  I believe in periodization and I am using it to address one of my macro weaknesses right now, strength.  I have been at it for almost 2 months and will continue until the end of this month.  Then I will switch to more metabolic conditioning as I prepare for the Crossfit Open masters division.  I believe in always working on skills training and try to stick them into almost every workout regardless of the focus of the day, usually in warm ups, but sometimes post-workout.  I usually  try to get some sprint work (running or rowing) in once a week.  On these days, the sprint work is the only workout I will do for that day.  I use one-on-one private sessions once or twice a week to try to focus on improving weaknesses.

4.  Nutrition.  I focus on a Paleo diet and try to stay away from dairy, grains and processed foods.  It helps that my wife follows the same eating principles.  Our kids hate the concept (we have to lie to them often and tell them the food is “non-Paleo”).  I definitely need to follow a fairly strict diet to maintain high intensity workouts.   I avoid alcohol for the most part.  Consuming alcohol in any amounts and certainly more than one or two drinks can set my training back for two or more days.  I can’t deal with that physically or mentally.  Having said all that, I often need to hit the “reset” button and eat cheat meals and enjoy myself.   Right now, I do not weigh and measure my food or follow any Zone prescriptions.   If I want to lean out, I know exactly how to do it by following a Zone/Paleo model.  I know the caloric intake levels that are just enough to sustain my training while leaning out.  That type of eating  is completely not appropriate for me during  a strength period.   Recently, I started using Progenix Recovery shakes after every workout and one Progenix More Muscle shake a day to try to gain more weight.  I also take Fish Oil and a multi-vitamin everyday.  

5.  Crossfit Competitions/Perspective.   I like the idea of participating in local competitions.  They are extremely fun and I like meeting people in the Crossfit community, but I hate the fact that none of these competitions have masters divisions.  I think someone should start hosting local masters competitions. 

Like I said earlier, I am competitive by nature and find putting myself through training and tweaking nutrition, etc. to be fun.  I want to see how I end up during the Crossfit Open in the Masters division, but I have a healthy perspective on where I think I will end up (at least for this year).  In the end, I have to enjoy doing all of this, because I am really just doing it to improve myself and have fun.  When I feel burnt out or unmotivated I have and will continue to take some time off or cut back significantly.  I always come back ready and wanting more.

Finally, I am envious of the people in their 20s who seem to have endless energy and strength.   Realistically though, I don’t think I could have done this when I was in my 20s.  I did not have the level of commitment and dedication back then to pull off this type of training and nutritional commitment.   I was much more interested in goofing off as much as I could.  Now, I have the commitment and motivation to play around with Crossfit at a time when my performances will likely never matter, other than to me.  I actually think this is one of the benefits of training when you are older…you have to be more focused and motivated…your time horizon is significantly shorter!!


5 Responses to Approaching Crossfit Training after 40 Years Old

  1. Fred,

    Thanks for this post. I think about these issues a lot (I am 49) .

    It’s undeniable that younger CrossFitters improve and recover faster. I joke that I have to beat the young guys as soon as they join the gym, because they improve on such a steep curve I’m quickly left in the dust.

    Recovery is a huge issue. Four days a week in the gym is probably optimal for my body, but I often do five. In most other activities working harder is the way to get ahead; it’s tough to get the idea that working less might be the way to go. Plus, I always feel great after a workout and miss it on off days.

    Like you, I wish I’d discovered something like this when I was young, but know I did not have the desire or discipline to do it. In my case (at least as far as fitness goes) youth really was wasted on the young.

  2. Mike

    Since I have been working through this strength phase, I have been seeing signs of overtraining. Irritability, over tired even after good sleep nights and increasing joint pain (hip and shoulders). I agree with you that it is hard to make a “less is more” call when it comes to training, but I am going to put myself on a schedule of training every other day for the remainder of December. I won’t do two days in a row and if that means skipping two days because of scheduling, I will do that instead of trying to get two days together. I have a strong intuition that this will allow me to recover better and give me more gains by letting me get the most out of each session. Today was the third day in a row for me and it was brutal and painful. I never felt like I was solidly in the fight and it has a negative impact for me mentally.

  3. Fred,

    Sounds like you are making a smart call. I did several months of 5.3.1 about this time last year. Although I saw good strength gains, I did overtrain. For me the first symptom was poor sleep (exacerbated by shoulder pain that woke me up every time I rolled over). Then WOD times went down, which was very frustrating – I was working so hard and expected to get better, not worse! It took some time to fix the shoulder pain, get out of overtrained mode and return to normal.

    One thing that has helped me is eating a lot – more than I would if I were just listening to my stomach. I have to measure my food in order to make sure I am getting enough calories. When I am eating enough I feel much better. It is tough to get into that habit after a lifetime of being taught to watch what I eat.

  4. Mike
    The experience you just described makes me even more sure that I am overtraining. Strength is my big weakness and, when you combine that with my general tendency to be impatient, you have a recipe for wanting too much quickly. I have been compelled to try to get as strong as possible as quickly as possible.
    Eating more sounds right to me and I have been trying to get more calories. Sometimes it is hard with work and family life since I won’t eat crap just for the sake of calories.

  5. Hey Fred (and Mike),

    Thanks for this post. I, too, am over 40 and I think I am in a bit of denial about it! :( In my brain I know that muscle gets better with age (that is completely true from an aesthetic standpoint), but in my joints, I know that doesn’t matter at all!

    Speaking from a woman who competes in crossfit against the big dawg women that are in their 20′s and 30′s, I have found that I can hold my own fairly well. I am stronger than most and often have longer endurance than the youngin’s who fade after 10 minutes. I’m not sure if that is because I have more experience being in the zone of uncomfortableness more than they have or I just have a lot of heart. I know I will never quit on a wod, a movement, a challenge, or myself….that’s got to count for something in the CrossFit world….especially at OUR age. :)

    As far as training is concerned, I push myself in a limitless fashion. If there is a move that I can not do, I will work tirelessly to master it. That usually entails countless hours of mobility work (thanks KStar!) and many sessions with Dr. Josh, the crossfitting chiropractor who tortures me with active release therapy. But, I am living proof that you can do anything you put your mind to, regardless of age. I have never been a gymnast or athlete in any organized sport, yet, I can do muscle ups, can deadlift almost 300 lbs, and have a sub 6 min fran (altho, 5:30 is my next goal)! If that’s not a testament to a lot of hard work and patience, I don’t know what is.

    My training routine is 2 days on, 1 day off, 3 days on, 1 day of yoga. If I didn’t have a job or a family, I would do yoga 3 mornings a week, and crossfit 2 days on, 1 day off, 3 days on, 1 day off. That would mean I had double workouts on some days, but yoga compliments crossfit like nothing else can. Alas, my life isn’t all about me, so I have to settle for what I can do. One thing’s for sure, since I have been doing yoga, I am stronger, get injured less, and have better overall health. It is the perfect partner to crossfit, hands down!

    Nutrition is my “thang” and I am pretty proud to say I have been paleo for quite some time. Before paleo, I ate about as squeaky clean as a human can for the last 10 years. I barely ever drink alcohol and I drink 3/4 of gallon to a gallon of water every day. I drink decaf coffee most of the time. On occasion I will splurge on diet soda and peanut butter, but hey, a girl has to have some weaknesses. I must admit that I think solid nutrition and very little alcohol has made the MOST difference in my over health to date. People usually fall off their chair when they find out how old I am. I’m sure my genetics have something to do with it, but good nutrition and clean living does too.

    Last, but not least, I try to listen to my body. If I get an injury, which is really not that often, I will tailor back. But, one thing I can say, is I never STOP working out. I will just work around the injury. It doesn’t make any sense to stop moving because one part of my body is healing. There are a whole bunch of other parts that can be worked on, is my philosophy.

    So, that’s my two cents….for what it’s worth!

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