As athletes age, they often experience changes in their bodies that can affect their performance and overall health. One of the key areas affected by the aging process is the muscle. Muscle function gradually deteriorates, leading to a decrease in maximal voluntary contraction and power. While muscle mass and size also decline with age, the loss of muscle function is even more significant. This decline is primarily due to a reduction in the number of muscle fibres or contractile units within the muscle itself. Additionally, fast twitch muscle fibres, responsible for quick contractions, tend to deteriorate at a faster rate than slow twitch fibres. These changes in muscle function and composition can have a profound impact on an aging athlete’s abilities. However, there is a solution that can help mitigate these effects—strength training.
Understanding the Effects of Aging on Muscles
By examining the quadriceps muscle group in younger and older individuals, we can observe an interesting phenomenon related to aging. As we grow older, there is an increase in the amount of fat present between the muscle fibres. This accumulation of fat is a consequence of the aging process. Moreover, when we analyse the graph depicting leg muscle mass and peak torque of the knee extensors, we can see a clear trend. Total muscle mass peaks in early adult life, typically between the ages of 30 to 40, followed by a gradual deterioration in the number of muscle fibres throughout subsequent decades. In fact, by the eighth and ninth decade, individuals may experience a staggering 50% loss of muscle mass. These changes in muscle composition can significantly impact an aging athlete’s performance and overall well-being.
The Role of Strength Training for Aging Athletes
While aging brings inevitable changes to our bodies, it doesn’t mean we have to accept the decline in muscle function as an inevitable consequence. Strength training has proven to be an effective tool for combating the effects of aging on muscles. By engaging in regular strength training exercises, aging athletes can slow down muscle deterioration and even promote muscle growth.
Here’s how strength training can benefit aging athletes:
- Counteracting Muscle Loss: Strength training exercises, such as weightlifting and resistance training, stimulate muscle fibers, leading to their growth and development. By challenging the muscles, strength training helps to preserve muscle mass, preventing the significant loss experienced during the aging process.
- Enhancing Muscle Function: Strength training improves muscle strength, power, and endurance. By increasing muscle function, aging athletes can maintain or improve their performance levels, allowing them to continue participating in their chosen sports or physical activities.
- Boosting Bone Health: Aging athletes also face challenges related to bone health. Osteopenia and osteoporosis, characterized by low bone density, can increase the risk of fractures. Strength training has been shown to promote bone health by stimulating osteoblast activation and increasing bone mineral density. It can also help prevent bone stress injuries commonly observed in aging athletes.
- Maintaining Tendon Stiffness: Aging is often associated with a decline in leg and tendon stiffness, resulting in a less efficient running style and increased injury risk. However, studies have shown that older adults who maintain good calf muscle strength through strength training can preserve tendon stiffness and minimize the strain experienced during physical activities.
The aging process inevitably brings changes to our bodies, including the deterioration of muscle function and the decline in bone health, which can affect general health but also the ability to perform as an athlete. Aging athletes can combat these effects through the practice of strength training.
By engaging in regular strength training exercises, aging athletes can slow down muscle loss, enhance muscle function, improve bone health, and maintain tendon stiffness. So, if you’re an aging athlete looking to stay active, competitive, and healthy, incorporating strength training into your fitness routine is a must. Embracing some strength training as part of your program can help you excel in your athletic pursuits.
We have multiple Physios who have a thorough understanding of designing individual programs to assist in building strength for your sport and are themselves athletes so understand how to integrate this into your current regime. Strength training can be used as a performance enhancer, to rehab current or recurrent injuries or to prevent those injuries that might have you pulling out of your next event. Our SquareOne Performance program is perfect if this is what you are looking for.