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  • Writer's pictureZac Zuspann

An Outline for the Aging Athlete

Overall Goals of the Aging Athlete

Our goal is to thrive, not just survive. Yes, we want to live to be old, but we do not want to be medically babysitting in our later years.

These are my opinions and observations based on 20 years of experience, but that does not make them facts for everyone.

I am a fitness and health agnostic. I believe there is no perfect or golden path to fitness and health glory. I truly believe you have to find what works for you. What makes you look, feel, and perform your best?

Our goal is to nail down the big rocks that have been proven to be the foundation of success for nearly everyone.

You don't want to waste time majoring in the minors:

  • Taking ice baths while sleeping 5 hours per night, 

  • worrying about a protein shake after working out, and then binging Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, etc.

The goal is to nail down what matters a lot, what matters a little, and what matters very little to not at all.

I don't have any hacks, secrets, or shortcuts, but instead, this seminar will cover the relentless and consistent pursuit of the basics.

The Circle:

The circle is important for everyone but far more important for you as you age. Things that did not affect your younger self affect you far more now.

The circle is made up of nutrition, sleep and recovery, mindset/mood/stress management, and training.

Significant progress cannot be made when one area of the circle is lacking, especially for the aging athlete. In fact, the quickest path to burnout and injury is neglecting the balance of the circle.

Our biggest school is to identify the weakest areas where I can put my energy to make the biggest impact:

The 4 Areas of THE CIRCLE


  • Am I training 3 to 5 times per week, hard and smart?

Sleep and Recovery:

  • Am I prioritizing my sleep, aiming for 7 plus hours nightly and taking care of my body?


  • Am I mostly eating real food in the right amounts daily and ways that support my goals?

Mindset/Mood/Stress Management:

  • Am I taking care of my mind?

In general, CrossFit athletes tend to put too much emphasis on training and not enough on the 23 hours outside of the gym.

This is the equivalent of pouring water into a bucket full of holes, with the holes being what's lacking in sleep, nutrition, and mindset. 

This is on par with the Einstein quote of "insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."

Important notes for making changes and establishing new habits:

It is important to ask: is it sustainable?

  • Do I have small, realistic steps?

  • Does the plan match my goals?

  • Does the amount of sacrifice and discipline needed align with my lifestyle and my goals?

When establishing new habits or trying to make changes, individuals often go from zero to 100, which sets them up for failure.

THE CIRCLE Area # 1 Nutrition:

Do you need to focus on nutrition? If you have been training consistently for a long time and see no improvement in your body composition, nutrition is likely a bucket that you need to address.

The foundation of success for ALL athletes, but in particular, the aging athlete, is a pyramid that places nutrition and recovery at the base/foundation.

You can eat healthy, sleep well, maintain an active body, and consistently maintain great health metrics over the course of your life. 

It's adding the training element, which is the next step in the pyramid, that unlocks the performance aspect we are looking for. It bumps a healthy body to a high performing body, unlocking the ability to run, jump, lift, carry, and seek adventure. We are looking to be ready for anything at any time.

Training without the foundation of nutrition and recovery as you age is just spending your wheels.

Nutrition can be incredibly overwhelming; there is so much information.

Our goal is to focus on the big picture. Nutrition can be simple; however, it is never easy. The goal is never to be on a diet but simply to find a sustainable path of how to eat for the rest of your life.

Our pyramid for nutrition looks like this: Listed in order of importance

  1. MOST IMPORTANT. At the base of the pyramid is adherence and consistency. Does it work for you and align with your goals? Will it stick for the long term?

2. Next up the pyramid is quality. Your goal is to eat real, nutrient-dense food. The beautiful thing about the quality of food is that it naturally controls quantity. You're able to eat large portions without overeating. On the flip side, highly processed junk is incredibly easy to overeat.

We focus on protein-rich sources such as meat, eggs, dairy, and protein-rich vegetables. We incorporate nutrient-dense carbohydrates and healthy fats. The goal is to stay away from overly processed or heavily modified foods.

On our nutrition, quality is quantity. Calories do matter; portion sizes do matter, and we are looking to ensure that we are eating the right amounts to support our activity level but not excess body fat.

3. Continuing up the pyramid is macros. Our goal is to balance carbohydrates, fats, and protein.

4. Next is timing, meaning when do you eat. This is far less important than most people assume. There are many people who find success eating six small meals a day while others may find success in one big meal per day. Aspects of the pyramid below timing are more important: are you adhering and being consistent with your eating, maintaining high-quality foods, are you eating the right amounts over the course of the full day, are you working to balance carbs, fat, and protein? If you're doing all of these things, then timing may be considered.

Our nutrition rocks, aka what matters the most:

Have a plan. Nutrition is all about having a plan. It is important to make good, nutrient-dense food and to make poor choices as inconvenient as possible.

Water is your primary beverage, and you drink enough to stay hydrated consistently.

Focus on protein. This is our master macronutrient. Carbs and fat vary by person, but protein is the anchor. Recommendations for protein can be one gram per pound of lean body mass or 0.68 per pound of body weight; these are low-end.

Follow the 80/20 rule: 80% of the time, eat foods and amounts to support your goals; 20% of the time, eat what you want but in moderation.

And finally, be aware of restrictive diets. This would include keto, carnivore, and many more. Here with these is their restrictive nature, individuals usually suffer from lack of knowledge as to why they are doing certain things and without flexibility these diets often lead to failure and frustration.

Success from these types of diets generally comes from managing a particular individual's bad habits. For instance, keto eliminates all carbohydrates and this likely removes eating processed junk; thus, the individual feels better. It's not the lack of carbohydrates, but it's the lack of processed junk.

In the same vein, intermittent fasting likely controls the habit of snacking, grazing, or overeating when not hungry. When a finite window of time for eating is given to that individual, they eliminate snacking all throughout the day mindlessly.

CIRCLE AREA # 2 Recovery:

These are the rocks for our recovery. Remember, our goal is to nail down what matters a lot, what matters a little, and then what matters very little to none at all.

  1. MOST IMPORTANT At the base of our recovery pyramid is sleep. Sleep is king and matters the most.

Our goal is to sleep seven plus hours nightly.

Establishing a sleep routine can be a game changer:

  • Sleep and wake at the same time consistently every day.

  • Establish a wind-down routine that stacks activities that de-stress the mind and body.

  • Limit screens 1 hour before bed.

  • Sleep in a cold, completely dark room.

  • Designate the bed as a sacred place for sleep and adult activity.

  • Get sunlight early and often.

  • Avoid excessive caffeine and caffeine after a certain point during the day, which varies by individual.

2. Our second piece of the recovery pyramid is movement.

Our goal is to move our body consistently throughout the day. This can consist of walking, yard work, and just generally being active with the overall goal of limiting long sedentary periods.

Motion equals lotion. The power of greasing the groove. Our goal is to incorporate short movement-focused chunks of 5 to 10 minutes throughout the day. This could be incorporating things like stretching, air squats, and maybe a mobility routine.

3. The next rung in the pyramid is training properly, meaning how do you move on the gym floor including focusing on warming up and moving with great quality at all times through full range of motion.

CIRCLE Area # 3 Training:

Training, these are our rocks for training, what matters a lot, what matters a little, and what matters little to nothing at all.

Training is a low trajectory toward a distant horizon, not max effort today. Long-term trumps everything, especially short, erratic bouts of intensity.

Most days for the aging athlete are punch the clock's efforts, where we move the dirt despite the day. Some days we have a shovel, but most days we have a spoon.

You cannot panic or get emotional during workouts. This fight or flight response drains the nervous system and leaves the body unable to recover between sessions. You have to detach your emotions and panic mode from training.

Focus on well-timed intensity. This includes listening to your body and being smart about the days where you go all out and also the movements that you go all out on.

Focus on using muscles, not momentum. Controlling movements through full range of motion and always focusing on the intent of the movement, not just completing the rep quickly or slowly. This ensures that your joints and tendons remain strong and healthy and that you continue to make progress in building the structure of your body.

In general, complete heavy and high skilled movements, then rest, working at staying fresh between sets and reps. These would be movements like snatch box jumps and high-skill gymnastics as well as heavy lifting.

In general, plan to give your highest intensity and best effort on low-skill movements that have the lowest risk and the highest reward. Think bike, ski, row, burpees, etc.

One-rep maxes are no longer great indicators of your health and performance. Yes, we want to be strong and continue to lift heavy; that is very important. However, it's more important to be able to move freely without pain all the time. And one-rep maxes are not worth sacrificing your ability to run, jump, change directions, get up off the floor, and move through your daily life with zero limitations or pain.

Don't train too cautiously. Progressive overload is still important. Make sure that you are inching your way slowly to more load and/or difficulty on your movements. This won't happen every day, but as we get older, we sometimes settle into doing the same scale for the same movement every single time. This halts our progress. Be sure that you're training to respect progressive overload and adding just a tiny bit of difficulty as time passes.


"Worry about yourself. It's you versus you. Nothing will steal your joy faster than always comparing yourself to other people, which also leads to burnout. People evaluate and prove themselves, while unhappy people usually evaluate and judge others.

Only worry about and control what you can control. This generally boils down to your energy, your effort, and your attitude – only everything else.

Set the tone with your warm-up walking gym, viewing it as an opportunity that many people do not have. Be grateful for the ability to move your body, and for God's sake, get the chili hot and get after it.

Detach your emotions and so forth from the gym performance. You doing the gym does not define who you are. Work hard and do your best, and then move on."

Have fun!

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