Recovery from exercise is a vital component of an overall training program, and paramount for performance and continued improvement. If the rate of recovery is appropriate, higher training volumes and intensities are possible without the detrimental effects of overreaching and/or overtraining. While this is true whether your client is 25 or 75 years old, aging results in numerous changes across multiple physiological systems that make proper recovery protocols especially important. As a health and exercise professional, understanding this intersection between aging and training recovery will enable you to help your clients achieve their goals, whether they want to compete in masters-level athletics or simply keep up with their grandchildren.

The Physiology of Aging

Older adults are defined as those who are aged 65 years and older and those between the ages of 50 and 64 years who have clinically significant chronic conditions and/or functional limitations that impact movement ability, fitness or physical activity. Despite these age ranges, don’t make the mistake of equating an individual’s chronological age to their physiological or functional age. Indeed, people of similar ages can differ remarkably in functional capacity, which, in turn, affects how they respond to exercise and training recovery.

Although it is inevitable that physiological function will decline with advancing age, the rate and magnitude of change is dependent on a complex interaction of genetics, individual health and exercise training/physical activity status. Safe and effective training recovery programming for older adults requires that you understand the effects of aging on physiological function. The table below presents a list of key physiological characteristics of aging.

FITT for Training Recovery: Essential Components of the Program

You are probably familiar with the FITT principle, which is used to design and tailor exercise programs to the evolving needs and goals of your clients. The same principle can be applied to recovery, which can be optimized by correctly managing the various components of the recovery program (Figure 1). These include frequency of recovery, intensity of recovery, time of recovery and type of recovery between each bout.

Frequency of Recovery

This refers to the number of days per week devoted to recovery. If an older adult client is simply recovering from a somewhat hard training session, the frequency of recovery may be one or two days. Conversely, a client recovering from a master’s level athletic event may require up to a week of recovery.

Intensity of Recovery

Imagine you have an older adult client performing a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) session that consists of four repetitions of four minutes at 90 to 95% maximal heart rate interspersed with four minutes of active recovery bouts. In this case, you might recommend that they aim for a specific intensity (e.g., 40 to 60% maximal heart rate) for their active recovery bouts. The intensity of recovery may also extend to the overall intensity of a daily session of exercise dedicated to recovery training. This might include, for example, a moderate-intensity, 30-minute bicycle ride at a heart rate below the first ventilatory threshold (VT1).       

Time of Recovery

The time of recovery can refer to either the recovery time between interval bouts or the duration of an entire recovery session. In the first example given above, the time of recovery between interval bouts was four minutes. For the second example, the duration of an entire recovery session was 30 minutes. When designing a recovery exercise session, it is essential to use an appropriate amount of time to achieve training recovery.     

Type of Recovery Between Each Bout

This component refers to the type of recovery and may include either active or passive recovery. Active recovery involves performing exercise at a substantially lower intensity or workload, while passive recovery consists of resting completely. The type of recovery is a consideration for both the time between interval bouts and daily recovery sessions. In terms of active recovery, the mode of exercise is an additional variable to consider. It is common for older adult clients who usually walk or jog to cross-train by performing a different type of activity. For example, an active recovery day may consist of a non-weight-bearing activity, such as swimming or cycling.

Strategies for Improving Training Recovery in Older Adults

While recovery appears to be a well-accepted component of the overall training paradigm in younger individuals, at least one study suggests that recovery strategies are poorly practiced by older adults. Here are some specific strategies that you can use to expedite training recovery in your older adult clients.  

  1. Recommend Active Recovery

ACE-supported research highlights the superiority of active recovery over passive recovery. Logically, from a physiological perspective, this practice makes sense. Continued blood flow to the skeletal muscle following exercise helps promote the resynthesis of glycogen stores and facilitate removal of metabolic byproducts. Since both of these parameters are reduced with aging, urge your older adult clients to perform active recovery, whether it is immediately after an interval session or the day following strenuous exercise.

  1. Improve Cardiorespiratory Fitness

Cardiorespiratory fitness has an overwhelmingly positive relationship with health and endurance performance. Cardiorespiratory fitness also plays a key role in training recovery. Research findings show that individuals with greater cardiorespiratory fitness levels recover more quickly. As health and exercise professionals, one of the most important things we can do for our clients in terms of training recovery is to create exercise programming that optimizes cardiorespiratory fitness.

  1. Use HIIT to Increase Cardiorespiratory Fitness but Allow for Adequate Recovery

Research clearly demonstrates that HIIT provides a time-efficient programming option to achieve favorable adaptations in cardiorespiratory fitness. One of the most important things to remember when integrating HIIT into the exercise routines of your older adult clients is to provide additional recovery. Critically, the scientific literature shows that older adults need five days of recovery between HIIT sessions.

  1. Post-exercise Carbohydrate Consumption for Recovery

A classic nutritional recommendation for all exercisers is to replenish muscle glycogen after physical activity. As mentioned earlier, one of the drawbacks to aging is decreased muscle glycogen replenishment. To combat this physiological reality, post-exercise nutrition takes on increased importance. It is well established that post-exercise carbohydrate ingestion is needed to ensure muscle glycogen is replenished. Encourage your clients to follow the following recommendations to optimize muscle glycogen repletion post-exercise:    

  • Consume 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per hour (g/kg/hr) of carbohydrate.
  • Consume carbohydrate at 15- to 30-minute intervals immediately after the exercise session has ended.
  • Smaller doses of carbohydrate consumption are better than one or two large doses.
  1. Post-exercise Protein Consumption for Recovery

A post-exercise mix of carbohydrate and protein accelerates the recovery process in two distinct areas. First, as mentioned, sufficient carbohydrate intake facilitates muscle glycogen replenishment. Combining protein with carbohydrate helps to better achieve this important physiological process. Second, and in addition to muscle glycogen synthesis, post-exercise recovery requires repair to muscle damage sustained during exercise training. Favorable muscle adaptations and repair to exercise-induced muscle damage are dependent on positive muscle protein balance. This is especially true for older adults, who experience decreased muscle protein synthesis due to aging. Encourage your clients to follow the following recommendations:

  • Consume a protein (0.4 g/kg/hr) plus carbohydrate (approximately 1.0 g/kg/hr) mix immediately after exercise.
  • Consume protein and carbohydrate at 15- to 30-minute intervals.
  1. Massage for Training Recovery

Both cardiorespiratory and muscular training cause skeletal muscle damage, which leads to decreased performance and muscular strength until recovery is complete. Skeletal muscle damage also leads to soreness and pain. In recent years, considerable research has focused on numerous alternative recovery strategies, including massage. The latest research shows that massage enhances recovery following exercise-induced muscle damage in older adults.


As health and exercise professionals, we must recognize that clients will spend more time throughout the week in training recovery compared to actual exercise training. This fact necessitates a purposeful approach to the overall training-recovery paradigm. Despite the research-based strategies presented in this article, the reality is that recovery remains an under-researched topic and is still not well understood compared to other areas of training. There is also evidence to suggest that there is considerable variability among individuals in how long it takes to recover from a workout.

Collectively, these factors point to the critical role that you play in working with your clients to identify the most appropriate and personalized training recovery program. This process requires purposeful trial and error that is guided by the science-based recovery strategies presented here. It is up to you to systematically implement and evaluate these various strategies to ultimately pinpoint the recovery strategies that best suit each of your clients.

Expand Your Knowledge


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In this video training, learn common concerns facing people aged 65 and older, and corrective exercises to meet their needs. You’ll also learn how to help your clients improve brain, body and balance functioning so they can better perform the normal activities of daily life.