Recovery specifics for CrossFit Masters Athletes

By: Kevin Bowles

 “Know yourself, understand the workouts by walking through them first so that your body can adjust to the movements.”

-Gord Mackinnon

Working with CrossFit Masters Competitors presents itself with obvious challenges without obvious solutions, it’s a mixture of new school approach with old school bodies and minds. Programming and coaching for the master is kind of like cement mixing, where equal doses of recovery and training volume must apply, and just like any competitor each individual Master’s Competitor presents many differences. This extra dynamic makes it an exciting adventure to embark upon as a coach. We have found over the years of working with these incredibly impressive athletes that even though each master comes with a unique set of limitations, strengths, weaknesses, and aversions, there are some universal principles that apply which mainly encompass recovery. 

The Importance of Recovery 

It’s not a glamorous topic, but we don’t write things for click bait, we are attempting to discover truths within the fitness industry. And the truth is, in this world, if you can recover better than your competitors it has a compounding effect over years, months, even a week-end competition. Providing us with the greatest return on our training investment. This is true for all competitors, however, for masters it becomes amplified because of the nature of the athletes that make up the field. One of the masters athletes I have been privileged to coach but more so learn from is veteran CrossFit Games competitor and international Canadian Rugby player Gord Mackinnon. He is a person that when speaking, the entire room stops to listen, because there is an overwhelming sense that you will learn a wise truth:

“The big difference is that 100% of masters CrossFit athletes are dealing with either current injuries, old injuries that have resurfaced, or general pains like arthritis to some degree. Everybody trains more effectively these days, because the science behind exercise and biomechanics is so sound now, technology has advanced. We didn’t have any of that, what we were told in our day was all wrong and these things are catching up with us now.”

-Gord Mackinnon, 3 time CrossFit Games Masters Champion

Masters deal with a lifetime of sports injuries and old war wounds that individuals don’t necessarily have to deal with, that’s why the masters athletes who crush it in competition are also some of the smartest when it comes to recovery. So much so that it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that given the scope of recovery and what it means, it could be the most important aspect within a masters athletes training program. In other words, If there’s a secret to becoming a successful masters competitor, the answer lies in recovery.

Recovery is more than method

Despite common knowledge, recovery doesn’t begin post workout, it doesn’t ever begin because it never ends. Recovery is best thought of simply as response, how does the body respond to training stimulus? And when we respond do we respond to the stimulus with positive results or negative ones? Our job is to find ways to recover positively. Thus, recovery must be a determining factor in all aspects of training, from the warm-ups, through the actual training, the cool downs, the post training recovery, sleep, in a cyclical fashion. Because if we isolate recovery to post training methods like ice baths and massage we could be shooting ourselves in the foot without realizing it during training, rendering recovery as attempts at just preventing bleeding or injury management.


 As we naturally age, hormone receptors become less sensitive, leading us to a decline in endocrine function. Meaning, the ability for our bodies to grow and metabolize becomes more irregular, making the body slower to adapt to training methods. Given this fact, for a masters athlete, it is a good idea to keep training slightly less varied than the individual competitor which will afford the master the opportunity to adapt to the training stimulus. Masters athletes tend to react very well to a structured routine approach to their training. Seeing as recovery starts within our training methods, this is a good principle to include to ensure we are setting our athletes up to recover productively. 

Warm ups

These are typically viewed as a way to prepare for the workout, but sometimes it’s also beneficial to view a warm-up as a way to flush the previous days damage, an extended active recovery. A masters warm-up must be longer and less demanding, a masters athlete is always ready to throw down, what we must realize is that they don’t necessarily require as much activation or central nervous system priming, but would benefit more from a long general active recovery style warm-up. Something that Gord and I used heavily at the games was tracking resting heart rate and heart rate elevation rate during his warm-ups. We wanted to ensure that his heart rate was not spiking drastically but gradually increasing to a manageable rate. This is much different than an individual young gun who can hop onto an assault bike, crush a quick 15 cals and be ready to rock! Masters need time, remember everything is metabolizing slower, relative to an individual competitor, we should see the master’s warm-up as more gradual and encompassing more volume. More is more in the warm-up.

Less Is So Much More

A Masters athlete must be proactive in their training to give themselves a chance to recover, including: decreasing intensity and volume from the individual competitors, we would be best to practice movements more often than to train for stimulus. When we want to do more, we do more practicing, because a truth for any competitor is that consistency will always beat overtraining, and as a master we are walking on a balance beam when it comes to training volume. Where an individual athlete might be held more accountable to sticking to a program, the masters athlete must take their program with a grain of salt. Nobody knows your body better than you do, this is one of the advantages to being a masters athlete, the experience. If we can influence the athlete to be confident enough to listen to their body and attempt to master it, it will allow us to see more effective training over time. This is a difficult concept for a competitor to digest, no true competitor wants to do less training, but if there is buy in between coach and athlete it will be known that the program is smart and empathetic, creating an environment where it is not simply okay to alter the program on the fly but it is necessary to see athletic growth.

Central Nervous System

As we age our CNS will begin to atrophy, like the endocrine system, this system will slow down the messages from our brain to our body. Meaning, the CNS will be taxed more aggressively for a masters athlete making power style training much less effective. A masters athlete will benefit more from endurance style training, but continuing to allow for varied training methods, such as: Muscular endurance training, speed play training, lower demanding gymnastics for longer sets, movements that require less demand per repetition. We rarely ever go to complete failure, our pacing must be dialed in, masters athletes should break up repetitions more often but the time between those reps needs to be limited for more consistent efforts over the workout. Being smart about our approach and finding ways to rest in the workout are of enormous benefit, for example, resting with a bar on the back rather than dropping it to the floor if possible so you don’t have to clean it back up over multiple reps can drastically reduce the load on our CNS, and cut down on a major work load.

Because the CNS responds more slowly it doesn’t mean we can’t expose a masters athlete to heavy lifts, power training, and extreme intensities, we will need to manage the exposure over smaller doses. 

Active recovery 

For full recovery methods for the general high performing athlete, my previous article can be referred here: recovery 101. Active recovery for a master must become a daily ritual in order to have any lasting effects. A masters active recovery is also going to incorporate more than the average active recovery session, we are going to include longer tempo endurance, mobility, “injury management” such as physio therapy, massage, and chiropractic care, as well as specific accessory work. The truth is, when Gord was in his 20’s he proclaims he could play two rugby games in one day and his body felt great (but he also proclaimed he had to his games up hill both ways and in the snow. Kidding). But fast forward to his 30’s, after one game he would be stiff and sore for a full week until the next game. Now in his 60’s he opens up each day with active recovery, doing 150 air squats to move and maintain in order to keep consistency in his body.

Recovering during the qualifier

This article is timely with the CrossFit Games Age Group Online Qualifier quickly approaching. So I will leave you with some specific words from Gord on the topic:

“know yourself, understand the workouts by walking through them first so that your body can adjust to the movements. Do your strengths first coupled with shorter workouts, If there is a glaring beast wod save that one for last. 

Make your physio appointments ahead of time, plan for pains.

Don’t be afraid to gear up!”