If you’re seventeen and sick of your parents ragging on you about homework and staying out too late, it’s not likely you’ll spend much time worrying about what it will be like when you’re older. Especially much, much older. We all recall how hard it was to watch grandma or grandpa grow old and start to limp, lose eyesight or hearing and even drool on their clothing.
Growing older starts out being an abhorrent notion. But slowly, and with time, it becomes a reality. We all have to deal with it. And we should thank our stars for that.
And yet, growing older (or thinking that way) has its humbling moments. I recall a sitcom moment in which a hot young women played by Nikki Cox is dating an older man until the moment he gets up to grab himself a beer and let’s out a groan as he’s trying to stand up. “Oh my God,” she says. “You just made an Old Man noise.”
Of course the actress who played that role later went through plastic surgery to ostensibly enhance her looks and compete in the Hollywood Youth Bowl. The results did not really go well for Nikki Cox. That’s a harsh bit of life imitating art.
We all have to face age in our own way. Women who go through childbirth find their bodies changing. Men who let themselves get fat in their late 20s find it suddenly hard to shed that extra weight into their 30s and 40s. Metabolisms shift or slow down. Workouts don’t produce the same results. Age is an unforgiving competitor.
Those of us who competed in sports early in life find it a bit disturbing to realize those running times at 5K or 10K are forever locked in the stone of time. Sports feel different in every decade of life. We learn and compete in sports in our teens. Some continue
competing in those sports well into their 20s. By the age of 35 or so, even most pro athletes have to give up their chosen games. Pro cyclists are considered old and worn out by that period in life. Only rare exceptions such as Jens Voigt, Chris Horner and yes, Lance Armstrong have managed to accomplish world class performances late into their 30s and early 40s.
There are always those people who seem extra able to defy age. A few years back while lining up to race in a 50+ criterium I glanced over to see a cyclist named Fabio standing over his bike. His skin was a golden brown, as was his longish hair. The muscles in his thighs were so large the letters on his kit were stretched thin. I thought to myself, “There’s no way I can ride with this guy.”
I held onto the front group for close to 40 minutes before Fabio and another racer that had once competed in the Pan Am Games rode off the front to battle it out the last 10 minutes. About that time I also happened to pop. But not before looking down to see that we had average 26.4 mph during that crit. It was by far the best I have ever ridden in a race. It’s one of the tarsnakes of competition that you can be drawn to your finest performance only to finish far back in the pack.
Which meant that despite my less-than-Fabio appearances, the thrill of competition had pulled me to a performance that seemed unimaginable back on the starting line. It turned out that Fabio had about 5 years of youth on me, so there was that excuse.
But really that’s no excuse at all. Because the guy who beat Fabio was actually older than me. And what I learned about his training regiment taught an important lesson. He rode his indoor training all winter, every day. Sometimes he would log three or four hours on the bike.
You’ll find those characters out there in the world. There’s always someone willing to outwork their competitors and their own age. That is not to say we all should do that. But what it does say is that too often we imagine ourselves incapable of continually good performance as we enter our 40s, 50s, 60s or 70s.
With respect to age it is incumbent upon us to explore and test our capabilities. Otherwise our imaginations shrink and we stop trying to become better with time.
This past autumn I got out to run a couple races. That’s really the first time in many years that I’ve done anything other than training runs. Despite some chronic achilles challenges this past summer that limited my running to 10-12 miles per week, I still managed to run a 45:17 10k. That’s about 14:00 slower than my all-time personal record of 31:10.
Once in a lifetime
That PR was set 30 years ago in the summer of 1984. I was not yet married. Had no kids. Didn’t even have a job, technically, other than competing for a running store and working retail there part time. Just to make ends meet. I trained 60-80 miles per week and did speed training at least twice a week. It was fun. I was young. I knew I’d likely never have the opportunity, the youth and the freedom to do that again.
So it’s a bit forgivable to be 14:00 slower at age 57 than I was at my peak fitness at the age of 24 years old.
Picking up a new sport
It’s a little tougher to know what to think about cycling, a sport I did not take up seriously until 2003. That’s also the year I tore an ACL. At first I considered that injury age-related.
But then I watched elite athletes like soccer player Chris Armas go down with an ACL tear in the middle of the field with no one around them. That made me realize that such injuries can happen to anyone.
I rehabbed from my own ACL tear and kept on running. But then I tore it again. That was the last gasp of ballistic sports. At age 47 my decision was to run and ride straight ahead and quit worrying about cuts and turns and swooping layups. In that respect age really had won out. I kept getting hurt in other parts of my body as well.
With respect to age we must all make adaptations but do not necessarily have to give up our favorite pursuits. A lot depends on circumstance. But it also depends on training, commitment and consistency. Those three factors can keep you on the move well into your 80s if you are smart about it.
Here are a few keys on how to stay active as you age:
Strength work: There is no substitute for consistent strength training. Building and maintaining muscle health is the best age-proofing known to science.
Engaged flexibility: Yoga is becoming popular for a reason. Rather than being an easy day stretching your joints, most types of yoga actively engage your muscle groups in a dynamic fashion. The chill-out period following each practice is also good for the brain.
Aerobic exercise: Breathing hard is good for you. It’s that simple. If your body allows you to run and you enjoy it, that’s a great lifetime activity. Many athletes combine running with riding and swimming for alternative forms of aerobic training with less weight-bearing stress. You might say that the best training regimen each week is the components of a triathlon.
That’s your “aging well” formula right there. With respect to age we all need to explore our limits while maintaining the right balance. That’s good advice across an entire spectrum of life activities.