It is always amusing hearing someone far younger say out loud, “God, I feel so old.”
We hear it when people in the mid-to-late 20s suddenly realize the toddler children they once babysat are now graduating from high school or even college. We hear it as mothers of those children lament their sudden progress through school. The milestones come one right after another. Preschool. Fifth Grade. Middle School. On they go, right through the awkward stages into young adults.
The mirror test
We’re so busy with these life events it hardly feels like you have time to look in the mirror yourself. Yet one day you do, and those lines next to your eyes seem a bit deeper furrowed than they were just a week ago. How does that happen?
For women with children there are those years of yin and yang body changes. Recovering from childbirth and working off baby weight is no easy chore. For most women, that mom fat hangs on like pudgy wallpaper. It might take years to shed those pounds.
Among men the enemy of body image is most often metabolism changes. As a guy nears the age of 40, the weight that used to come off in a month now takes months, then years. And that’s if you’re sticking to a program. Even the man that works out frequently can find himself gaining pounds if he stubbornly or lazily sticks to his old dietary habits. Come winter, the man that eats too many Christmas Cookies and downs a month’s worth of Christmas ales can find himself 10 to 15 pounds overweight.
Weight gain is just one aspect of aging. Fitness performance can lag once you pass the age of 40. Even world-class cyclists like Chris Horner that have extended their racing careers into the early 40s. An athlete at that level cannot afford to take much of a break from training and competition. As we age, the ability to ramp up and ramp down for performance gets a little tougher. That’s why you’ll see older athletes deeply engaged with personal trainers and partaking in year-round fitness management. That’s true in all sports from baseball to football, triathlon and track and field.
We might marvel at the performance of older athletes such as distance runner Bernard Lagat, whose speed has hardly fallen off even as he passes the age of 40. But ultimately, all aging athletes must deal with the fact that as the body ages, the ability to sustain high heart rates and oxygen transfer is diminished. Muscles and joints lose flexibility with age, and training must be conducted with respect to those trigger points that can lead to injury.
One of the ironic aspects of participating in athletics all your life is that wear and tear can be a real consequence. Runners that have done years of training including 100-mile weeks and multiple races may find their bodies worn down. Some are so impacted by their careers that alternate sports from running are their only choice. I’ve spoken with many national and world class runners who due to high-intensity training in their careers, can no longer run at all.
That wear factor, in combination with age, can become a limiting (even frustrating) factor for athletes who want to keep training and competing into their 50s, 60s and even 70s. It may not be at all possible for some aging runners to sustain former levels of training in a sport such as running. Some runners turn to cycling which gives a long-time endurance athlete that “buzz” of speed and aerobic effort.
Then there are those athletes that don’t even take up running until after the age of 40 or even 50 years old. For long time athletes, watching these athletes improve and run times comparable to athletes in their 30s can be frustrating. Just as bittersweet is the process of looking through current race times in magazines to find that you could have once won events by a minute or two.
Just as bittersweet is the process of looking through current race times in magazines to find that you could have once won events by a minute or two. The hard fact is that as you age, your speed and endurance is reduced at the top end. It’s hard to make up for that speed by volume as well, since the body may not tolerate intense or high levels of training as well.
So where’s the good news in all this, you might ask. For starters, there is still a considerable amount of joy and effort to pursue between the bookends of youth and death. It all comes down to reading your body in its current state, and trusting that it’s worth taking stock in order to build a better future.
As a starting point, an athlete absolutely must back it down and take a reasonable look at the arc and purpose of their fitness lifestyle and career. The signs and signals of natural limitations are often there, yet it is too easy to ignore and pretend they don’t exist. That approach can lead to injury and cause big delays in a fitness regimen. So don’t start out by crushing your hopes with some kind of crash fitness program.
The wise athlete after age 40 begins to look at their fitness foundationally. Where once the health and exuberance of youth could carry the athlete through training and racing, now the approach must vitally incorporate weight training and “whole body” assessment. There may be legitimate time limits due to work and other obligations. But if you’re committed to the idea of a major event such as a marathon or Ironman, then one must commit to a frank internal and external discussion of those goals. In the world of an endurance athlete, something has to give in order to get the results you seek to achieve.
That is true even at a much younger age. Going into my senior year in college there was a temptation to explore all the joys of being at the top of the food chain. Yet there was also the opportunity to achieve something really unique in running. That meant 9-10 straight weeks of 80 to100 mile weeks and 13 races before the NCAA Division III Cross Country Meet. I was 21 years old and recognized this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We gave up those mid-week parties and other college frolic, yet we placed second in the nation and earned Team All-American status.
So sacrifice is part of the picture at any age. Some of it is appropriate, but it pays to be judicious where you place your efforts as you age.
Back with a vengeance
Remember those moms that gave up so much time raising children? Well, many of them emerge from their child-rearing years eager to recoup some of their womanly energies. That’s why one of the most competitive age divisions of all in the triathlon world is the women’s age 40-45. Moms of that age have plenty of drive to spare. They’ve often spent years organizing family life and finally see a little space where they can devote some time to themselves. And look at them go! Some strip that weight right off and get downright fast and furious on the bike, the run and the swim!
Some husbands can handle that. Others can’t. Sometimes marriages get strained. Others work to accommodate the fitness lifestyle, with both spouses training and the kids too. But sometimes the formula fails. One spouse finds their fitness mojo while the other refuses the entire scene.
It is likely these marriages were facing trouble anyway. I once knew a couple who raised four children, and on the day the fourth one graduated from high school, the wife walked in an said, “I’m done. I’m leaving you.” The guy was stunned, but she was bored because he was quiet and unassuming. She wanted excitement. They were 50 years old. So stuff happens whether people are fitness obsessed or not. As people age, some want to settle in while others need to break out. As I once wrote in my first fiction book, that is “life tectonics.”
You’re not alone
So aging is not something you necessarily do on your own. That goes for how you deal with the aging process as well. After all, we can often do wonderful things to keep our bodies in shape through our 40s, 50s and 60s. But sooner or later, our skin show signs of age in lines and sports. Muscles and breasts and humble nutsacks succumb to gravity despite all our efforts. That backyard game played with orbs on a rope is not called Grandpa Balls for nothing.
Yet it is our faces that sometimes show age most of all. It’s an often unfunny thing to pick up a mirror and look at yourself sideways in the mirror. Once you reach 50 you wonder what the heck is up? with what your face has decided to do. Yet so much of that facial character is hard-earned, won through smiles and tears. The crow’s feet around my eye show most when I grin or squint. Of course, I’ve spent a lot of my life grinning and squinting as I run those intervals on the track or climb a tough hill on the bike.
How you deal with getting older as an athlete comes down to some basic and practical advice. Here are 5 great tips to help you on your way to a better, happier journey.
1. Become a multisport aficionado. Spread your effort around and don’t grind yourself into the ground doing one sport. Swim, cycle, run. Or throw something else in their. Horseback riding? Hell skateboard if you like. Be diverse and thrive.
2. Take a serious (yet happy) look at your diet. It’s pretty easy to cut down on sugars and carbs without eliminating them. Ingesting less beer, cookies and other treats is the best way to eliminate excess calories.
3. Choose goals that make (age) sense. Doing a legitimate assessment of your available time and commitment level can make participation in endurance sports so much more fulfilling as you age. Then, take stock of where you actually are through test workouts that honestly assess your fitness. If you’re currently racing 8:00 a mile, don’t expect to drop to 6:00 pace if you have not done that in the last 5 years.
4. Get age-appropriate advice. There are tons of coaches out there to teach you how to get fit and compete. But they must conduct a survey with you about your competitive and training history, your injury record, current workout load and what you hope to achieve. Slapping workouts on you that do not account for age and condition is both dumb and unethical.
5. Decide what you really want from life. This is the bigger picture approach to age-appropriate fitness. Yes, the thrill of competition is fun and absorbing. But think as well what you want to remember in life. If you make a trip to a foreign country and spend all your time running or riding, what have you absorbed of the place that you could not have gotten at home? Someday we’ll all die, and while fitness is important, so is culture, family, love and faith. Remembering to give your time over to these things is just as (if not more…) important as whether you won your age group in last weekend’s race.
That’s it. How to deal with getting older as an athlete. It’s not that complex, but neither is it always so simple. May you find balance and wonder at the same time.