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The Aging Athlete: Tips For Staying In Shape As You Grow Older

Apr 18, 2008
Most athletes are born competitors. Since our early years, we have been conditioned to think in terms of "how many," "how much" and "how fast." The cruel twist of fate parallels the wisdom of age with the slowing of the fast-twitch muscles. The athlete who wishes to retain enjoyment in his older years needs cunning as well as brawn to do well, feel well, and be well!

Our primal instincts regarding the ever-upward ascent of our achievements have to withstand the changes in absolute measure (hardly any of us will be faster at sixty than we were at twenty, or even forty). We have to learn to take pride in finesse, in working with our changing bodies in a cooperative dance rather than a wrestling match, and to do so with the fond eye of a lover rather than the stopwatch of our high school coach.

How can we find the psychological energy to alter the deep-seated paradigm of measurement by numbers to a more profound acceptance and support for our now-aging bodies? How can we convert trial by numbers into admiration for coordination, reverence for grace and respect for complexity? Not an easy task, to be sure.

As in so many areas of life, a good starting point is self analysis. What brings me joy in my physical life? When do I thrive and which conditions make it possible?

A historical analysis can be useful. Write a series of memories, no more than 250 words, and let yourself recall when in your life you have felt best about your athletic achievements. Were you alone, as in weight lifting for example, where the solitary meditation brought you into competition with yourself? Or do you fondly remember team sports where the pleasure of a shared win was greater than anyone's individual achievement? Did you enjoy pageantry, such as the baseball stadium, with uniforms and marked-out running lanes, or did you prefer the isolation and simplicity of cross-country running? Your goal is to understand the preconditions that set you up for success so that these can be redeveloped in other venues.

For example, I loved long distance running. In high school I ran cross-country. Even in track, I preferred the longest distances. As an adult I gradually morphed into a marathon runner until knee surgeries and lower back pains suggested that this was no longer the best sport for me. As I analyzed my love of running, I found that I enjoyed working out with my teammates as well as their companionship on the subway ride to the park in the Bronx, more than an hour from our school in Brooklyn. I enjoyed the planning for the race almost as much as the race!

I began to see that I enjoyed sports where a theoretical understanding was as important as the actual performance. Gradually, after trying various classes at my gym, I found that yoga gave me many of the same values I associated with running. I read about the mind set which made holding postures possible and it was remarkably similar to the strategies for long distance running! The only difference was that my body thrived in this new regime. There were no more swollen knees, no Ibuprophen or ice packs. I just showed up, took classes with my fellow students, many in their twenties, and felt terrific afterward.

Like others who have found joy in adapting their sports to their bodies, I had come to a new sport partly by serendipity (I had a tried a few other classes) and partly by having a prepared mind. I knew the feelings I wanted, I just didn't know which sports would create those feelings.

Similarly, a friend of mine was a B level squash player ("A" level is professional). She couldn't move as quickly as she used to, nor as dexterously, having injured her shoulder cartilage. She analyzed other sports with a range of motion similar to her squash stroke, but with more limited shoulder movement, and decided to try archery. Six years later she competes at national level tournaments. She found that she loves the discipline of archery and the range of motion was perfectly suited to her current shoulder conditioning. In addition, having watched herself through tournaments over many years, she wasn't prepared to give up the rankings and associated measures of success which give her a sense of accomplishment.

By analyzing the parts of experience which defined our pleasure, we were both able to find sports which defined areas of strength and competence in our current bodies. We each still feel like athletes, but in a style which responds to our current capacities. The advantage we gained from the mental analysis was a resource in finding a physical form. As in so many areas of life, luck favors the prepared mind.
About the Author
John Trauth is co-author of "Your Retirement, Your Way" (McGraw-Hill, 2007), a step-by-step curriculum which explains the secrets for happiness in retirement and helps readers prepare for the psychological, strategic and financial aspects of this major life transition. Learn more about this book and take the free "retirement readiness quiz" at http://www.YourRetirementYourWay.com.
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