By Julian Forbes
Founder of Karate Athlete, Inc.
In my athletic career I have seen “athletic life-spans” grow considerably. More athletes in many sports from boxing to basketball have continued to be competitive well into their 30s and 40s. Due primarily to extensive sports medicine and science research which has led to the development of training programs designed to surmount any obstacle, even aging. Having retired at 35 from competitive karate, this is a subject which is very fresh in my mind. I saw my body and overall performance peak in my late 20s and saw injury recovery time start increasing as I neared 35. Please note that karate is one of those sports where athletes tend to do well in their late twenties due to the amount of knowledge accrued. There is a huge strategic and mental side to competetive karate which gets better with experience and can counter-act some aging handicaps.
Since my retirement I have continued to work out and even, when our paths around the globe crossed, gotten together for pad and sparring sessions with my former trainer, World Champion Geoff Thompson (GBR). Let me just say that as well as I have faired with fitness and age, Mr. Thompson, who is older than I, is a poster child for the “Senior Athlete”. He was always the fittest person I knew but what is amazing is that he has not slowed down and his performance has not suffered noticeably due to aging. He is truly amazing and an inspiration to us all. His secret? You will have to ask him for specifics, however there is one thing he said to me long ago which kept me going in my competitive 30s: an older athlete can reach the same level of performance as a younger one. In order to do so however, he or she must train harder and longer than the younger athlete. Every routine needs to be done with more repetitions and for longer, with special emphasis on areas which are most affected by aging like flexibility and explosive speed/energy.
This is probably the most frustrating aspect of aging for an athlete. It is a well known fact that one of the most debilitating effects of aging is the “drying up” of tendons, ligaments, muscles, joints and the loss of bone mass. Bones become more brittle and are more likely to break. Tendons and ligaments become less flexible and are more likely to snap. If all of this were not enough, recovery time from these injuries is vastly increased for the older athlete. The result? A frustrated athlete often forced to halt allactivity for an extended period of time. This leads to muscle atrophy, possible fat gain, and the need to psychologically jump-start yourself when its time to get back to training. Again, having suffered a ruptured Achilles Tendon and having been unable to even run for a year, I know about this first hand.
Achilles Tendon ruptures, by the way, are one of the most common injuries amongst aging athletes, of any sport. As I mentioned, I suffered one as did my trainer Geoff Thompson after his retirement. Why do so many athletes incur this injury? Usually it happens when you’re still active and haven’t really felt major aging effects yet. You are not aware of all of your body’s changes. In this case, your tendons becoming less elastic. Therefore, you go to do your work out, and probably stretch as much as you did when you were twenty, and start your work out. This is where you make your mistake and where most Achilles injuries can be avoided. Aging doesn’t mean throwing in the towel. It just means more work to achieve similar results. In this case, if you stretch a lot longer than you used to, you will ensure a large amount of blood flows to the tendons making them more elastic and less likely to snap when you begin your routine. A small price to pay, believe me!
Psychological Hurdles of Aging and Exercise
Why do we appear to get lazy in our old age? There are a number of factors to consider here. First, and probably most important, is that you’ve been training for so long that it’s getting boring. If you were a competitive athlete and have retired, there is no more drive to win edging you on to work out regularly. In short you’re suffering a motivational deficit – that’s me trying to talk fancy… you basically have little reason to do it anymore. Lets face it, while some of us may enjoy working out, we all realise that a regular routine requires discipline, and yes, motivation. That which used to be your driving force, winning medals or just being the best at what you do, is no longer there to push you.
The second reason is peer presure. Unless you hang out with a bunch of retired athletes like yourself, you’re more than likely to be surrounded by people of your age who are not in shape, probably never have been, and don’t put much value in being so. Despite the fact that you know the value of fitness, being a human being, the most adaptable creature on earth, you will be susceptible to following the crowd… blending with your environment, especially if its the “easy” thing to do. Unfortunately exercise begets energy. So if you don’t exercise regularly you will become lethargic making the prospect of exercise less appealing, and thus a vicious circle is formed.
So how do you battle these forces of flabby evil? Well first off, hopefully your years as an athlete have made you a maverick and not a sheep. Secondly, you will have grown to love what your body can do when its well tuned and find it unbearable to settle for rolls of fat and breathing heavily after climbing a short flight of stairs. You will hopefully have developed a level of self esteem which will not allow you to let yourself go. Make no mistake, this is not vanity! Its self-respect.
You need to understand that you no longer need to work out 3-4 hours a day to stay fit. You can get away with far less as long as its regular. Next, now that you’re retired from your sport, explore other sports. Try some you either didn’t have time to do while competing or feared would counter act specific muscle development you had mapped out for your primary sport’s needs. Variety is the spice of life. Mix it up and you won’t get bored. Ultimately, this will ensure that you stay fit and healthy.