The metaphysics of Athletes and Age

There comes a time when age causes an athletes decline. But how long can the decline be held off?

Longer than most believe. The natural decline in athletic ability is primarily a function of disuse, not actually aging. Take any 18 year old kid and sit him on the couch all day. He’ll undergo the same effects of detraining that a 40 year old person does. When we were young, we wanted to explore the world, to get out and move and challenge ourselves. As we grow older, we find our comfort zones. We also have many responsibilities, such as work and children. And of course, not everyone has the desire to be an athlete. But exercise is good for us. Not only our bodies but our minds, receive many benefits from exercise. It’s a great mood-lifter as well.

Recently, athletes like Dara Torres have gained the spot light. Torres proved many doubters wrong when at 41 years of age, she won the silver medal in a swimming event in this past Olympics.

In my mind the greatest active American athlete is Lance Armstrong. Lance Armstrong is 37 years old years old. His victories in the Tour de France are the stuff of legend. Recently, he announced that he’s coming out of retirement to compete in what may be the most grueling athletic event on the planet. Armstrong embodies what I believe is the core ethos of athletes and those in my profession (soldiers). He never quits. Here’s a quote from Armstrong: “Pain is temporary, it may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.” He beat cancer. And most satisfying–he beat the damnable French at their own sport–and they hate him. They spit on him as he smoked past them to Tour victories. They chided and called him nasty names. But Armstrong–I can see it in him–does exactly what I do. He draws on an inner anger that makes him, momentarily, into the Ubermensch. I’ve seen too, that he knows his past experiences with cancer and loss have made him much better than he would have been otherwise.

For me, at my age, athletics is more metaphysical than physical. I’m 37. I prove to myself and others that I can still compete and I hope I can inspire others along the way. I learn about myself when I train and compete. Yes, the body hurts in ways it didn’t used to. My back and knees. But I won’t need those forever, and they’re of no use anyways if I don’t keep them strong and use them.

In his classic treatise on strength and health: The Way To Live , George Hackenschmidt states that wrestlers peak in their early 50’s. Hackenschmidt wrestled in the early 1900’s. At the age of 85 he could reportedly do standing vertical leaps over the back of a chair. He feats of strength during his prime are astounding, even by modern standards. Was “Hack” correct”? Is a person of 50 capable of competing at the highest levels?

Maybe. Injuries will be the aging athletes major obstacle. For as we age, we accumulate dings and dents that continue to get worse. Also, Hack was speaking of wrestling, which is a very technical sport, in addition to being a power and endurance sport.

There are many technical things I could go into here about how older athletes should train. Plyometrics, the importance of resistance training for older athletes etc. That, however, is beyond the scope of this article. I’d like people to consider the benefits of athletics and exercise that go beyond being the popular captain of the high school football team. The older I get, the more I learn from everything I do. That includes training. It’s no longer just about building muscle and running faster. It’s about mental toughness, never giving up, and exploring one’s boundaries.


7 Responses to “The metaphysics of Athletes and Age”

  1. December 13, 2008 at 7:04 pm

    Well we will soon know if age tells. If Armstrong doesn’t win the Tour de France in 09 i believe we can safely put it down to those added four years.

  2. 2 Mike Rozos
    December 14, 2008 at 12:06 am

    OK, this is way off the subject, and probably best for your previous post, but I was just chatting with a friend and looking at some references and;

    The average American woman weighs 163-164 pounds, depending on the source, as of 1999-2002.


    Guess we’ll all have to move to Europe!

  3. 3 kernunos
    December 14, 2008 at 3:15 am

    I coulda been a contenda!

  4. 4 kernunos
    December 14, 2008 at 3:17 am

    In response to green jersey. That is a pretty bold statement that if he loses it is due to the extra 4 years. Could there be no other reason if he loses?

  5. 5 Mike Rozos
    December 14, 2008 at 4:24 am

    OK, back on subject, Hack’s allegations do seem amazing. He must have had years of experience observing wrestlers to come to that conclusion.

    It would be neat to see an 85 year old do a back flip!

    Josef Roubal used to say that a 50 year old Judo competitor could take 25 year olds, just with a longer recovery time after a bout.

    It makes sense, since you would be at your highest level and unlikely to be surprised or caught off guard by anything anyone could do, so long as you stay fit and mentally prepared.

  6. December 14, 2008 at 10:10 am

    Hackenschmidt was an exceptional athlete, blessed with a monstrous strength form his early teen years. It would be easy to cast aside his statement about the older athlete if one thinks that Hackenshmidt was a knuckle-dragging iron-head.

    He wasn’t. After his career as a professional athelete ended, (With consecutive losses to the American wrestler, Frank Gotch–possibly the greatest pro-wrestler of all time) Hack wrote several books on philosophy. I’ve seen excerpts from these books and can tell you that he had some very insightful thoughts. He wrote books in German, Russian, French and English.

    I completely agree with Joseph’s assertions on recovery. That’s my primary obstacle as I’ve aged.

    As far as Armstrong is concerned, we should remember that aging athletes tend to fair much better in endurance related sports than speed and strength sports such as football. Gen David Patraeus, at the age of 49, ran the Army Ten Mile in under 64 minutes. You do the math and then try to run a mile in under 6:40. If you’re not a regular runner, you’ll fail horribly. I think that Armstrong will be very competitive. Of course, when you’re competing against other world-class athletes, victory is never assured. But i’d love to see him punish the French again. there’s never enough of that for me….

  7. December 17, 2008 at 3:46 am

    B/c of my reader, I ended up reading the 2nd part of this post first and as I end up doing a lot here, I spent about an hour and a half trying to learn more about what you posted. Those dudes are freaking amazing. As far as Hack, man, if I saw some 85 year old dude do a backflip off a chair I’d probably sh*t myself. Someone mentioned Judo in the comments which got me thinking – other than Bruce Lee and Hollywood Martial artists, aren’t most of the marital arts masters old dudes? Going through Kata/Forms over and over for 30-40 years would probably give you muscle memory that make you way quicker than guys 1/2 your age.

    All in all it’s an encouraging set of posts. As I head out jogging it got me thinking though – being 37 sucks. I mean, it’s like exactly in the middle and the worst of all ages. At least I got something to look forward to in 20 years with a little luck 😉

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