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.