Not as Good as I Once Was: Training in Your 30s and Beyond
The next time you go to the gym, strike up a conversation with anyone who meets one or both of the following criteria:
- 35 years old or older
- Has children
Note: This is a lot of people.
Inevitably, the talk will turn to stories of the glory days when they looked better, had more energy, could lift heavier and more often, were less sore, never injured, and on and on. They can't figure out how to get it back. It must be diet, right? Maybe that miracle missing supplement? Training philosophy? Demanding kids taking up precious training time? Stress (isn't this the same as kids)? There are so many variables to consider!
Recently, like most aging fitness junkies, I have begun to ponder my physical decline and search for answers (I'm thirty-seven with three children, by the way). My search has led me to a training and sports psychology approach I use with all of my masters-age athletes. Based on the results we’ve garnered I’d like to suggest a different and somewhat obvious variable.
Realization #1: Time Has Changed You
You can't do what you once could because you are now different. People change. We have busier lives, collect injuries, indulge in cheat meals, and lose some of the vitality we once had. Realize you now have new limitations to go along with your aspirations. Even if you had perfect form on every movement you've ever done, zero injuries and flawless nutrition, you are still most likely walking around riddled with nagging pains just like the rest of us.
As for the rest of us: in our twenties (and if we’re being honest, our thirties, too), we were stupid. We didn’t listen to people more experienced when they told us to treat our bodies right. We pushed too hard and in the wrong ways. If you're lucky, you've come out of that period of your life with some mobility/stability and limited injuries to nurse.
Take inventory right now. My guess is you'll find at least five muscles/joints/tendons that are bothering you—three of which have been bothering you for a while. Our masters athletes are required to constantly monitor and take inventory of what their bodies are telling them, and provide us with ongoing feedback. This conversation can shape the training plan for twelve weeks or even one day. We are not dogmatic with programming.
Some days, the majority of our training sessions end up just warming up and getting the body moving through a range of motion. Plans are wonderful, but don’t get stuck in the old “stick to the plan” fable. By not listening—and I mean really listening—to your body, you’ll only grind your training to a halt by measuring your current performance against the yardstick of your past.
Success as a masters athlete is about taking what your body can give you on the day. [Photo credit: J Perez Imagery]
Realization #2: You Were Never Really That Good
Stop measuring yourself against the exaggerated super-you that lives only in your memory. It isn't a perfect representation of actual events. Memory is constructive—or more to the point, reconstructive. We take actual events and reshape them based on variables too numerous to mention. Remember your first kiss? Sure you do, but your experiences since have helped to create a new version of that moment. You might remember it as better (or more awkward) than it actually was.
The same is true with your fitness. In short, you probably never had amazing abs, nor did you bench 300lb—at least not for what the powerlifting community would consider a “good rep.” It’s much more likely you had a sort-of-flat stomach and one time you had close to 300lb on the bar that you took to half-depth with four people spotting you. Still pretty good, but not exactly accurate. I recently found myself telling someone my max squat was 575lb, but in truth I can’t actually remember how much it was, and it wasn’t at a sanctioned event. I can see the lift and the plates and I seem to remember going to depth, but who knows? That was over a decade ago.
Be honest with yourself as you set goals, and base your training off of those goals. The best practice is to benchmark now. Imagine my surprise when I grabbed a barbell to attempt a 1RM back squat ten years after my alleged 575lb, only to find out four plates per side felt like a house on my back. It will only deflate and sidetrack your training to base percentages and volume off a number that might have never existed. Start fresh and program to compliment your current capabilities.
Align Your Goals With Your Real Life
While I love working with young athletes whose legs are fresh and lives are uncomplicated by comparison, the bulk of my clients are over the age of forty. In a given week, our training sessions can vary from amazing to low-energy based on sleep, diet and work schedules. It’s important to make sure our goals and training plans are flexible in order to be aligned with their actual lives. We are intense and seek our goals passionately, but our journey is intelligently planned prior to embarking.
Take a look at yourself right now. Take a look at your life, your schedule, your stressors and the new rules for your body. Take a look at how you feel today and the injuries you're nursing. Take a look at the goals you have. Do they match? Are they realistic?
We live in a world of online clips of amazing feats of strength; of thirty-second commercials featuring 90-year-old Ironman competitors who say things like, "I don't let excuses stop me from greatness." Well, good for them. They aren't you. Use today to find your baseline and pick measurable goals you can safely reach. Do your rehab and prehab. Warm up, and then warm up again. Have fun with your training sessions and don't get bogged down in what once was. And lastly, make sure the intelligence of your training is equal to the intensity.
How do you set goals when your body is in decline?