Coming to Terms With Being an Aging Athlete
You just hit [insert age here]. You don't see yourself as over the hill, but you’re not exactly a teenager anymore, either. You've been an athlete, or active in some way for the majority of your life, and you've had your fair share of injuries to boot. Even though you still try to do the same things you did as a younger buck, such as going to the gym and wasting yourself with multiple squats and bench sets to failure, or doing multiple ten-plus mile runs in a week without any recovery days, your body doesn't seem to heal the way it used to.
Your joints ache, your muscles are tighter, and the occasional injury comes up, where previously there were none. And the thought starts to creep in your mind, "It's not that I can't, but should I?"
Nineteen Going on Eighty
Chances are this might describe some of you out there. "Some" probably being an understatement. I get it. I'm only 25, going on 26. But seven years ago, I was nineteen going on eighty (my apologies to my eighty-year-old clients out there, who may be reading this.). At least, that's how my body felt every day when I got out of bed.
As a college freshman track athlete, I tore my hamstring so badly I required an MRI to see if it was still there. It was "hanging on by few threads," as the doctor put it. After that injury, my hips began to feel stiff. My lower back became tight to the point I couldn't bend over and reach much past my knees. I developed numbness in my left thigh, calf, and foot after sitting for more than five minutes. Teammates I would beat by half a second in a 100-meter dash began to beat me by a full second. Everything hurt, and physical activity, especially sprinting, went from a love of mine to something I feared.
Two years after that initial hamstring injury, a parasitic thought crept into my brain and assumed control. "It's not that I can't, but should I?" My parents, coaches, friends, and teammates all wondered what was wrong with me. "You're too young to hurt so much," was the unanimous response I got when I announced I was quitting track and field at the ripe age of 21. I just wasn't sure it was worth trying to stay competitive if it was making my body feel that crappy.
When We Make Performance Mean Too Much
Coming to terms with myself, my ego, and my competitive nature was the hardest thing I've ever done. But it taught me a valuable lesson: that as we "age" our self worth should not and, for sanity's sake, cannot be aligned with physical performance. Aging will be extremely difficult for any person who values him- or herself only for what he or she can do, versus who he or she is as a person.
John, my college track coach, helped me to learn the above lesson. For years I'd only valued myself based on what I could do as a sprinter, and his wisdom couldn't have come at a better time. I'd quit before the annual Spring Fling spring break track trip, where the team traveled to southern California to compete in a few meets and get away from the cold March Oregon weather. Three days before our departure, I told him that I didn't want to burden him or my teammates with a subpar competitor. I wasn't as fast as I was prior to my injury, so what was the point?
Instead of agreeing, John said some of the most profound words I've ever heard: "Did you ever stop to think that your value to me, this team, and to yourself is more than just your finishing time?" I left in tears.
A few hours later I got a phone call from John. He said, "You know, you should still come on the trip, even if you aren't going to compete." He never lost faith in me, and a week later I was competing again. One year later, in the spring of 2010, after some solid off-season training, I got a personal best in the 400-meter dash and secured myself a spot in the conference championship meet with a time of 50.78s (my previous best was a 53.1 from the year before).
The Blessing of Injury and Aging
By the time I achieved that record time, my outlook on the sport, and physical activity in general, had shifted. I no longer cared about my times. I did it because I could. My God-given ability to run was a gift, and I wanted to use it to acknowledge that and give thanks. I still knew I could get hurt again at any moment - indeed, my hamstring and hips still hurt occasionally - but where previously there had been fear, there was a sense of peace. I knew that the finishing time didn't matter as much as the fact that I finished. As someone who used to value the number alone, this was a revelation.
I have been incredibly blessed by my injuries, because I had my performance stripped from me in one fell swoop. I didn't have the disadvantage of a slow decline. It was a wake-up call that forced me to change quickly. This means that, at 26, I have a unique perspective for someone my age, but it's a perspective that allows me to understand when it comes to working with clients who are coming to terms with their aging bodies.
So to you other "aging" athletes out there - just because you aren't as strong, as fast, as flexible, or as agile as you used to be, doesn't mean you should stop doing things. Come to terms with it. Embrace it, even. Free your mind of the shackles of your self worth, and find worth in other things, such as your faith, your family, or in serving others.
Stay active, find new hobbies, and continue to train in your old ones. Stay secure in the knowledge that even though absolute performance may decline with advanced years, the enjoyment of the process of training is something that never needs to go away.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.