Getting older does not mean you have to surrender your competitiveness.
(Pictured above with one of my idols Colleen Fahey. CrossFit Games Champion 50-54 age group and USA Rugby Player 1991 World Cup Champion)
I hear it all the time: “I can’t do that; I am too old.” Or, my favorite: “You will regret that when you get older.”
I have been an athlete my entire life. I will always be an athlete because it is a part of me. I love the training, the sport of it, and the challenge.
However, how I feel now as a 31-year-old and how I felt as an 18-year-old are incredibly different. This will continue to change as each year passes. I like to consider myself a fine wine, as I have only continued to get better as I age. Will that slow down or regress? Absolutely. We all travel through the peaks and valleys of what life throws at us.
Here is what I know has helped me continue to train hard but stay relatively safe, healthy, and mobile as the years pass by:
1.) The volume of my training has decreased significantly. I used to spend hours upon hours in the gym or playing field training my ass off. I had less responsibility, and I had the time to waste. Did I get fit? Yes. Did I have time to recover? Yes.
Fast forward a few years, and adulthood starts throwing its responsibilities at me. I still thought I could train as much but with less time for recovery. The missing hours of sleep and skipped meals took its toll on me, and before I knew it, I was overtraining. My performance dropped, I was constantly sick with a cold, and I never felt good. I had to make a decision…
If I couldn’t recover, I had no business training 2-3 hours a day, even if others around me could do it. So, I stopped doing that. I focused my energy into a solid hour or 90 minutes of training and gave it my full focus and energy for that time.
I got better by doing less work mainly because I listened to my body and didn’t get sucked into everyone else’s training plan.
2.) I began to decrease the frequency and intensity of certain movements. You all know what I am talking about here. We all have those movements that absolutely stress us out mentally as much as physically. I played 5 years of professional rugby, getting slammed by the world’s best athletes. I did my fair share of slamming, but in reality, I walked away from my career with multiple nose breaks, two herniated discs in my lumbar spine, a separated shoulder, a broken tibia, and a torn meniscus. While I may only be 31 on paper, in rugby years, I am much older. My training philosophy changed from “Push through the pain” to “What you do today determines what you can do tomorrow.” This did not happen overnight, but I know that this shift has been crucial to keeping me competitive now.
Here are the movements I modify/decrease frequency that I choose for my past injuries and myself. This is not a prescription for you or a one-size-fits-all list. This is just mine:
- Deadlift: I still deadlift. I don’t train it as frequently, and when I do, I am never close to a maximum lift. I live in the 60-85% range, and I am completely happy with that. The deadlift is a great lift and an important skill we should all have. With two herniated discs, I will continue to train this lift - but I will not push the intensity to a point that compromises my position. Even with perfect form, things can go wrong… that is true for everything, but I would like to think I am decreasing the risk. So far, so good.
- Squat Snatches: I still snatch, and it is actually one of my favorite lifts. However, I treat snatches similar to how I treat the deadlift. I can still train it - but I don’t need to snatch 3x a week, and I don’t need to hit near maximal lifts each week to create a stimulus for getting better. Instead of focusing on percentages here, I usually go by how I feel that day. Solid and snappy is the goal. Anything less is a sign to not increase weight.
- Running: Yep, I said it. I don’t run nearly as much as I used to. Rarely do I cover over a mile at one time. I live in the land of intervals, and when it comes time for the occasional 5k or triathlon, I am ready without having to spend an obnoxious amount of time pounding the pavement.
Those are the big three for me, but everyone is different. So, if you know there are movements that overwhelm your system, then you have to make a decision based on what is best for you. I am not suggesting you avoid them entirely, but talking with a coach about how you can modify or change the intensity of these movements to keep you moving and feeling good is crucial. EVEN THE ELITE ATHLETES have to modify programs to fit their needs. You are no different.
3.) I consistently take care of my body. I consider it a long-term investment for me to continue to train the way I do. Just like pushing money towards a 401k, I continue to set aside funds for regular body maintenance. This includes sports massage, physical therapy, and chiropractic care. There are many methods to maintain healthy movement; finding what works best for you is key.
My personal regimen is a chiropractic visit at least once every two weeks (sometimes once a week depending on the volume of my training and upcoming events), sports massage once a week, and dry needling once every two weeks. This is what works the best for me. Again, this is not a one-size-fits-all model.
I can say with confidence that waiting for something to go wrong is not the best practice for seeking out help. Let the professionals set you up for success, and listen to their advice. Think of it as “prehab” instead of “rehab.”
This is how my training has changed, and I know that it will continue to change. I am a much smarter athlete now than ever before. I listen to my body, and I take the time to recover. When I need to go full speed, I do it. Most days, I am focusing more on building skills and capacity and less on the numbers. Every day is an opportunity; I can get better, or I can get worse. Change is inevitable and is all around us. You don’t have to always do Rx, and you don’t always have to scale… there is much more in between than you realize. Be present and honest with yourself, and high intensity exercise will have a place in your regimen as you age.