I’d like to say that when it comes to sport that ‘age is just a number’ or ‘like wine, you just get better with age.’ But since I am writing this post while lying on my stomach because a recent bout of sciatica is so painful that the act of sitting feels like I’m being cattle prodded in the butt, then I can’t drag out those cliches. There are advantages to being an older athlete but there are also disadvantages. For anybody under the age of forty who is reading this, here’s what you have to look forward to.
After I hit forty, I felt my age starting to creep in. Sports have been an integral part of my life since I was old enough for my parents to strap skis and skates on my feet. I come from a big family that grew up in the country and my parents were active people so by nature and nurture, all of my siblings and I were active kids. This has turned into a lifetime habit for all of us. By middle school, I started competing in cross country running, wrestling, swimming and downhill skiing. By high school, it was clear I had more slow twitch than fast twitch muscle but still competed in high school wrestling, football and cross country. In university, I still kept running and started doing triathlons for the first time. Fortunately, I never had an injury despite being involved in high impact sports.
And then I turned forty. Since turning forty I’ve had a number of annoying repetitive stress type of injuries. Stuff that is literally a pain in the butt but nothing has snapped, needed surgery or has had to be replaced.
Fatigue is also another factor now that I’m older. I was twenty five when I did my first Ironman and training that summer I was able to work full time, stay out drinking with friends most nights and still get up at 6AM to train and I never seemed to be tired. Now when I train for an ultra marathon or swimrun napping is an integral part of my training schedule and more than a beer the night before is just not an option unless I’m planning on skipping training the next day.
The good thing is that I haven’t lost much speed in either swimming or running since I was in my twenties. In terms of the general population, this isn’t too big a deal since I’ve never been very fast, but it keeps me feeling good about myself knowing that if I went back in time and raced twenty year old me, I would probably win. Especially considering the fact that twenty year old me was usually hung over.
I always wonder who would win in a fight - twenty year old me or fifty one year old me. Second to that fight, I wonder who would win the following fight: me in my prime or my Dad in his prime. I think I’d have better technique than my Dad but he’d probably want it more than me.
Experience is the big winner as you get older. It might not be able to turn back the clock when it comes to your body but it can certainly help you improve your times especially when it comes to endurance sports. Any long distance requires you to run smart if you want to run to the best of your abilities. The only way you can do this is with experience. There is no grand training matrix that applies to every individual. There are general guidelines which apply to the human condition and physiology, but only you will know how to get the most out of your body by simple trial and error.
For example, my first few ultra marathons, I used to run until exhaustion, and then walk/run/crawl to the finish line. It wasn’t until training for my first hundred mile race that I stumbled upon the fact that I could finish longer distances much faster if I varied my pace during the race. What I found ideal for me is to run for about forty five minutes and then walk for fifteen during ultras. With this pace I could keep my energy up for a much longer period of time than simply running non stop. This has really helped me with swimrunning because I allow myself to slow down, knowing that my body can rest a bit and then speed up later. On race day, I don’t worry so much about a technical stretch of the course slowing me down because I know the slower speed will allow me to open up on a less technical section.
The other advantage to experience, especially when it comes to endurance sports is knowing what true effort is and the difference between body shutting down and simple fatigue. Experience with the fatigue and discomfort of doing long distances trains you to stop your internal whining. Sore muscles, pain, exhaustion are all part of the race. They become second nature and allow you to push past what you thought was your limit.
The first time this became apparent to me was training for my first 50 mile ultra. My training for those involves two back to back four to five hour runs on the weekend. My first long training run, I was exhausted and thought about not doing the race even though I had already signed up and told my brother and sisters about it. Part of me said that it was impossible for a person of my build, size and middle age to run further than 26 miles. But then I took stock of my situation. Had anything snapped? No. Was anything broken? No. Was I bleeding externally or internally. No. Then quit your bitching, run another kilometer and keep keep repeating until your done. I also knew that if I didn’t finish the race my siblings would make fun of me my whole life. I couldn’t live with that kind of constant humiliation so I plowed through the training and the race. The experience of training for ultras has taught me to let my brain go off in another world so it doesn’t feel what my body is going through for races that are long.
Experience applies to both how far and how fast you can run. For swimrunning, I thought my fastest pace would be a 5:40 km. Now I expect nothing less than a 5:10 after being honest with my body. Next race I know I can get to a 5:00 km pace. This last pace is completely contingent on how much coaching my belly does during training.
And with that being said, the final disadvantage to age is metabolism. It is far easier to gain weight than to lose it once you’re past forty, especially for me. I have to admit, this is the one area I don’t sacrifice. Training is one thing but it doesn’t compare to a bucket of ice cream or fudge. Sometimes I dream about being buried in a bucket of fudge and having to eat my way out.
I grew up in a small town north of Toronto. I started running on country roads and fell in love with long distance running when I was twelve years old. I loved (and still do) getting up just before the sun and going for a run in the country. Running in Canada you get everything from 30+°C heat in the summer and minus 20°C cold in the winter. I started challenging myself when I was 13 and would just run for hours on the weekends not really knowing the distances or pace but just seeing if I could run to the next town and back and then set a new challenge. I first heard about an Ironman when I read an article about it in Sports Illustrated when I was about 13 years old. At the time, an Ironman was a disorganized, crazy endurance challenge and I set my sights on doing one. Finally did my first Ironman more than ten years later in Canada out in British Columbia after completing several marathons and several smaller triathlons. I finished. I still remembered how exhausting that first one was. Although I’m not fast, I love the endurance aspect of sports. This led me to the world of ulra-marathons where I’ve done a 50 mile, 100KM and 100 mile race. A few years ago, my wife told me about these swimrun races in Scandanavia. Easily the toughest endurance event I’ve done because you need to not only have endurance but you have to be quick. Then there’s the challenge of nature, the cold and trails. The best thing about it is being a team with my wife and sharing the highs and the lows that a demanding endurance sport brings. One moment you’re telling each other to fuck off and the next you’re kissing at the finish line.something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
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