athlete for life

How To Be An Athlete For The Rest Of Your Life

By Mara Abbott,
Olympian and CTS Contributing Editor

“Most of what I do, I don’t consider to be a ‘workout’, but more like the fun of the day,” my dad told me last week as we discussed his post-retirement athletic adventures.

As an incurably goal-oriented competitor, and also his daughter, this carefree quip was both incredibly inspiring and unspeakably irritating.

I’ve often wondered what my dad might have accomplished if he had dedicated himself to competition, but that never captured his attention — he’s the sort of guy that actually uses a Garmin to find his way in the wilderness.

He’d been a longtime trail runner (“It was pretty awesome once there were better shoe options than hiking boots!”) and a devoted handball player, but about the time that he turned 50, my dad took on a few new adventures. He selects his daily fun from a vast array of potential challenges, and I believe the diversity has played a big part in allowing him to age into a 70-year-old that teaches my older brother’s friends how to backcountry ski.

abbott skiing

Taking on new challenges

For entertainment while I was at summer-league swim practice, Dad decided to “train” for his first-ever triathlon. His key workout involved sprinting across town on his commuter bike to a different pool and then getting back before I had finished my post-swim shower. He was also, incidentally, the first one to teach me about the importance of recovery fueling. Each session ended with us riding together to a nearby bakery for cinnamon rolls.

His only complaint about triathlon was related to the aquatic stampede that occurred when the race organizers chose to start the 20-29 age-group women directly after the 50+ age-group men. The fact he chose to attempt the Olympic-distance course on an ancient mountain bike with flat pedals and sneakers actually featured as an advantage in his recounting, as he gleefully noted that some of his double-chain-ring, road-biking competitors had to get off and walk to the crest of a steep hill.

He picked up snow climbing through a mountaineering course with my then high-school-aged brother. For the uninitiated, snow climbing involves first scaling a glacier, then sitting down and intentionally sliding down it on your bum. Just the tip of your ice axe acts as both rudder and brakes, and the run-out inevitably involves a big pile of sharp rocks. I understand the hazard intimately: After my brother, he tried to draft me as a climbing buddy. Alas, it appears that my generation of Abbotts is better endowed with survival instincts, and we both found the sport so terrifying we never made it past our maiden voyages. Also, I had swim practice.

Dad currently does everything from local hiking to mountain climbing, and he remains devoted to handball, cycling, swimming, and yoga. He has dabbled in snorkeling and surfing, and recently organized an extended canoe trip for his friends to Yellowstone after narrowly surviving a flash flood on the Green River. He may have to stretch a bit more before he gets out the door these days, but he rarely fails to do it.

The importance of variety

The New York Times running columnist, Jen Miller, wrote this week about how to manage a lack of motivation for your workouts. The entire piece is worth a read, but one tip is particularly applicable here: Do something different.

“If you run the same route over and over again, run a different route — or run that route in the opposite direction,” writes Miller. “Run in the morning? Try running at night (properly lit up, please). I give props to anyone able to run on a treadmill for more than 20 minutes because treadmills make me want to drill holes into my eyeballs. If you’re bored there, hit buttons: Increase the incline, or add in a few doses of running at higher speeds.”

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Miller’s advice is targeted to the struggles of adhering to your daily training plan, but it also has benefits as a long-term strategy. Dad’s sports-fun arsenal has evolved over time. Some changes have come from necessity: He began cycling because he had chronic Achilles tendonitis and could no longer run. Nonetheless, accepting that shift means that he now kits up for multi-day tours like Ride The Rockies or RAGBRAI every year, the sort of experiences single-sport runners don’t get to have.

He’s also kept things fresh by targeting new skills in sports he already enjoyed. Formerly happy to just tromp through the wilderness on his skis, about a decade ago my dad devoted himself to mastering the art of the telemark turn — and from this perennial neophyte’s perspective, it has been a success.

Explore new ways of measuring progress

For myself, I have to confess I’m a bit of a tough case in the “new challenges” department. As a professional racer, I preferred to ride the same canyon four times in a row during one training ride because it was my favorite and I always knew what to expect. Yet as I have worked to assimilate to life after cycling, I’ve discovered that new challenges can actually be fun. I’ve spent the last year attempting to run, working to enjoy casual hiking, attempting an open water swim, and learning how to weightlift. I’ve discovered how satisfying the emotional kickback can be from simply mastering a tricky agility drill. It’s been invigorating to try new things rather than simply continue riding my old training loops at a no-so-fast-as-before pace.

We all inevitably slow down or burn out if we continue to compare performances over years or decades, and that’s why actively seeking out fresh challenges can be so critical to sustaining lifelong motivation for training — or, as my dad calls it, “having fun.”

Small changes can be effective

Introducing variety into your activity choices doesn’t have to be complex. With a bit more free time post-retirement, my parents have started taking trips to Utah for hiking and camping rather than hitting their old haunts over and over. If you’ve long been devoted to the roads, you could try mountain biking or trail running. If you always pick the long-distance category, you could experiment with training for a sprint event.

The thrill and satisfaction we get from training and competing ultimately derives from simply setting goals and working toward them. A specific field of play is just the setting for our n-of-1-physiological-experiments. If you are feeling burnt out or discouraged — or if you’d rather avoid feeling that way — a new challenge may be just the spark you need.

“Newness is an attraction,” my dad told me. “Do you want to hike to Isabelle Lake [a local favorite] for the thousandth time, or go some place where you don’t know what’s around the corner? You can’t collect too many new experiences in life.”

And — you’re never too old to learn from your dad.

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Comments 18

  1. I am a 76 year old man. I took up snowboarding 3 years ago. I referee ice hockey (low level), cycle – about 2,000 miles a year (done 16 centuries), swim 3 days a week, and yoga everyday. I also have cancer. It is up to you. I try to make everyday my best last day.

  2. That was well written. I know your dad is a natural athlete, good for him and for you too. I have to show up at unity and say hello. I get that about the ice axe! Not for me either.

  3. I think what is most important is feeling motivated in whatever you’re doing,
    For me it means have different goals in cycling whether it be an event or even working on getting stronger in certain types of interval work. I also do yoga, Pilates and weight training …
    I realize other people are motivated by the variety your Dad enjoys.
    It depends on personality and what keeps you looking forward to staying active!

  4. and yet, most of my fellow cyclists, runners and hikers seem content to do the same thing over and over and over and over (you get it) again.

    i just don’t get it.

  5. At 73, I go pretty well, but have left “competition” and feel pretty happy about that.

    I ride my MTB hard, I paddle my outrigger canoe, go to spin class, circuit the weight room, and do some stair repeats out on shore bluffs.

    I’m very fit, but not as competitive as some of my fellow geezers in any of those activities. I pretty much stay uninjured and find myself quite content to race against myself; somedays a win and often an also-ran.

    Maybe I’ve thrown in the towel, but life is more joyful. May your sport bring you happiness. May your athletic pursuits keep you well.

  6. I am 58 and struggling with the concept of giving up chronic endurance training. Ive logged over 5-600 hours per year in the saddle for over 20 years and my recent readings (way too many to list) have me convinced that putting this much stress on my engine for the rest of my life is just not good. I am already missing the long hours in the saddle and training for events, but am exploring more weights, yoga, snowshoing etc. Im still riding and will likely get back in to go over into training again on the bike. I’m wondering how many other people my age are worrying about chronic endurance after decades of doing it.

    1. As I’m sure others that receive this newsletter can attest, you are on to something. I’m your age, and ride much less than you – about 300 hours per year. But unfortunately I recently was diagnosed with Afib and subsequently learned that Afib is anywhere from 5 to 10X more likely in men 50+ years old that are endurance athletes. I’m not a doctor but my understanding is the combination of endurance and intensity can create a very good “environment” in the heart to allow Afib to develop. Perhaps this is what your recent reading uncovered? The good news is that for me so far developing Afib has not meant the end of my career as a serious exerciser, but it is forcing me to cut back the intensity a bit.

      You are smarter than me since you are thinking all of this proactively!

      1. Thanks, I did not know about afib but reports show damage to the right ventricle in older endurance athletes. 2 books that were great: Primal Endurance by Bob Sisson and Get Serious by Brett Osborne. Both make similar claims and the ones in Primal are referenced. Both say workout 5-6 days a week, lift something heavy weekly, mix in cardio and strength, sprint occassionally and eliminate chronic cardio! But seriously, there has to be a happy medium between aged endurance athletes and optimal health. I look at endurance athletes out here in their 50s and 60s and they look gaunt, unhealthy, and always exhausted. But those 70 or older look vibrant and healthy compared to their sedentary colleagues. Still love those long epic rides, just saving them for the weekends now….. Be optimally healthy. Steve

  7. 70 years old and retired. Daily exercise with the average week being 2-3 days of road biking with a group, 1-2 days of weights at the gym and 2 days of power based intervals (mostly anaerobic capacity and lactate threshold) on my indoor trainer. Minimum of one day off a week.

    I preferred your previous article on “The Best Habits for Athletes over 40”. That one I have bookmarked. Still trying to figure out how to include some other sport (? Pickle ball) into my weekly.

  8. Your dad is what I want to be when I grow up (I’ll be 58 soon)! I look forward to my workouts. I don’t “have” to workout, I “get” to workout. I’m looking at other activities/events to add to my routine so nothing seems stale. Got to keep moving!

  9. I am a 64 year old daily excersizer who is a bit obsessive. I ran competitive 10Ks from 12-52 years until injury stopped me and then road bikes for a few years until my 14 year old son said he wanted to mountain bike and new obsession was born. I love it! A new trail and new adventure every day and not a car in sight! Perfect. Your Dad is older than me and a tremendous inspiration. I will not retire for about 6 more years but do look forward to more activity and variety when I do just like him. Good luck to him and stay injury free! That is the key.

  10. Hi Mara,

    Great article. Your Dad sounds amazing and is actually just what I hope my daughter will say about me when she grows up. I’m actually a bit of a habitual exerciser, with a hefty dose of trying to do better each time, so from that respect, the challenge remains semi-fresh. I long not to be so time-crunched that my options are limited, unlike your Dad. Inspirational…

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