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.
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.”
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.