The Lifelong Athlete: Performing Your Best From Your 20s Through Your 80s

 

Just as in golf, when it comes to fitness and health you have to think about your short game and your long game. Getting out to exercise today or losing 10 pounds in the next three months is your short game; adding years to your life and – just as important – life to your years is your long game. I’m 56 years old and recently received an email from an athlete 20 years my senior, congratulating me for finishing a hard event. His email drove home the point I could be athlete for 25 more years – if I play the game right.

Priorities and challenges change as we reach adulthood and mature through our lifespan. I’m a very different man than I was in my 20s or 30s, but in addition to proper training and nutrition, my ability to perform into my 50s – and hopefully for decades to come – is due to the positive habits I developed over several decades.

To add energy and vitality to all the decades of your life, follow these simple guidelines:

Twenties: Make exercise a habit.

These are foundational years where you establish habits that will stick with you through adulthood. It’s also when you begin your career and perhaps a family. The demands on your time are great, and if you can incorporate exercise as a consistent component of your lifestyle now, it will influence the way you prioritize your time and the community you surround yourself with.

Quick Tip: Higher-intensity workouts burn more calories per hour, and more importantly, they lead to greater cardiovascular and muscular adaptations.

Thirties: Eat more plants.

Your 30s are crucial for setting your trajectory toward long-term health or decades of struggling with chronic ailments. You don’t need to become a vegetarian or vegan, but a dietary shift to more vegetable and less animal is a good move in your 30s. In general this leads to a diet that’s richer in fiber, vitamins and antioxidants, and heart-healthy fats; all of which are helpful in reducing your long-term risk for developing a wide range of chronic diseases. This dietary shift can also be effective for minimizing weight gain in this crucial decade.

Quick Tip: Aim to consume at least 5 different, preferably colorful, fruits and/or vegetables each day.

Forties: Fix your head.

By your fourth decade you’ve had time to make a lot of good and bad decisions, experience a tremendous amount of joy and loss, and accumulate a ton of responsibility and stress. Anger and stress are harmful at any age, but they’re especially toxic now because you also have 40-plus years of wear and tear on your body. Find an effective outlet for the stress, resolve issues from your past, and learn to move forward with a positive outlook; otherwise you’re just laying the groundwork for a rapid – if not instantaneous – decline.

Quick Tip: Treat small, nagging injuries quickly. In your 40s, a quick trip to a physical therapist or orthopedist for seemingly insignificant joint and tendon injuries could mean the difference between full recovery and the onset of a chronic injury that will eventually hinder or end your athletic lifestyle.

Fifties: Go Big.

I may be biased because I’m in my 50s, but I think this can be an endurance athlete’s sweet spot. You’re likely more accomplished in your career, home life is probably more comfortable, kids are a bit older. This is the time to check some big events off your bucket list. Ironman is on your list? Now’s the time. An ultrarunning race? Do it. Cape Epic mountain bike stage race in South Africa? Don’t wait. You may have three decades ahead of you to continue training and racing, but the likelihood of performance declines and injuries getting in your way will start increasing.

Sixties: Optimize recovery.

The exercise, eating, and lifestyle habits you’ve developed have enabled you to achieve a certain level of performance, and from now on maintaining those habits will depend on how well you recuperate from the demands of your daily workload. Focus on getting at least 8 hours of sleep each night, staying well-hydrated, eating nutrient-rich foods and avoiding excess junk food. And when it comes to exercise, learn to listen to your body; if you need more rest time between strenuous workouts, take the extra rest time so you preserve the quality of each workout.

Quick Tip: Metabolism and maximum aerobic capacity do decline with age, but staying active with a combination of aerobic and strength training can help minimizes these declines.

Seventy and beyond.

Just don’t stop. Frederic Schmid keeps on winning cycling National Championships in the 80+ category, and he is a constant source of inspiration for me and the coaches at CTS. Every time he’s interviewed someone asks him his secret to racing into his 80s. He always answers, “Just don’t stop.” It’s hard to argue with him. The less you do the less you’ll be able to do, so just continue to do all the exercise you’re able to do. Kirk Nordgren, who coaches Fred, notes that our favorite octogenarian still does hard intervals, he just does fewer intervals per workout and fewer interval sessions per month. Old doesn’t automatically mean fragile or frail. Just ask Fred; he crashed during Cyclocross National Championships a few years ago and cracked his collarbone. He still won.

It’s never too late to make positive changes in your life. Even if you led an unhealthy lifestyle in the past, the steps you take now will enhance the quality – and the quite possibly the quantity – of the years in your future.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

Comments 9

  1. Pingback: Sometimes You Have to Reach Rock Bottom | Atlas Shrugs and Runs

  2. I’m 72 this June & totally agree with the “don’t stop” advice. Because of a health condition as a child I did not play any sports until I was 15 & since then have never stopped. Ran an average of 90 km/week for about 27 years (47 marathons); and since 2002 have cycled on average around 12,000km/annum. I completed a 320km event for my 70th and regularly train with people 20-30 years my junior. Fred Schmid is totally correct – don’t stop: yes, one has to cut back a little; but keep going. May not necessarily add years to my life, but certainly adds life to my years.

  3. Pingback: Ultramarathon Daily News, Tue, April 11 - Ultrarunnerpodcast

  4. These are good. It’s a good measure of where I have been and where I want to go. I am a 45 year old female, ultra runner. I am loving this age and cannot wait to turn 50. I’m curious what you would include about the effects of childbearing on the female body and hormones shifts for women as we age?

    1. I believe ageing for women after 50 is a little different than for men: huge hormonal swings and ultimate permanent decline, consequent changing nutritional requirements and of course widespread cardiac rhythm issues that increase with ageing ( both men and women ) make training and performance not as predictable as in the younger decades where our uncontrollable physiologic characteristics are relatively stable. Do you have any resources on the topic of ageing women athletes specifically?

  5. What specifically do you mean by “just laying the groundwork for a rapid – if not instantaneous – decline” if you do not resolve “stuff” in your 40s? Any examples? Thanks.

    1. I am a 54 year old athlete who also has MS. What that phrase means to me is that I need to have great phschological patterns setup to persevere and to be resolved to my past mistakes in life now that I have a foundation. That includes reaching out to my 30 plus years of marriage wife and kids to see how I am doing as a father and parent. They are my biggest fans and support and I need them moving forward. For me, I learned a lot of good and bad habits that are engrained in 40+ years. It is those bad habits that I want to attack and resolve as I mature, I hope that helps…

      1. Hi I appreciate your comments. Your having MS peeked my interest.
        You see my partner has MS.
        I am a very active 54 year old, completing ironman triathlons and marathons etc, I love Chris’s regular posts, but this is not about me.

        My partner-female- used to be my training partner, our mutual love of cycling was the glue in our relationship. MS as now destroyed her balance so she can’t ride. She has now embarked on a personal crusade to OVERCOME MS. She has had to find many innovative ways to get fulfilling heart rate raising exercise routines. I am amazed at her tenacity.
        We have acquired a recumbent bike for her, she does stretches and core exercises everyday, and just recently she enrolled in a boxercise class with a really understanding personal trainer. Her balance issues initially preclude swimming but lately with the help of goggles and mask she can swim again, all be it not for long, but it is a start. We even heated our pool in our house so she can swim when the symptoms permit.
        I admire you for not giving up and exercising, it must be hard. Don’t let MS beat you, I know I must be talking to the converted though.
        Strong support from love ones as you said is a big help. I find it hard sometimes to be supportive as it is a constant horrible disease, but it helps to know there are others who face the same challenges and keep on trying.
        Any tips or advice would be appreciated.
        Anyway take care,
        Rob.

  6. Great article I will turn 68 in May. I am a cts-coached cyclist and I’m thankful each day for my ability to train and ride/race.
    Thanks for all your wisdom Chris

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *