I just turned 36. I get busted on a lot by my athlete pals for being old, but to be honest I don’t feel old. I say that, at the risk of coming off as athletically snooty, because I’m in the best shape of my life. But when you’re staring at the backside of your 30’s, these are the things you think about.
Jump backwards 15 years…I rowed and coxed for a college rowing team. For one specific competition I weighed 127 pounds because I deliberately starved and de-hydrated myself in order to carry as little weight as possible. When you’re a coxswain, you make those sacrifices. It was clearly unhealthy but the competitive experience made it worth it. I also rowed for a couple of years and my weight never went above 140. I ran my fastest 5K during those years, posting a 19:47, which I can’t come close to now. I was super skinny and I figured that was my fate.
10 years ago. In graduate school, I rowed more, coxed less, lifted weights some and tried a few other sports. My weight fluctuated between 140-145. I thought this was my ideal weight because I felt strong and healthy and didn’t look so skeletal. I stayed that way until well into my 30’s. I did a fair amount of running also, ran one marathon and maybe a dozen halfs. I was 26 and I assumed I was entering my athletic prime. I was fit.
5 years ago. I stopped running so much because it bothered my back and knees. My times were super slow, I struggled to break 22:30 for 5K. I lifted weights more because it felt good and I had to stretch a lot because I wasn’t so flexible. This was a tough period because I didn’t have much time or energy to train for things. I was fit compared to the average American, but nothing special, certainly not a competitor. At the time, at 31, I thought I was on the precipice of an athletic decline. If the exit wasn’t in the room, it sure was down the hall.
Two years ago I joined a CrossFit box as a way to change up my training routine. I had plateaued strength-wise in the gym and speed-wise as a rower and a runner. I had no idea how to move forward. I needed something different, a way to revitalize myself and inject some life into my sporty side. A friend got me into CrossFit and I wouldn’t be exaggerating when I say it changed my life and my outlook.
Around a a year ago I realized it was not cool to be a mid-30’s dude who weighed only 145 pounds at 5’8. No men my age I knew were that light. So I dug into the CrossFitting and decided to change my body type. I also wanted to see if I could be as fit and as strong as possible, stronger than any other time in my life. Why not? I felt great and there wasn’t anything anything holding me back.
In the last six months I’ve gained a ton of strength and increased my maxes across the board. Just last week I PR’ed on cleans at 175# and a few weeks before that I hit 315# on deadlift. (I want to get my clean above 200# and my deadlift up to 400# by the end of the year). I keep getting stronger and more “athletic,” if that makes sense, and I don’t see an end in sight. I weigh 155 and feel great.
I’ve always had above average aerobic ability and I don’t think I’ve lost a bit of that in my 30’s. I’m as aerobically efficient at 36 as I was at 26, and my heart rate max is the same as it was in 1999. Lately I’ve asked, when does the actual decline happen? Is the athletic prime a real thing? From where I’m standing, it looks like if you work hard you can be as fit at 36 as you are at 26.
A few other things I’ve noticed. If you play a lot of sports, injuries will revisit you later in life. I severely strained my IT band in 2000 and couldn’t run for 6 months. Today, that injury restricts mobility in one leg and I can feel it when I do squats. I can’t run as fast because I weigh more, but I can run fast enough for what I like to do. But, when I play basketball or ultimate frisbee, I have the same quickness on the field now as I did 10 years ago, which is really what I care about. I broke my wrist in 2001 and still have flexibility issues and minor pain on certain lifts (clean being one of them). These things add up . If I could talk to the younger me I’d tell him to not be so reckless about injury.
I haven’t noticed any difference in recovery time. I can still do two workouts per day several days per week and not feel any difference in recovery, provided that I’m taking care of myself properly with sleep, diet, and intelligent training.
There’s better information and better technology out there for athletes. There’s a whole world of supplements to help you gain muscle mass, workout longer, and recover faster. There are clothes and gear that’s supposed to make you more efficient and protect your body. Awesome nutritional info is readily available.
Getting old, I’ve noticed, is mostly a mental game. I’ve seen so many athletes my age and older, some much older, who are in amazing shape, the best of their lives. If you believe you’re in decline, then you will decline. If you believe your body isn’t capable of being athletic in your 30’s, 40’s, and beyond, then you will lose your body. Strength, speed, and agility is ageless. You’re only limited by your imagination.