Age and the Holistic Athlete
Movement is good, but sometimes ‘training’ isn’t. The brain invented training. The brain conceived the workout. The brain created this thing called exercise, and all the various categories it goes by (and all the various cliches it thrives on). The body has no idea what these things are. It just wants to move. This is where the body knows better than the brain. Are we listening?
I’m officially in my mid-forties (44-46, if you’re keeping track), I’ve graduated from my early forties (41-43), and am steamrolling towards my late 40’s (47-49). August, as my birthday month, has traditionally also been my competition season, as in the last 15 or so years I’ve decided to take gravity to the mat and enter some weightlifting, powerlifting, or strongman meets to celebrate the new signifier in our human dance of chronology (Redwood Empire Open this weekend!). And every year I strive for another kilo or two on the bar, and so far, I’ve been successful.
Now this flies in the face of our accepted idea of aging, which seems to promote a ‘slow down and die already’ concept of accruing more years in the calendar bank. It begins with our culture’s craving for peaking in our 20s, having all of our possible athletic prowess out of the way by the time we pass the quarter century mark. Our sports-centric, win-at-all-costs ‘play’ system desires our warriors to be their best before they’ve even experienced much of what the world offers. Too many stories have crossed my ears that began with “in college I…”
Then the downhill ride begins… and is supposed to continue in momentum for the next 40-80 years. At this point I should have at least 19 years of declining shimmer. Decay and rust should already have quite a hold on my joints, and atrophy is the only acceptable outcome for these ancient muscles.
These are the rules, so I am told regularly with a vehemence that is almost holy. But there is one thing we tend to forget a bit too easily…
There are so many possibilities at movement that we can spend our entire lives learning something new every single day, therefore never ‘peaking.’ Feel free to pick something to groove on for a while, but remember that there are so many options that our curiosity could be constantly tickled. We never need to Peak as a human unit. We never need to stare at upcoming chunk of years as a perpetual rot of the system. In fact, that’s kind of sick. We’re the only mammal that limits itself like that. My 12 year old cat is well past middle age, yet no one told him he’s supposed to retire from being a moving, exploring creature. Aging is a mind game far before it is physical, and all other animals seem to know this except us. Infinite wisdom be damned.
Adding a kilo here and there allows me to keep my chops sharp (an almost archaic turn of phrase these days). But strength athletics is simply part of the foundation of my movement skills. If ya know a thing or two about my programming, these skills are simply catalysts for other skill training, allowing me to have some power and umph to put towards, well, anything I want. Remember… unlimited possibilities.
Did you know I suck at swimming? I mentioned my semi-fatal samba with H2O in an older post, and since then, water and I have had a passionate, but strained, relationship (a common theme in my life). Water and I are far from strangers, as I’ve been participating in it’s pleasures forever, from snorkeling to cliff diving. But these can all be deceptions, faked competency in the water. They require little swimming ability. Really. So my comfort level in the drink is limited to things that require either unlimited floating (snorkeling) or a quick in-and-out (diving). Covering distance with any speed has led to some interesting scenarios, usually soul-crushing panic attacks only witnessed by very few unlucky folks. Just a few years ago I barely made it out to an island in the river and back without finding, and then changing, religions several times, and in the words of Justin Sullivan, praying to any god that would come.
Recently I’ve been to the island several times. Even through the winter I continued to swim regularly, mostly using the flaying breast stroke technique. I look like a drunk, legless moose trying to paddle with wings, but where I am not yet perfecting technique, I am overcoming fear. I am calm in the water. Still not great for distance, but better. That was one of my biggest movement gift to myself in the past years. And I’m far from peaking, and even farther from declining.
Here’s a lesson. It takes less work, if directed properly, to continue steady progress than ya might think. If tomorrow means better than today, striving for huge leaps and bounds sets you up for a mountain that will be too tall to climb eventually. Sure, I preach Better trumps More, and it gets trumpeted all over social media when I mention it, but it surprises me at how few apply the idea.
Training is the organization of movement into a system for progress. This is where brain and body can learn from each other to create the best path. Brain listens to body’s wants and needs and then uses it’s calculating intelligence to create a path of physical education. Learning through moving and learning while moving and moving to learn. This is also why a ‘program’ of randomization makes little sense in a grand scheme of things.
Physical education. It’s not your high school PE class.
But this is also why training and movement are not synonymous. At 46 years old, I can impress party goers with a few movement tricks, and can compete on a semi-competent level in various forms of strength athletics. I get better at these things every year, adding more tricks to my palette and more pounds on the bar. I can play harder now than I could 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Not because I’m a super amazing athlete. Far from it. In fact, it was being a skinny-ass book worm musician in my early 20s, sort of an anti-athlete, that helped me avoid planned obsolescence of my physical abilities. I didn’t peak young and am making a conscious effort to never do so.
Don’t read this as ‘do not progress.’ I think we’ve made a case for progression and peaking being two different things.
We’re a smart bunch. Why do we either peak young, or have to re-introduce movement back into our lives after avoiding it for many years since we were children? How about a middle ground, where we continue to embrace child-like play, that curious, exploratory passion for movement, into the years where we’re told to chose between two movement options: either play sports (oh, and win, win, win), or quit being childish and therefore stop moving entirely.
Go ahead, talk among yourselves. What would a good middle ground be? How do we promote movement as a lifetime of progress, creativity and education?
Let’s overturn the current construct of movement-as-exercise. The embodied athlete knows that the journey trumps the outcome, that the big picture means learning from the small pictures. If we’re listening to the body, then ya don’t have to win the workout.
Move more than train, play more that exercise. ‘Let the body’ far more than ‘make the body.’ In my roughly 13 years of competitive weightlifting (16 years powerlifting), I’ve upped my total the sum of what the specialized youngins will get in a year. But I’ve racked up a handful of other groovy skills that enable me to enjoy movement beyond the gym. That total means little without the transfer to real life. I don’t live for the gym, I live beyond it. Training is purposeful intense movement to allow an even greater world of purposeful movement, even if the purpose is simply just to fucking MOVE!
Strength athletics are simply a small part of my potential. Not my net worth. Competition is a bench mark of my journey, not the end result.
My child self is made better as an adult through training. With a tad of grown-up wisdom (do better, not more), it isn’t a challenge to progress every year while engaging longevity, sans the danger of pushing extremes I don’t have to. Don’t get me wrong, I play on the edge during training, just not with reckless abandon or unnecessary volume.
And think of this. If, at 46, I can add pounds to my bar or skills to my body with far less volume than a kid in their 20’s… why are they working so much? They’re often doing 2 or 3 times the workload without 2 or 3 times the progress. Every workshop I teach is full of folks my junior who could out workout me. But I could out play them. My skill chunks are always increasing, while their volume is simply making them workout masters. Funny enough, with my limited time in the gym, I can still usually hold my own with their workouts as well.
But being an athlete isn’t defined by time in the gym. If you can do less in the gym for more in life, shouldn’t you? Trust me… you can.