The Superbus's Thoughtpad

Breaking Down Bad: The Subtle Changes of the Ageing Athlete

Posted by Chris Bowen on August 14, 2013

I’ve been involved in competitive athletics for my entire life. Be it hockey, baseball, basketball, soccer, boxing or even rugby, I’ve been athletic in some way, shape or form. I even spent my senior year as a male cheerleader1. This has been routine for me; I’m far from being a fitness warrior, but despite my weight – a shade under 260 these days, and fluctuating between 225 and 235 before getting injured recently – I have the ability to move quickly, gain speed, and have the endurance to referee multiple hockey games at a high level, one after another. Basically, at 260, I look like I’m 220, move like I’m 210, and would not look out of place on a small college’s defensive line.

However, I fear that those days are coming to an end. Not necessarily because I’m heavy – though that certainly doesn’t help my case – but just because of the creeping presence of Father Time. In athletic terms, I’m getting old, and the adjustment to that new reality is gradual enough to the point where I am constantly surprised at how the things that came easy for me in the past are coming harder now.

Since I hit adulthood, I have known my body pretty well. Not just the “stats” – how much can I lift, how far and fast can I run, what are my times in skating drills – but how my body reacts to and recovers from a serious workout. It’s hard to quantify into words, but it’s a give and take; I know generally how my body’s going to react to so much stimuli, depending on how much I’d been giving it prior. The less I’ve done for, say, a week, the more I’m going to feel it the next day after I give it a good rutting.

The only problem with that is that as I hit my mid-30s, the old rules don’t work anymore. I first noticed changes last hockey season. My feet were heavier, even if my overall weight wasn’t. My speed was down. I wasn’t getting from point A to point B as quickly. Sure, I *felt* like I was, but I felt like I had to sprint more to get to point B than I had in the past. As for agility issues such as getting out of a tight spot, forget it; there was a delay between my brain telling my body to move and my body finally getting around to it; the best athletic parallel would be to a baseball player’s bat speed slowing down, forcing him to anticipate pitches more. Needless to say, I got caught on my front foot, so to speak, more often than I was comfortable with last year. It became especially notable on a basketball court, where holes that I was used to hitting were closing a lot faster than I was used to. Are kids – I mostly play with and against teenagers or college students – getting faster, or is it me? I’ve always been big, but last year was the first one where I noticed it.

Furthermore, recovery was a problem. After a long weekend of games, I would go home baked, and would be almost useless the next day as well. I’m used to being tired, but not drop-dead exhausted. My energy reserves weren’t what they were. The obvious answer to many people is simply to drop weight, but even that takes more work than it did even a few years ago. With almost no changes to my diet except dropping soda, I was able to drop 30 pounds years ago by simply adding some cardio to my workout. Now, I can do all the cardio I want, and I might drop 5 pounds in a month, tops. Serious changes will have to happen to my diet – my entire lifestyle – in order to facilitate what are ultimately diminishing results.

Then, I hurt my ankle. First, I sprained the right one; then, I did something to the left one while favouring the right. The resulting pain from both cost me a week’s worth of work and essentially a month off of most physical activity. Immediately, I gained almost 20 pounds, just to start. Then, the rehabilitation started, and it was brutal. I don’t stretch as well as I used to, for one, and when I started getting more into cardio-based workouts, I wasn’t getting stronger, as quickly, as before, and my ability to move, while easy to come back from before, was now seriously hampered.

If all of these symptoms hit me at once, I think I’d have an easier time adjusting, but this has come on gradually. I’ve always said in the past “I’m not as ______ as I used to be” – fast, strong, agile – but it isn’t until recently when I looked around and noticed that this was a trend and not a blip. Of course, it’s natural for this to happen; in some sports, I would be well washed up even as a professional by now. Tennis players are usually done or getting there by the time they hit 33 – Roger Federer, probably the greatest tennis player I’ve ever seen2, is on the downswing of his career at 32 – and most soccer players are winding down at this age as well. Football players that aren’t kickers or quarterbacks are almost surely finished at this age. Basketball players start to trend downward by the time they hit 30; at 33, they’re usually well into their downswing. None of this softens the blow, mind you; you never know Father Time is near you until he taps you on the shoulder and says hello.

If one could apply the five stages of grief to my realization of my athletic mortality, I would just be getting past depression and into acceptance. During the season, I denied that I was slowing down; I just need to sleep more, do this, eat that, etc. Then I got angry (“why am I having struggles keeping up!?”), and bargained my way around it (“maybe if I try this instead, or take that pill in the morning…”). The depression’s the worst; the fear that the peak of a very real, and very severe, part of life has passed and it’s all downhill from here. The fear that though we’re slowing down now, that’s going to continue, against everything we do to slow down that process, until we become too old to reasonably perform at whatever it is we’re doing. Imagine doing something for your entire life, and then losing that thing, years before you even hit what people would consider “old age”; that’s what we go through as we hit the latter half of our life, and the mere thought of it is daunting, let alone actually experiencing it.

In the meantime, all I can do is keep working. Keep trying to eat better. Keep trying to beat times from my younger days that will become farther and farther from my reach as if they were being washed out on low tide. As my body continues to show the effects of wear, tear and youthful mistakes, I’ll need to not only learn, but accept that the journey will have to become more of a joy than the destination ever was.

1 – Don’t laugh. I had more fun doing cheerleading than I’ve had in any other “real” sport.

2 – Sorry, Sampras.