This one is for Sandy: “I want to do Aikido until I die.”
Your activity of choice could be tennis, kendo, running races, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Tae Kwon Do, or trail running. Rock climbing, surfing, or mountain biking. So not just for Sandy, but still:
Unless you’re, you know, totally fine with the possibility that you may never restart.
There are logistic and physiologic reasons why, and both are significant. Either way, stopping, pausing, or putting your activity aside “just for a few days” is problematic any time after your 2nd decade on Earth.
If you’re reading this, you are likely, pick your phrase, mature, complicated, silver foxy – or wise enough to aspire to be. I’m with you and my point is this: life gets more complicated with the passage of time, not less.
As a grown up, there are more financial factors to juggle, more family members to look out for, and more world issues to eyeball, than when you’re 20.
Physical activity, for a variety of reasons that I outlined in this post and this one, becomes more important as you age, not less — but the bandwidth to fit it into your life gets narrower. You can (and must) make time for critical health-maintaining activities that can be performed solo, like walking, bodyweight calisthenics, and mobility.
But fun fitness stuff is more complicated. Particularly when it involves others.
If you’ve coordinated your a) personal schedule with b) a class schedule, to get together with c) a cadre of training mates you mesh well with, stopping all that with the assumption that you can restart it later? Not exactly guaranteed.
Translation: life moves on, generally to greater levels of complexity, and you naturally incorporate that if you persist in your activities. Take a break, however, and the degree of catching-up may be stunningly off-putting.
For fun, fitness-focused activities, there’s an external standard you need to match in order to participate. (As opposed to health-focused activities, where you’re working to improve yourself incrementally with your own state as the yardstick.)
And chances are, you really dig the fitness stuff: it’s social, fun, satisfying, and a welcome distraction from the stresses of modern life. Healthy activities, on the other hand, are often done because you’re supposed to, like taking medicine.
Regardless, when something goes sproing! and you’re sidelined with an injury, it’s usually when you’re being sporty: the activity takes you to the limit of your performance.
The main risk as we age occurs with unexpected and sudden, high force moves.
Usually these are initiated by our own bodies in an uncontrolled reflex. Something surprises you, you jerk reflexively, the forces exceed the tensile strength of a muscle, tendon, or ligament, and it tears. A classic example is tearing a calf muscle while suddenly lunging for a ball playing tennis.
It can also happen from returning to high intensity activities faster than the body has successfully adapted. Thinking you are ready to run at a certain level at two weeks, when your body needed four months, resulting chronic knee, shin, or foot pains.
You can prep for this by getting comfortable with the activity: the more familiar your brain and reflex arcs get, the less fearful jerking there is, and the fewer overcorrections are necessary. There’s a reason that advanced practitioners move in a relaxed, easy-going way.
Regular participation also preps your bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments: your structures are stimulated to develop and then maintain a certain level of strength and resilience through the demands of the activity itself. Nerves “learn” within days and muscles within weeks, but ligaments, tendons, and bones need weeks or months to strengthen and adapt, making consistent participation a must.
You can also prehab by doing bridging work: outside exercises challenging to your current state but graded to build over time to the demands of the target activity. At higher levels, prehab can build higher levels of performance, “overpreparing” to strengthen the body beyond routine demands, to make participation easier or to protect against unexpected accidents.
1. Assess where you’re at, and where your target activity needs you to be
2. Prehab if appropriate, and slowly over months build to that level
3. Once there, participate regularly to refine and maintain your tissues and reflexes
4. Consider over preparing to build a rainy-day reserve
The times I injured myself, I violated one or more of these principles.
When a coach is worth their weight in gold
Pretty much from the get-go.
Had I to do it all over again, I would have started from the beginning with a private coach.
A private coach is different from an instructor. An instructor can be a sensei or a senior student leading the class, but their focus isn’t, can’t be on you alone; they have to watch all the students in the class, the outing, or the activity. A coach is focused entirely on you, especially on your weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and can design a program for you to fix them, in the time frame that they need (months), rather than what the class may need (minutes to days).
With that full, personal attention, a coach can be objective and point out the blind spots you would miss training yourself. And having a vulnerability that you didn’t even know you had? That’s like thinking you can box without knowing about this thing called the jab — a setup for a nasty surprise.
On Day 1 of restarting an activity, you’ll have exactly zero data on how you’re performing to guide your first steps, and you won’t have much more after Days 2 and 3. Restarts are risky times for overestimating your level of proficiency (“I used to do this, I know what I’m doing”) and underestimating the demands of your target activity (“It’s not that intense, I’ll just take it slow”). Let that fantasy get too fantastical, and your first day back may end in a trip to the doctor, ask me how I know.
Coaching isn’t cheap, but if you’re here, you’ve been around the sun a few orbits and know the value of time. I don’t think education is costly, because I’ve tried ignorance and the setbacks that resulted cost me way more than the private fees: about 6 months per injury of being offline, which translated into me finally resuming the mat based martial arts the way I should have…THREE YEARS LATER.
Catching up is chancy, in the real world.
My opinion: if you’re starting or resuming an activity with high-intensity, uncontrolled demands and are past 40, definitely if you’re past 50, you need a coach to give you personalized time, attention, and programming.
You’re not (we’re not) Gumby anymore, and mismatching yourself to your activity of choice is much, much costlier when you’re dancing at the speed of light.
Action items to be like Sandy
1. Don’t stop if at all possible; the train of Life is pulling away from you and accelerating
2. Assess, prep over months, keep participating, and consider overpreparing
3. Get a private coach