About three months ago, around the time of my 51st birthday, I began to catch myself staring nostalgically at a mountain visible from my Colorado town. After doing some thinking and research on the likelihood of turning myself into part older athlete, part summit-topping billy goat, I arrived at a question: What do I need to do to get to the foot of that thing?
Yes, to the start line, if not the summit. When I was 16 (that’s me, below, on the left), my brother and I practically ran up 14,259-foot Longs Peak, the precipitous jewel of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. But that was then, and this is three and a half decades later. Age has since diminished my aerobic system and my joint health. Desk time has cut into my exercise time. I don’t feel as invincible as I once did.
So how might I—or any aging athlete hoping to recapture a sliver of youth—approach a lofty, summertime athletic goal like climbing Longs Peak? By embracing the notion of win, lose, or draw. At our age and level of fitness, merely embarking on a quest can be satisfying.
“There are a lot of ways to have success that don’t involve ever setting foot on a summit,” says Alicia Patterson, a former NCAA Division I tennis player who now integrates body movement and psychotherapy in her Boulder, Colorado, practice. “Redefine what the word can mean to you.”
Whether you’re considering a century (100-mile) bike ride, a 5k run, or anything in between, says Patterson, be proud of every step you take toward your attempt. Personally, Longs Peak is my Everest, and now when I look toward the mountain, I’m thrilled—ok, and still somewhat daunted—at the notion of attempting it again. I’ve meditated on the adventure during my daily yoga and weekend hikes, and I’ve arrived at a target date: August. I’ve also committed to more weekly workouts, more structure to my exercise, and to finally banishing the extra 10 from my waist.
Here are a few general mind-body prep guidelines that I’ll embrace—and that should serve any masters athlete on a mission—ahead of my big summer plans.
Work your lungs. Nothing, says Charles Hoeffer, a professor at the University of Colorado’s Integrative Physiology Department , sets someone up for success on Longs Peak—or any aerobic challenge—like strong heart-lung function.
“You want healthy lungs, and a heart pumping healthy blood,” he says. Running may come to mind first, and that is unquestionably great for boosting your cardio capacity. But walking, especially if you walk the longer distances needed to equate the energy expenditure of a run, has been shown to deliver great heart health, and equally diminish risk for hypertension, cholesterol, and diabetes.
Not just any kind of walking, Hoeffer told me: “Spend as much time as possible doing the very activity that you’ll do when attempting your goal,” he says. “You’ll build fitness, as well as the confidence that you’ll need on the mountain.”
When I’m too time-crunched to wander my local trails, Hoeffer says I can use stair-climbing machines in the gym—or stride up the seats of stadiums, or the steps of an office building. Cyclists without their bikes can benefit from hiking uphill. Swimmers can hop on rowing machines.
Hoeffer also recommends that I perform some interval work on the trail or club machinery in order to boost my fitness for the hike’s steeper pitches. I’ll try a few 30-second, higher-effort intervals punctuated by two minutes of relatively easy efforts. Over time, he says, I can attempt one- and perhaps two-minute intervals while being mindful to limit my rest. Time and time again, limited high-intensity work has proven to radically improve fitness in older athletes.
But don’t overdo it. Ah, but you’re still a masters athlete—you’re not what you used to be. As we age, key fitness metrics like aerobic capacity and lactate threshold (simply put: when you feel a burning sensation during hard exercise) diminish. Longtime endurance-sports coach Joe Friel, author of Fast After 50, consistently reminds athletes that loss of ability in an aging athlete is some mix of lifestyle and personal physiology.
For me, the culprits at least partially responsible for my reduced fitness are too much desk-jockeying (lifestyle), as well as lousy knees (physiology). OK, two surgeries on my right knee (and another on my left) haven’t helped, and aging joints often suffer as connective tissue dries and deteriorates. My knees ache from arthritis, and while Hoeffer explains that regular exercise can alleviate joint inflammation, too much exercise can have the opposite effect.
Hoeffer and Friel both say that restorative exercise is key, especially due to that increasingly fragile connective tissue. Manage the amount of exercise you perform, perhaps cross-training after several days of consecutive exercise to relieve some muscles and employ others, as well as taking rest days after those interval sessions. Overtraining, says Hoeffer, is a sure recipe for failure.
“Maybe trade your trail shoes for a bike once per week,” he says. “Older bodies need a Sabbath.”
Address fears of failure. Easily enough, I know that I could lose confidence or focus, and abort the whole mission. I already hear whispers between my ears: Longs Peak, Brad? Are you kidding me? You conquered that when “Eye of the Tiger” was a big hit.
Patterson told me to consistently work at keeping the demons at bay—whether they’re in my head or elsewhere.
“Do not give up your power,” she said, and when I asked her to expand, she told me to notice the tone of my internal dialogue, and to temper anything harsh. “Be gentle with yourself.”
Patterson also told me to be careful with whom I share my goal: Negativity is unwelcome. “Only tell people whom you suspect will be supportive,” she says. “Don’t tell those who will shit on your dream.”
Finally, if you’re temporarily sidelined with pain, illness, or an overburdened schedule, ease up. If you must, let go of your quest, at least until a better opportunity arises. Yes, I intend to summit this August. But Hoeffer reminded me that Longs Peak isn’t going anywhere.
“Don’t over-identify with the goal,” he says. “You’re doing this for fun. Right?”