You can still see it like it happened yesterday: You’re sprinting across the finish line ahead of the field. You’re eluding ferocious tackles to score the winning touchdown. You’re swishing an impossible three-pointer at the buzzer.
Ah, yes, there’s some real pleasure in replaying these moments: the glorious, defining moments of a proud athletic career. Except that none of this happened yesterday, or even last year. Those moments occurred five, 10, 20, even 40 years ago — back when you were in high school or college.
Back then, you had determination and drive. You practiced hard, got to the gym early and stayed late. You trained until you were beyond sore, fueled by fierce competition or the love of your game. You slept well and ate right because you knew it would improve your performance. You had a clear vision of what you intended to achieve.
Today, your fitness focus might be a good deal blurrier. Maybe watching ESPN is your most vigorous activity. Or perhaps you still work out regularly, but find that your heart is no longer in it. Perhaps, because of an injury or the passing of the years, your body’s been sidelined from your favorite athletic activities — or it balks at the idea of moving as fast as it used to.
But in your chest, there still beats the heart of an athlete, right? You’re a person who once loved activity and challenge — a person who once lived for an athletic goal.
Sure, those good old days may be a few years back, or they may be ancient history. But look at it this way: No matter how long ago you were in the best shape of your life, you’ve still got plenty of good, strong years ahead. At least, those years can be yours if you choose.
Part of making that choice may involve setting new goals and rekindling a new, healthier relationship with your body, one that suits your current priorities, physical condition and way of life. It may involve letting go of what was, saying goodbye to a former sport of choice, or stripping off an old, outgrown athletic identity that’s begun to feel like a too-tight varsity jacket.
No, you don’t have to jettison your golden athletic memories. But you may need to loosen your grip on them — and their grip on you.
Idealizing your former athletic identity is a way of avoiding the reality of your present life, explains Marianne Williamson, best-selling author of 10 books, including The Age of Miracles: Embracing the New Midlife (Hay House, 2008). “It’s important to start defining ourselves by who we are right now,” she says, “instead of who we aren’t anymore.” (For more insights from Williamson, see Coverage.)
Shaping Up a New Identity
Back in college, Adam Tinkham lived to play soccer, and he was good at it. In fact, he even went pro for a time before he retired because of injuries. For years afterward, he drifted from job to job without finding his niche. He’d train for soccer tryouts from time to time, but his fitness routine felt monotonous. Tinkham’s college team had been like a surrogate family, and without this social network, he had trouble meeting people. He also missed the admiration generally accorded star athletes.
Eventually, Tinkham discovered yoga and meditation, which helped him relax and exercise more mindfully. These days, he also cycles for transportation and to stay in shape. And, he’s finally found work he loves: coaching soccer at Chicago’s DePaul University. “I see my former self in the athletes I coach, but I wouldn’t go back,” says Tinkham, now 38. “It was hard giving up my primary identification as an athlete, but I’m more balanced now — and it feels good.”
Tinkham articulates a realization that many of us would do well to take to heart, notes Williamson: Once we let go of preconceived notions of how things “should be,” we become free to embrace a radically new kind of life — one that’s often more satisfying than we could have imagined.
“It’s sad saying goodbye to youth,” she admits, “but after we’ve moved through that grief — not denied, suppressed or minimized it — we can joyfully embrace where we are now.”
Perceptions and Priorities
Age eventually becomes an issue for everyone, but it hits many body-oriented athletic types particularly hard. A person who was identified heavily with his or her physical presence and abilities may experience frustration, grief and even shame over the perceived loss or downgrade of those attributes.
Navigating physical changes can be challenging, Williamson acknowledges, but she argues that getting older brings unanticipated gifts, too. “When you’re young, you might not appreciate what a miracle your body is,” she says. “When you’re older, you realize, Wow, where this body has taken me! What it’s done for me! That understanding will carry you through the next stage of life in a healthy way,” she says.
Culturally, we need to rethink our ideas about midlife and beyond, Williamson asserts. “If your mental attitude about age is that it’s all a decline, then your body will be in decline,” she says. “If you see aging as a change — but not a bad one — then your body can physically age in fantastic ways.”
The key lies in becoming sensitive to the body’s true needs, desires, instincts and responses, argues Williamson. She suggests striving to cultivate awareness, curiosity and patience rather than raw force and conventional competitiveness. “Who made the rule that faster is better?” Williamson asks. Athleticism in later life, she says, is “all about the journey, not the finish line.”
That last truism may sound laughable to serious competitors — because to them, of course, it’s always been about the finish line. But if you stay overly attached to race times, rankings and other rigid results, notes Williamson, you’ll eventually wind up feeling that you’re fighting a losing battle. You’ll also miss out on some of the better, more subtle experiences that this part of your life has to offer.
Take 58-year-old Phyllis Dodd, a massage therapist from Cary, N.C. “During the 20 years I was a competitive runner and triathlete, you could set your watch by my training schedule,” Dodd says. “Racing defined me for so long, I couldn’t imagine life after competition.”
In 2001, however, Dodd was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, a disease in which the body stops making insulin. “At first I thought my diagnosis was a death sentence. I went through all the stages of grief; I wanted my old life back.” Just a year later, though, she ran a half-marathon — blood-sugar test kits and all — and won her age group.
Regular exercise reduces Dodd’s need for insulin, and she started to genuinely enjoy doing a new variety of activities. Today, competitive racing is no longer important to her. “I exercise for fun and fitness now,” she says. “I hike with my husband and friends, play coed softball, work out at the gym, run for fun, ride my mountain bike, and play sports with my grandchildren. I used to train to beat the clock and other athletes, but now I train to beat the disease.”
The secret to staying motivated when you’re juggling your athletic, professional and family identities is first getting your true priorities in order, and next, finding something you love that makes you feel great, says Chris Carmichael, coauthor of 5 Essentials for a Winning Life (Rodale, 2006), who coaches seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong.
Carmichael, 48, speaks from experience. The former Olympic and pro cyclist found himself out of shape and out of touch with his new reality when he stopped competing. It wasn’t until he started focusing on his current priorities and future health, rather than finish lines past, that he was able to transition from athlete to fitness educator, going on to launch Carmichael Training Systems (www.trainright.com).
“I’ve always loved riding my bike. In the old days it was because training meant winning races,” Carmichael says. “Now I ride because I like how training makes me feel — on and off the bike — and how it helps with weight management, stress reduction, mood and energy levels. I didn’t think about those things as a pro racer, but like many older athletes, I really came to value them in my 40s.”
Reconnecting to your love of sport and reinventing your athletic self takes some mental flexibility. The first step: Assess your body.
Are you seriously out of shape or just feeling a little deconditioned? Have injuries forced you into a long exercise hiatus? Even healed injuries can become obstacles if you’re afraid of re-injury. If you’ve been sidelined, try retooling your training to strengthen weakened muscles or to work around an injured area. A physical therapist or personal trainer can offer exercises that address your physical situation.
Next, consider the time you can realistically commit to a new exercise regimen. If you’re balancing a full-time career and family, you probably have less time for sports and activity than you did at age 17. That doesn’t mean exercise shouldn’t be a priority; it just might not be the priority.
“Embrace a big-picture view of fitness,” suggests Carmichael. “Realize how much more focused you’ll be at work and with your loved ones; think of fitness as a way to be active with your kids or grandchildren. When training becomes a hassle — as it does sometimes in a busy life — the big-picture view helps you see the enduring value of sticking with it.”
Once you can see your parameters more clearly, set a specific athletic goal, whether it’s participating in an event or embracing some new sort of active adventure. “Choose a goal that’s important to you, that represents a real challenge, and that’s several months away, so you have time to prepare gradually,” Carmichael advises.
Just trying something new can provide a much-needed shot in the arm — and it’s an injection you may want and need well before you hit a middle-age athletic slump. (See “Move Your Body to a Better Place,” below.)
Meghan Forgy, 25, a certified personal trainer, competed in track and field in college and played softball for years, but as she reached her mid-20s she began feeling that she was “working out just to work out.” Then she discovered women’s tackle football and her enthusiasm for sports was reignited.
“Football is radically different physically and mentally, which is why it rejuvenated me,” Forgy says. She now weight-trains for power, and she feels inspired to work toward something besides aesthetics. “Now I’ve got big, muscular thighs that give me the strength and explosive speed I need to be a running back.”
While Forgy rediscovered her athleticism through full-contact competition, other postcollege athletes might find themselves exploring yoga, racquet sports, swimming, climbing, karate or salsa dancing. The point is, there’s no set formula: It’s all about finding the joy that suits you now. (For tips on finding fitness activities you’ll enjoy, see “Your Fitness Personality” and also “Welcome to the Fitness Revolution” in the October 2008 archives.)
Take the Initiative
Many athletes struggle when they leave the structure of high school or college athletics, because for years they were told when to be at practice and what to do to perform their best. Now, with no schedule or set routine, some folks lose momentum. Others go into a temporary tailspin — before learning the art of self-motivation.
When she played professional tennis, Alison Gunning had a team of coaches to monitor her diet, performance and body composition. At age 21, she left the sport because of repeated rotator-cuff injuries. Without her coaches, Gunning’s exercise routine flagged, and within two years her weight ballooned from 118 to 178.
“Until I was on my own, it didn’t click that my coaches knew more about how to feed me than I did,” says Gunning, now 27, a fitness club manager in Gilbert, Ariz. “I didn’t understand the intricacies of how my body works because someone had always told me what to do.”
Gunning started running, group cycling and playing softball — and reading up on nutrition. She experimented with different combinations of nutritional programs and exercise before ultimately returning to a healthier weight of 135 pounds.
Completing her first half-marathon was an especially meaningful victory: “I kept going because it was my personal goal. Nobody else told me to run; nobody paid me to do it. I trained myself in my spare time, and it was a great feeling.”
You don’t have to go it alone during your life transition, but you do need to take responsibility for your health. Even if you decide to gear up by working with a life coach, health coach or personal trainer, be sure to retain full ownership of what you need (whether it’s encouragement, accountability or know-how), and be clear about what you want to learn, do and experiment with next.
By beefing up your fitness education, you can train more efficiently — important if you’re combining a busy lifestyle with athletic pursuits. Take charge of your body with these tips:
- Consult exercise and nutrition experts about your goals, health priorities and concerns.
- Read up on anatomy, training and sports nutrition.
- Consider cardio-fitness testing and heart-rate training (see “A Better Way to Burn Fat” in the January/ February 2007 archives).
- Experiment with interval training, cross-training, yoga and Pilates to help you get back in shape.
- Listen to your body, especially when it needs rest.
- Keep a fitness journal to track what worked and what didn’t.
Become Your Own Inner Coach
“A lot of us believe the only way to be a good athlete is to get whipped into shape,” says Diane Israel, MA, a Boulder, Colo.–based psychotherapist who specializes in helping ex-athletes apply positive skills to real-life situations. “That belief is not coming from a healthy place. I’ve seen a lot of great athletes perform even better when they train with kindness and balance. As you move into a new phase of your life, you want to come from a place of exercising for fun.”
As you reinvent yourself as the best athlete you can be right now, you can reprogram your internal messages and become your own cheerleader. “Your ideal inner coach is supportive and compassionate,” says Israel. It reminds you that you want to be healthy or get back into shape without beating you up about it.
A former world-class triathlete, Israel herself was once obsessed by negative messages. Driven to excel, at 28 she collapsed from anemia, eating disorders and chronic fatigue syndrome. “Athletics defined me,” she recalls. “I was ranked No. 3 in the world, but I felt like zero. Nothing I did was good enough.” She chronicled her struggles in the 2008 film Beauty Mark, which examines body image in female athletes (www.beautymarkmovie.com).
Now 48, Israel has remade her athleticism into a joyful, eclectic pursuit that blends running, swimming, yoga, hiking, Pilates, dance, biking and just about any movement that’s fun. “After beating up my body for so long, I now honor and celebrate being able to move every day,” she says.
As Israel transformed from a self-critical, injured athlete to someone who’s wholly connected — body, mind and spirit — she identified some important components of a successful, adult approach to fitness and activity:
- Partner with your body. Invite your body to participate and cooperate instead of commanding it to perform.
- Get out of your rut. Instead of repeating the same exercise, explore new types of movement. Avoid mechanical or obsessive activities.
- Have fun. The bottom line for reinventing your workout is to make it playful, creative and diverse. Do what makes you happy.
With a little determination, you can quit looking back on who you were “back then” and blaze a path toward a new sort of athleticism. “Even if you’ve been away from athletics for years — even if you’re juggling work, family and a million responsibilities — you can still tap into your motivation, discipline, focus and determination,” says Israel. “Leave behind judgments from the past and just do what makes your body feel good. That’s how you free yourself to become the athlete you love being, at any age, at any level.”
Writer Laurel Kallenbach is retooling her own athletic identity to include yoga, hiking and Nia.