Fit After 40

Finding My Forever Fitness

Personal bests and competition are motivational — when you’re kid-free and fit. At a certain point, it’s time to give up the fighting spirit. What then?

Originally Published: 
Collage of men running and swimming and an infinity symbol.
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Exercises and Workouts for Men To Get in Good-Enough Shape

Last February, off a windswept Hawaiian beach, Kelly Slater’s mettle was put to the test. One of the two finalists at the Billabong Pipeline Masters, Slater had one eye on the unpredictable barrels and the other on Seth Moniz, the 25-year-old phenom and son of the legendary surfer Tony Moniz. The two athletes gave it hell — dropping fast, bouncing hard, and wiping out often in the unsteady 10-footers. It all came down to back-to-back drops and Slater’s uncanny emergence from a barrel, putting his head in his hands in elation, and taking his 56th career victory at the ripe old age of 50. “Don’t even throw out the ‘R’ word,” yelled the announcer. “This guy isn’t retiring — he’s at the top of his game. Kelly Slater is back!”

He’s not the only one offering proof that we can defy the physical limits of age. There’s Eliud Kipchoge, the 38-year-old world No. 1 in the marathon; 43-year-old Albert Pujols, whose thrilling 2022 season brought him past the 700 home run mark; Cristiano Ronaldo (37) and Lionel Messi (35), neither of whom played to the part of the old guy at the 2022 World Cup; even 45-year-old Tom Brady had a solid season leading the division with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

I find myself drawn more and more to athletes who dominate rather than retire because — this one’s pretty obvious — I am getting older. As a 41-year-old runner, I’m by no means over the hill, but I am definitely entering a new era, athletically speaking. In my 20s and 30s, I was awesomely fit — I had time to be. I biked constantly, completed a Half Ironman, bounced around a number of soccer teams, attended seemingly every fitness class NYC has to offer (just ’cause), dabbled in CrossFit and completed a Murph (100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats, 2 miles running in one session), and still found time to ski and backpack and canoe and raft. But mostly I ran — putting in the real, concentrated work to bank PRs, with a sub-3-hour marathon, 4:35 mile, sub-17:00 5k, and even a few race wins on trail and road.

Now, I run aimlessly, without race goals or a watch. Sometimes, after dropping the kids off at school, I go to rowing classes or do bodyweight work at home. I’ve gained weight. I’ve accrued injuries. I’m not satisfied.

You might call what I’m experiencing an athletic midlife crisis. I’d like to think of it instead as the pursuit of my forever fitness. There must be something that looks like — that feels like, that even remotely resembles — the fulfillment that competitive running has given me thus far in life. Fitting in rote and random exercise classes doesn’t cut it. I want a pursuit that will excite me for years to come and keep me fit and injury-free. I see forever fitness as something that I can take with me into my old age, PRs be damned. I’m not sure if it’s a specific activity, like open-water swimming, or a new kind of philosophy. Whatever it is, I know it’s out there, and I don’t have it.

“I don’t know why but the older you get, the busier you become.” - Haruki Murakami

I’m pretty sure Amby Burfoot has found his forever fitness. At 76, he isn’t crushing the competition — not anymore at least. The two-time Boston Marathon champion, former editor-in-chief of Runner’s World, and author of six books is coming off a 10-mile run when I catch him on the phone. “I went from wanting to win the Boston Marathon and go to the Olympics to wanting to be healthy and fit and live a simple, clean life for as long as I possibly could,” Burfoot tells me. “I’m 76 now, and I’m still standing by those principles.”

Burfoot has done all this without compromising his competitive spirit. Look to the popular Manchester Road Race in Connecticut: Burfoot last won the race in 1977 (his ninth win; no one else has won it more than three times since), but he’s still running it — with a streak that is maybe even more impressive. This year marked his 60th consecutive race on the course. Damn.

Fitness for Burfoot is about “discipline, consistency, and finding out how to fit it in.” Exercise, he says, is not a drug. “It’s not a high. It’s hard and sweaty and you don’t always feel particularly great when you’re out there. When you’re finished, you always feel great and don’t ever regret it.” It sounds to me like the type of fitness we should all strive for, as well as a solid philosophy for a long and well-lived life.

All people become gradually less fit with age, with muscle mass declining some 3% to 8% every decade after 30 and cardiorespiratory declines accelerating after age 45. For the fittest of the fit, the story isn’t all that much different. A study of elite athletes found that, after age 40, type 2 fiber muscles (so-called “fast twitch muscles”) decline even in the most active athletes. Overall fitness declines even before that, for all athletes, the study finds — but researchers can’t pinpoint exactly why.

I accept that there are real, hard limits, but isn’t there still time for a transformation? (I’m not 45 yet!) I wanted to feel inspired, to crush if not the competition… something. So I called up Kelly Starrett, the Supple Leopard, a legend among CrossFitters and lifters for introducing the antidote to injury in these sports. He’s built an empire out of the idea that one can “predict, identify, and resolve common, transferable movement- and positioning-related errors that can lead to injury and compromise performance.” In other words, a focus on mobility can make anyone a force to be reckoned with. Conveniently Starrett just turned 50, is a dad to two teenage daughters, and has a new book coming out in April, Built to Move, which he wrote with his wife, Juliet (a former whitewater rafting world champion).

I was ready for Starrett to sell me on a CrossFit lifestyle, happy to field a recommendation to do wild mobility workouts to get big, fit, and find some new over-40 life as an, I don’t know, Olympic lifter? (I’ve never had guns; this could be fun.)

“One of the most powerful things you can do as a parent is to walk more,” Starrett told me as both an opening bid and closing argument. “The reason is people don’t get enough exercise to accumulate fatigue to fall asleep. When people have disordered sleep, the first thing we prescribe is more walking. Max out on your steps.” Burfoot is also a huge advocate of walking, what he calls “one of the best, cheapest, most accessible exercises, and no doubt the original workout routine.”

This is the point in the essay where I start to feel even older. Sure, I’m a 41-year-old runner and dad of two, but a renowned fitness guru who advises the San Francisco 49ers, New Zealand All Blacks, and Laird Hamilton (to name a few) just told me to walk more. Then, I threw out my back.

“I want to surf better tomorrow. I want to surf better in 10 years ... for me it’s a lifelong journey.” — Kelly Slater

It was a sad scene: I leaned over to pick up a bag packed with snacks and water and layers needed to take the kids to the museum, and before I reached the straps, before I even began to hoist that 10 pounds of stuff, my body revolted with a spasm that felt like getting a headbutt from a bull just above my tailbone. I collapsed to the floor where I writhed, cursed, grimaced, and, as the first waves wore off, felt my age. This had never really happened before, not like this. Forget forever fitness — for an entire weekend, I could barely walk.

There was no incident leading up to this, no poor form in a deadlift with a little too much weight. Just general neglect, and denial. I ran a quick 10 miles the previous evening instead of — and boy do I now remember this thought clearly during the run — doing the boring core-focused home weight routine prescribed by my sports medicine doctor, which I’d been putting off for weeks.

After some reflection and acupuncture and recovery and a promise to offer myself true physical self-care — and, yes, walk more — I still don’t quite feel settled. The core of my feelings still boil down to one lingering question: Will I be satisfied? Will I care enough to stick with it, absent the rewards of race day?

“I enjoy my running most when it's not accompanied by a limp, hitch, or hobble.” — Amby Burfoot

A midlife pursuit of fitness for someone who has loved and even occasionally excelled in sport is not just about ongoing health and longevity. It’s psychological and philosophical. As we face the reality of physical decline, we’re grappling with, well, mortality.

“I sometimes wonder why I pushed myself so relentlessly in weightlifting,” the great, late neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in his gripping memoir, On the Move, at what I like to imagine was a point of similar athletic reflection. “I became strong — very strong — with all my weightlifting, but found that this did nothing for my character, which remained exactly the same.” In his early days, Sacks was a competitive bodybuilder in the high-stakes California Muscle Beach scene, where he pushed himself beyond the limits.

What did Sacks’ competitive days do for him? It was mostly injurious, he admits. “And, like many excesses, weightlifting exacted a price. I had pushed my quadriceps, in squatting, far beyond their natural limits, and this predisposed them to injury, and it was sure not unrelated to my mad squatting that I ruptured one quadricep tendon in 1974 and the other in 1984.”

Later in life, Sacks found athletic satisfaction (“character” building, if you will) swimming long, slow distances: “timelessly, without fear or fret,” as he described it. I can’t help but draw a mental comparison of this swimming bodybuilder to the Boston-marathon champion Burfoot going for a walk or the founding father of CrossFit doing breathing exercises.

What did swimming offer Sacks that bodybuilding could not? “It relaxed me and got my brain going,” he wrote. “Thoughts and images, sometimes whole paragraphs, would start to swim through my mind, and I had to land every so often to pour them onto a yellow pad I kept on a picnic table by the side of the lake.”

The once muscle-bound hulk took his ruined knees to the open water and found calm, reflection, fulfillment, and ideas.

In his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running the bestselling novelist Haruki Murakami tells of his own athletic midlife moment. “In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be,” he writes. The book captures a writer in conflict, as Murakami trains for his fourth New York City Marathon at the age of 56. “Since my forties, though, this system of self-assessment has gradually changed. Simply put, I am no longer able to improve my time. I guess it’s inevitable considering my age. At a certain age everybody reaches their physical peak.”

While Murakami trains and pushes himself — with confidence, sometimes recklessness, and self-deprecation about his athletic “mediocrity” — he gains ground on the core meaning of this activity that gets beyond the competitiveness. “No matter how mundane some action might appear,” he concludes, “keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative act.”

“You can’t just tune out and do the work. Sport, combat, and life don’t work like that.” — Kelly Starrett

Walk more. Track sleep. Stretch. Move. Repeat. This is the formula, and it may be enough to stop me from becoming a glory-day-espousing jock or, worse, a terminally dissatisfied pleasure seeker who replaces fitness with creature comforts. Still, I’d like to go further.

I’m thinking I need to approach my fitness a bit more like I approach parenting. The daily tasks of any one parent usually (best case) sound, well, mundane. For me, I provide breakfast and pack lunch, get them to school on time, pick them up and take them for a walk or to the playground, do homework or play, provide dinner, draw a bath, and complete the bedtime rituals (read books, tell a story, give a good firm tuck and cuddle). It’s the routine, and we usually stick to it. And it’s significant to my family. The routine helps us all to feel safe, be present, and even to realize (cue a resonant gong) this is life. Likewise, there’s joy and satisfaction and presence in my fitness routine. It’s not about race day after all — it’s the training that matters.

This month, I signed up for a spring half-marathon — the first race I’ve even thought about entering since turning 40. I’m going to train for it. But my goal is to focus on my excitement for the event — the joyous crowds of a big road race — while disregarding age group placement and putting only a little thought into my goal time. In my training over the next few months, I plan to work on becoming a more meditative runner and listening to my body. I want to run forever. So I’ll walk, so I’ll sleep, I’ll put in the pragmatic cross-training that a person who isn’t 25 needs to. I don’t know what forever holds, but at least I know my next steps.

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