Is it just me, or is everything your read these days on running forums and in running magazines, a number crunching game? For instance: “6 things you need to do right now”, “I did squats for 14 days and here’s what happened”, “do these 3 exercises right now”, “4 stretches that will fix all your problems”, “these 7 health foods aren’t so healthy”, “31 runner friendly recipes”, etc. You can almost not find an article that doesn’t contain a headline similar to these. But, I’m getting off topic.
This post really is just a message I wish someone had banged into my head 20 years ago. And despite knowing what I know now, I still find it difficult to practice what I preach, but here goes nonetheless. Even if I fail miserably and have to say to myself 20 years from now, “I told you so!”.
You know how you sometimes do an event and think to yourself, hey, I’m doing all right, only to find a runner with a 60+, 70+ or 80+ age tag ahead of you? And every time you think, wow, that’s very impressive. I want to be that runner when I’m that age. All I have to do is to keep running.
We are a very (maybe unintentionally) obnoxious bunch, aren’t we? Without giving anything a second thought, you just assume that if you keep running the way you do, you will be fine for the rest of your life. Just look at you, you are running and keeping active while most people your age do absolutely nothing, not even the occasional stroll around the block. The fact that you have a few aches and pains, call it niggles if you like, you put down to “normal side-effects that come with the territory”. And, inexplicably, while you sometimes hobble your first few steps after getting up from a chair or out of bed, most non-running people your age seems not to have these issues? Or so it seems.
But, the truth of the matter is that no-one talks about these things. Maybe because we’re all in denial about getting older? Never has anyone told me that my strength will halve by the time I turn 40. By 45, what’s left will halve again. And by 50, that would halve again. And so on. Things go pear-shaped exponentially. I am assuming that by the time you reach 70, you can count your lucky stars if you can still open your own beer! Actually, according to “scientific studies”, you loose about 1% muscle strength each year from your 30th birthday onwards. “Scientifically proven” or not, I can promise you it is far worse. And the reason is simple – lack of maintenance. But I’m getting ahead of myself again.
In my head I can, of course, do push-ups, pull-ups, climb trees and make wagon-wheels at nauseam. I could still do that “just the other day”. Heck, I remember a time when I could stand on my hands and do push-ups! (Granted, my legs were against a wall for balance.) The other day I tried some of these things and I could only manage one normal push-up. One. Pull-ups? None! That was enough to give my self-esteem such a knock that I did not even try any of the other stuff that was second nature at some point in my life.
And here’s the other thing. Apart from your physical strength, your eyes go. As I’m typing this, I need to squint and blink my watery eyes constantly to see what is going on. And so too does your hearing. Say what? And your mind. Concentration? Memory? What is that? And memory is a very fickle thing at the best of times. And if you think you used to be a good wine snifter and can easily tell the difference between a Pinotage and a Shiraz, or a Cabernet and a Bordeaux Blend by taking one whiff, just be warned that it will all go to shit after you turn 40, as even your sense of smell seems to decrease exponentially. Nasty things start to grow everywhere, for Pete’s sake!
After being diagnosed with FAI (femoral acetabular impingement of the CAM type) and told to consider a different sport, as well as the prospect of having to have a hip replacement in the not too distant future, I was shocked to my core. Imagine never again being able to run, or hike with a backpack, or climb up a mountain, getting to places that you can only get to by foot. I could not even fathom the thought. I went from being numb to denial, to anger, to acceptance, and back to denial. Why does it always take a “disaster” for one to wake up and smell the roses?
What I can say now, in hindsight (what a wonderful thing) with the utmost certainty is, that if you think you can continue to run into your old age by just continually running, you better think again. Because that is the biggest misnomer in all of the running world. One tends to look at older runners and think they have probably been running all their lives, so it is “second nature” to them. All I need to do is keep on running and I will be sweet as. Not! I can promise you, emphatically, that all those oldies who seems to be just hardcore runners have a whole regime of other physical stuff they do on top of running. They will either go to the gym or do some other form of strength training. Or do some cross-training in one form or another. They most certainly all would stretch or do yoga or whatever it takes to stay flexible. And I bet they also have regular visits to massage therapists, or at the very least do some foam rolling, etc. You cannot in your wildest dreams think that you will be “fine” by just running. You will not. Your muscles will deteriorate and they will tighten up. That is a fact. Imbalances in your body are inevitable and if you don’t maintain (condition, strengthen, flex and loosen up) your muscles, you can forget about running for the rest of your life. There will come a time when you get so buggered in one place from immobility in another, that you will have to stop and think about where to from here.
In a way, I was lucky to be told I have FAI. At least I’m not that old yet, and there’s still time, I think. I hope. In the back of my mind, I knew all along that I needed to stretch and do some strength exercises, but I didn’t heed it. I would always think I’ll do it tomorrow, or start on Monday. And then usually put it off altogether. I have been doing that for a few years and the end result? A hip so stuffed that a specialist recommended an operation. But, stubborn as I am, I tend to side with The FAI Fix guys by also thinking that there must be an alternative. I find it curious that every second person you talk to, suddenly has FAI problems. Why would everybody suddenly have bone growth at the certain spot on their hips? And why does it hit people in their 20s and 30s already? Or is it one of those things that have always been around, but never been talked about? And only recently been named?
Granted, we all sit a lot more than what I, and most generations before me, used to. We only got TV when I was 7 years old. Computers only made it into my world when I was about 20. Mobile phones did not make it onto the scene for many more years. The Millenials (people born between 1980 and 2000) certainly got a raw deal in that regard, by being born into this crap. At least we still, almost, had a “normal” childhood, whatever that might mean. But, in terms of being physical, we were definitely better off, even if the only difference was having to walk to the library to get books for assignments. Nowadays, most information appears at the click of a button, whether you sit in your car, on a bus, in front of the TV, or on the loo. You don’t have to move your butt one inch to get what you want.
As with everything else in life, if you don’t maintain it, it will fall apart. Same goes for your health and physical abilities. Apart from eating healthy (which is a different can of worms), drinking less, not smoking etc, you have to maintain your muscle strength and flexibility in order to stay mobile. It really is as simple as that. And yet, the most difficult thing in the world to actually put into motion. We all know the adage – if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it – but we forever postpone getting our maintenance sorted for another day. Maintenance is always something “you will still do” (like having that mole checked out). Until it’s too late and the easy way or only way out is the “quick fix” by some or other medical professional.
If I could give my younger self one piece of advice, it would be to keep on living like a child. Jump off things, stand on your head, climb onto everything, run everywhere you want to go, even the bathroom, but do whatever it takes to keep your muscles working, be strong, stay flexible and be mobile.