Four years ago, at the age of 43, I had written off my martial arts training. I didn’t consciously make that decision, it just gradually happened by itself. After a 15 year break from Kung Fu my joints were creaking, and niggling pains and injuries kept accumulating. They didn’t seem to heal. My self-talk could be summed up as, “I’m too old for martial arts” and, “what am I doing it for anyway?”
In contrast, my brother – who is 18 months younger than me – has maintained a physical lifestyle all his life. After leaving the Royal Marines as a Captain, he continued to train as hard as any athlete would. Today, he’s the British free diving champion at 46 years of age and still competing on the world stage. He’s also a martial artist and has a strength-based approach to his free-diving fitness and competition training. So is he really so different from me? And how did I approach my own return to martial arts?
We have taken different paths, but we have arrived with similar conclusions. In a recent chat with Mike via online messaging (he lives in Indonesia), we discussed what it takes to enjoy above average fitness beyond 40 years of age. And we explored whether you can – and should – prolong this type of vigorous exercise. In your 20s and 30s your body has a natural resilience for training, with fast recovery and faster metabolism. This changes as you get older, but if you know how you can adapt.After my long absence from martial arts, I had chosen to return to martial classes in order to take my then 7 year old son Ismail. So I decided to train with him. But as I have learned, you can’t motivate yourself without a purpose for training and some goals.
Below is a summary of the 5 keys to healthy strength from our discussions about training as an older adult.
1. Identify the habits that are holding you back, and break them
According to research, the average person spends 50% of each day doing the same things in the same place in the same way. Habit drives most of our thought and behaviour. Our brains are wired to process huge amounts of information out of conscious awareness, allowing us to use our conscious mind to think, plan and maintain our narrative about our lives.
Habitual thought, like my story I told myself about how I was aging and what my body was or wasn’t capable of doing, is something we should pay careful attention to. If you think about it, habitual thoughts can become like computer gremlins in your mind. When your self talk is full of negative language, purely out of habitual patterns of thinking, it can get out of line with reality. Take my knee and shoulder joint pains as an example. They had become a sort of mental cliche in my repertoire of habitual thoughts. Without thinking, as a slight twinge caught my awareness, those thoughts would come bobbing up to the surface of my consciousness.
Two years ago, I booked a 3 week Shaolin training trip to China to experience training how the Shaolin Monks train at the Shaolin Temple. I was excited but also worried about how well my body would hold out. So I went to see my sports physiotherapist Chris, eight weeks before the trip, as part of my plan to get fit to withstand the rigors of full time training. Chris taught me about proprioception: your body’s automatic awareness of itself. Immediately after an injury, things like pain and swelling are your body’s defense response to protect the joint. But chronic pain is not like the immediate pain after an injury, and you should not listen to it in the same way. Chris manipulated the joints to bring back a full range of motion, and effectively re-train my proprioception and pain receptors. It was like a miracle: the pain went and full joint mobility returned. However, I had to work on the exercises Chris showed me in order to strengthen the muscles around the joints. In the case of my knees, I had acquired bad habits and was under-utilizing my buttock muscles, for example when climbing stairs. Such bad habits build up over time, but they can be unlearned. I didn’t just survive the three weeks of full time training, I thrived.
One of my key insights from that trip was crystalized by something my Shifu – Shi Yan Min – said to me. “The power of Shaolin is in the mind,” he prophesised. Now I realize that sounds like a line a movie, but bear with me. After the first few days of training, my body was in shock and every muscle ached. Shaolin Kung Fu maintains very low stances and so utilizes a lot of leg and core strength, and so the training stresses your legs and core in order to build up stamina and power. I could hardly bend over far enough to put my socks on in the morning! I was in agony. My first thought of the day was typically, “how am I going to get through eight hours of training feeling like this?” Which leads me onto the next insight.
2. Pain is in the mind; and not all pain is created equal
I need to qualify this statement before we go further: I’m not saying “no pain, no gain” or suggesting that you need an iron will. Though undoubtedly that would help, and I think my brother has it in spades. My point is subtler than that. Pain is a mental signal, a way for your body to communicate to your mind what’s going on, so that it can make an executive decision. It’s also a relative thing, and different people have different tolerances for pain. As you get older, the body changes and there is a danger that if your habits of thought and training don’t adapt as you age, you will create more pain. We will come back to the aging process a bit later.
If we think of pain as a metaphor, rather than a physically-induced phenomenon, then we can have a relationship with pain. That relationship, in my case, was one of avoidance and fear. Not crippling, stop-me-in-my-tracks fear, but just an almost imperceptible force of resistance that stopped me pushing myself. And with the mounting chronic knee and shoulder pains, I had started misreading pain as a sign to throttle back on my physical life. But that wasn’t really my body talking, that was my head and its old metaphor. I needed a new, better metaphor.
Enter the idea of relationship. This ideas was seeded during my China trip, but didn’t mature until much later. In fact, I was walking with a friend by the sea in Norfolk. He’s a deep expert in team behaviour, and a brilliant leadership coach. I was talking to him about my experiences of pushing past physical pain, during the China trip, and how I had realized that the body was not the barrier to my training but my pain was. He advised me to reframe my thinking, and think of pain not as a thing, but as a relationship. I could, he said, change my relationship with pain.
Back in China, each training session started with running to warm up, followed by stretching and then basic drills. The stretching was consistently the hardest part of the training. By “hardest” I really mean “most painful” thanks to those tight muscles and sore tendons. By the end of week one, everyone was actually less flexible than when they started. One of our shifus seemed to delight in chanting, as he beamed a wide smile at us, “pain is good!” Now, I need to explain that four weeks earlier, this Shifu had fallen off a wall whilst doing a handstand, and had a huge scar on his knee. He was in pain. But he pushed past his pain, and four weeks later you would never know it unless he showed you his still-healing scars. This made me really think and examine my own pain. Should you always stop doing things because they hurt?
I decided to push harder, and used breathing and a mental process of just letting go of the pain. The pain seemed to subside into more of a backdrop than center-stage feeling. I learned that your attention is the key: focus on the pain and it magnifies it, focus on something else and it fades. When pain first arrives, it’s a warning that you need to heed. But stretching pain is different. So is chronic mild pain from old joints which just need their range of motion resetting, following by a gradual process of strengthening supporting muscles and tendons.
3. Don’t fight the aging process; instead, learn what is changing and why
As I mentioned, my brother Mike is still a professional athlete – as British Freediving champion – in his mid 40s. He also owns and manages a Freediving school on the island of Gili Trawangan in Indonesia and so spends a lot of his time teaching Freediving skills and fitness. He has learned that one of the main reasons people train less as they get older, is that they feel bad when recovering after hard training. They also don’t make the gains they want or the progress that they expect. As he says, “recovery is all about nutrition.” And of course, good quality sleep.
In your 30s, it’s easy to continue living your life ‘as if’ you were in your 20s. And mostly, you can get away with it. You don’t really feel your age. But by the time you hit 40, the average person’s metabolism has slowed, and along with it the healing process. Continuing to train in the same way just leads to injury or fatigue or both. Add to that a diet devoid of proper nutrition, and there is no fuel in the tank. So no wonder it feels tough!
What is perhaps less obvious, when you are in the grip of a daily existence plagued by fatigue or injury, is that you do have a choice. You don’t have to accept a steady decline. As is testified to by the growing number of mature triathletes and bodyweight/gymnastic strength training advocates. Not to mention yoga practitioners, or martial artists! Mike advises that you need to develop a habit for training, and a mindset of never missing sessions. Once you go above 40 years of age, you can’t afford to let the body and muscles stop working. It is harder to build and maintain lean muscle as you age, and so it takes too much effort to be re-starting continuously. Moreover, consistent training reminds the body that there is still a need to regenerate and build.
On the nutrition side of things, Mike advises that we all need to become experts. Only by knowing what your body needs, and when it needs it, can you fuel it properly. He advises taking carbs before a session (ideally natural, complex carbs like banana), then again immediately after a session when the body will be craving carbs in order to recover fast. Then take protein a little later – about 30 minutes is ideal – to satisfy the body’s need for protein to repair all the micro-tears that hard training causes, and which leads to muscle gain. If you plan to train intensively, then supplements can be a good way to ensure your body gets the nutrients it needs. The body has to learn to recover quickly using the right building blocks, and it only does this over time and after some ‘practice.’ On the subject of what supplements to take, he advises basic vitamins, BCAAs, protein (eg shakes), Creatine, Co-enzyme Q10, Calcium, Magnesium and fish oil.
Personally, I’ve adopted a ketogenic diet. Ketosis is the state of metabolism induced when fasting, and is the temporary state achieved that generates many of the benefits of the now popular 5-2 diet system (i.e. fasting 2 days a week). Ketosis is a state achieved where the body’s fuel supply changes from burning glucose (blood sugar) to burning fat and ketones directly. Full ketosis takes between a few days and and a few weeks to achieve, by reducing carbohydrate intake to between 30 grams a day for weight loss, and 50-100 grams a day to maintain your ideal weight. You have to consume more fat than most people (about 70% of dietary intake) to compensate for the reduction in carbohydrate, but because you are burning the fat there is no danger to health. This causes the body to lose weight, initially through water retention loss and then from body fat reduction. The benefit of a ketogenic diet is particularly pronounced for older athletes, since it gets rid of the energy dips during the day caused by low blood sugar and slower metabolisms. It is also suggested by research that older bodies become less tolerant to high levels of carbohydrate intake. Ketosis improves cholesterol levels, boosts the immune system, and increases muscular endurance. Eating the right foods is imperative to maintain a ketogenic diet and remain healthy, so before you consider this option you should do your research. There are plenty of good diet books around.
4. Perfect practice: it’s not what you’ve got, it’s how you use it
People talk a lot about mindfulness, or presence, in the context of meditation classes and retreats. But your daily or weekly martial arts training can provide a great opportunity to practice mindfulness in the way you train. This becomes especially important for the older athlete: watching younger students bounce higher, keep their stamina for longer and seemingly learn faster, can lead to frustration. The best response is not to fight it, but to accept your maturity and use it to your full advantage. The younger me, even as a black belt, wasn’t as wise. He didn’t master his mind during his training, and learn to conserve energy by mastering body movement and balance, and using only enough force to get the job done.
The idea of perfect practice is not new. In my professional career as a recruiter, there was an oft quoted saying, “you can have 10 years of experience, or you can have 1 year of experience repeated 10 times.” In other words, it’s what you learn that matters and not just the number of hours of training you put in. The heart of perfect practice is the mastery of your mental attention. Practising with full attention on the present moment, fully aware of your balance, your muscle usage, where you are holding tension, your vision (including use of peripheral vision) and mental focus are all examples of ways that you can use your attention.
It’s very easy in a class, when you are tired, to reduce the level of attention when nobody is looking. Or to punch hard when you Shifu is watching, and then take it easy until he swings over to your part of the gym again. But we all know that the only person you cheat when you do this, is yourself. Learning about your own body, and using every punch, kick or press-up to its full potential, is the essence of perfect practice. And a mental attitude of seeking to understand everything you do, asking questions when you don’t. If for example you could not, hypothetically, explain to a gymnast friend how to do a perfect press-up, then you are not capable of practising press-ups perfectly yourself!
So to summarise, you can enjoy full strength and health well into your old age. But it’s not possible if you have poor nutrition, or don’t update your beliefs and knowledge of your body from your earlier self. Getting back to fitness – or starting for the first time later in life – requires a methodical and patient approach, modifying old habits and changing your relationship with any chronic or niggling pain that you have.
But if you face the challenge, not only will you feel as good or better than you did in your youth, but you can approach a martial art with the same curiosity and expectation of mastery that a teenager would. And that’s a great feeling.
11th July 2016. By Thomas Board