I’m not an elite athlete. I’m just a guy on the precipice of middle age who enjoys running, biking, soccer, and tennis. If I can push myself to my physical limit a couple of times a week and still have the energy to crawl around with my daughter, then I’m satisfied.
That makes me a useful filter. The pros have unlimited budgets and few demands on their waking hours beyond making themselves fitter. If you want to spend thousands —or tens of thousands — to sleep in an oxygen pod wearing infrared pajamas, then knock yourself out. But chances are you care only about things that work, are safe, and fit your schedule and budget. So trust the guy with a day job, a bad back, and a new baby. Here’s what I learned in two years of reporting for my book Play On.
Periodize your regimen
The importance of periodizing and the risks of not doing so have been drilled into my head by the likes of soccer coach Raymond Verheijen and exercise scientist Trent Stellingwerff, Ph.D.
For an elite athlete, periodizing can mean creating a structured program of buildup and tapering that yields peak fitness at a precise time. For me, it’s more about the principles: ramping up training gradually, preparing my body for specific demands, and avoiding fatigue. If you invite me to play soccer and I haven’t been keeping in soccer shape, or if I’m nursing an injury I could play through, I say no. Benching yourself sucks, but it doesn’t suck as much as missing an entire season because you got hurt.
Elite lifters end their workouts differently than the rest of us do. Strength coaches talk about loading and unloading–that is, the former should always be followed by the latter. I now think in those terms. “Unloading” for nonlifters can mean yoga, foam-rolling, ice tubbing, running in water, or meditating. It encompasses both recovery and range-of-motion work that prevents the sorts of movement limitations and compensations that can build up over time and lead to injuries.
I used to consider happy hour a valid cooldown routine. Now I’m a fanatic about stretching and self-massage and have a closet full of straps, bands, foam rollers, and lacrosse balls to show for it. Committing to this is tough if your schedule is packed, which could tempt you to extend your workout and skip the stretching. That’s a bad tradeoff.
Go hard and easy
A percentage of your workouts should be high intensity, and the balance — say, 80 percent — should be performed at very low intensity. Again, I don’t stick to any formal program of polarization, but I try to avoid what Stellingwerff says is the most common mistake athletes make: going too hard on easy days and then not being able to go as hard as you want the next time out.
Instead, I make my hard workouts both shorter and more intense than I used to. Elite older athletes stay competitive by being more deliberate in their training, focusing their limited time honing specific skills, and correcting their fitness weaknesses. For me, this often means taking two minutes before I start to write up a plan on a sticky note. A little intentionality goes a long way.
Eat for muscle
Much of the nutrition “science” peddled to athletes is bunk. If you’re eating a healthy diet–lots of different fruits and vegetables, proteins, and whole grains, not too much sugar or processed stuff–you’re probably fine. But if you want to avoid losing muscle as you age, it’s worth making a couple of tweaks. I’ve increased the protein in my diet as well as the number of times I consume it during the day, following the advice of triathlete and nutrition scientist Asker Jeukendrup, Ph.D. A side benefit: Adding protein to anything you eat effectively lowers its glycemic index, says Chris Jordan, M.S., C.S.C.S., director of exercise physiology for the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute.
So if I want to have an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie without feeling a sugar crash, I’ll put a smear of almond butter on it. I also try to consume 3 to 5 milligrams of creatine powder a day, usually in a smoothie or a glass of milk, just before or after a workout. It’s had a noticeable effect on my ability to build and maintain muscle.
Sweat the small stuff
For athletes with a history of injury or physical limitations (that’s all of us, eventually), the key to optimal fitness is separating desirable training stresses from undesirable ones. If you have access to an AlterG anti-gravity treadmill or Kaatsu bands, great. If you don’t, there are still plenty of ways to embrace this concept.
Instead of adding weight to an exercise, I’ll incorporate a balance element, like doing pushups with my hands on medicine balls, or add a second force vector, like having a resistance band around my knees during squats. Focusing on smaller, neglected muscle groups is not a recipe for getting huge, but it’s great for developing functional strength and avoiding injury.
Learn new skills
Challenging your body in the same ways day after day for decades is an efficient way to chew up your body. Challenging it in different ways is the perfect cure. I marvel at elite athletes and, like most regular guys, I envy what they’re able to do. But they should envy us too.
There’s nothing like trying something new and sucking at it, and then sucking a little less every day. Science hasn’t yet made it possible for us to get younger. This quest —getting fitter, faster, and better at what we each love — is the closest thing we have to a fountain of youth.